Botticelli, Sandro (1444)
I thought today would be a good day for me to come and explain. I get called Satan but what does that really mean? “Tempter”—it’s just a title. Now this business with Jesus: you have to look at the whole picture, at what I was trying to do as well as what happened, not just some made for the Bible story written down years later by someone who wasn’t even there. Maybe you’ve had problems yourself with the press. So I’m here to set the record straight.
I’d like to point out that no one has ever suggested I harmed Jesus in any way out in the wilderness. Read the story: there’s no violence, no coercion, no threats. The truth is, I saw him as a young man in need of a mentor. It gets lonely being God’s loyal opposition. You come to a point in your life and look around at what you’ve done: sure, it amounts to something but who is it for? Who’s going to take over someday? I was out for my walk in the world and all of a sudden it hit me: him! This intense young man. It isn’t that easy to find people like that. Most people go stumbling along, just trying to avoid the next pothole. It’s hard to get people to think of eternity as anything other than an insurance plan, to see it as the fabric of what is and isn’t, to be ready to argue about its shape and texture and color. He was that kind: consumed by eternity every moment, breathing it the way most people breathe air.
I didn’t want to hurt him, I just wanted to help him, to teach him something about the ways of the world. “Son of God” is a great title but you need a little street sense, too. You need someone to
take you around, show you the ropes, teach you to play an angle. I wanted to offer my services as a guide.
I knew it might not be an easy sell. I’ve had a lot of bad press over the years and I have to admit there have been some...excesses.
No one’s perfect. I understand that the business with the fruit from the tree of life isn’t quite what was intended but I continue to believe I was technically correct. That is to say, when that woman quoted what had been said about the fruit, I knew immediately that it sounded too extreme and all I did was say so. And of course I was right, they didn’t die, at least not at once. I admit I could have been a little more careful. Hey, she should have been more careful, right? Caveat emptor: let the fruit buyers beware. You have to take care of number one first and if she didn’t, well is that really my fault?
But I understand that even though I think I have operated in a way that is approximately above board and in many cases more or less correct, some stories have painted me in an unfavorable light. The business with the fruit; that thing with Job, which again, was not my fault, just acting under orders. So I knew that I needed to win the confidence of this Jesus and I thought: I know what he needs and I’ll just help him.
So I went out to the wilderness. By the way, if you have any thoughts of doing something like this, I highly recommend you go to Palm Springs or Florida instead of the Judaean wilderness. Better yet, if you feel that somehow your soul would benefit from sitting around in the hot sun, why not just go to a tanning salon? But of course there he was, out there in the wilderness, typical young man, do it the hard way. So I dropped in. And I thought, ok, start with the basics, let him show off a little. The truth is, frankly, that I hadn’t had any lunch, so when I noticed we were alone, I quietly suggested he make us some bread from the stones. Simple trick, Moses did more or less the same thing, I thought it would be a natural beginning. Is this so wrong? I’m sitting in the heat with a guy who is obviously hungry. Can’t you study or meditate or whatever just as well on a full stomach? That’s all I thought: put some pounds on the guy, he’s a little thin.
Well, of course, he comes back with a Bible verse, like a Rabbi or something. So then I thought, let’s have a little fun and whisked him off—at my own expense I’d like to point out—to Jerusalem. We both knew there’s no way the security angels are gonna let this guy hit the ground. I just thought, hey, a little free jumping, no bungee cord needed, step off and fly. Live a little, doesn’t that make sense?
All I wanted was a little compromise. I wanted to say, you can’t really go the whole way with the big guy, no one does, not really, so why not compromise a little. I mean, a little religion is good, especially on your tax return but you don’t have to take it so seriously, do you? You don’t have to let it interfere with your life. But he wouldn’t, wouldn’t have it.
He missed a great opportunity: wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t play, wouldn’t...compromise.“Worship the Lord and serve him only.”—that’s it, all he said. Is that any way to live?
What could I do? What could I say? He was a hard case. I was getting hungrier by then. First things first, you have to take care of your own needs before anything else...and, well, I did notice that storm cloud his father uses to mark entrances with up over the next mountain and I knew he wouldn’t understand, he is so ...definite. So I left. I thought...maybe another time. But I’m still looking...looking for people who want to compromise.
What was the best day of your life? Go there for a moment: remember it. Was there a party? Were you with a few people, family, a crowd or were you alone? Was there cake? There’s often cake on the best day of your life. What did it smell like? How did it taste? Did you know then it would be the best day of your life? I mention all this because Jesus’ baptism must have been about the best day of his life, even though there is no report about cake. I don’t think chocolate cake had been invented yet, so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But there was a crowd, his friend John and wow: a voice from heaven! Even when Jacquelyn and I were married, there was no voice from heaven, though she looked like an angel. “You are my beloved child, I’m pleased with you.” Some of us live our whole lives waiting to hear that; it must have been amazing.
All of this is a prelude, it turns out, because no one gets to live in the best day of their life forever and for Jesus, the next day is terrible. It’s like living in Albany, having it hit 70 degrees one day and then a couple days later barely making 16. Ouch: things sure can turn around. In the life of Jesus, the turnaround is to go from heaven opening to being driven into the wilderness and going hungry for 40 days. No cake; no food at all. Just the dangerous, daunting, desert wilderness where all you can hear is your empty stomach begging to be filled. This is the site of temptation: this is where temptation always occurs, when we are empty. How can I get what I need? Isn’t that the question that leads to temptation?
“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all include this story, apparently using two different versions they combine. Since no one else is present, we an only conclude they are relying on Jesus’ own account of his time in the wilderness. Geography is theology in the gospel. To go from the Jordan River into the wilderness is to go backward on the journey of God’s people. There, just as they did, Jesus is hungry, thirsty, and there he faces temptation. He faces it alone: the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove has flown off; the voice from heaven is silent. Jesus, as the song says, has to walk this lonesome valley by himself.
Alone, hungry, vulnerable, Jesus fasts for forty days and nights. Here is the first thing to learn about temptation: it often comes when we are most vulnerable. Today we rarely practice the spiritual discipline of fasting in Protestant churches but our fathers and mothers in the faith did. We took over Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims; seldom mentioned and almost never included in Thanksgiving is the fast that preceded it. Today, the Lenten discipline of giving something up has fallen into disfavor but giving something up, taking something off the table of possibility induces temptation. It walks us into the valley where Jesus walked.
Imagine him there in the desert. He’s lost but beyond worrying about direction. There is a moment when you become so focused on your hunger that nothing else matters. This is the moment he hears the voice of temptation; this is the moment, alone, hungry, vulnerable he is like us, on his own, facing temptation alone. Three temptations are mentioned but in a sense, they are the same temptation. All of them circle back to this simple principle: who’s in charge here?
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” This is the first test. A few days before, he is acclaimed as Son of God, but what does that mean? The first temptation is to use who he is to sustain himself on his own, to feed himself. God fed the people of Israel with manna, bread, in the wilderness; why shouldn’t the Son of God feed himself by making bread appear? It is a test: if you are the Son of God—the question suggests that perhaps he is not the Son of God after all. Does he believe in what’s been said? Does he believe in his own call? And can that call, that power, be used for himself, to meet his own needs? The second temptation, to recklessly throw himself out into the air, depending on the angels to save him is like it. Both ask: do you believe who you are? Show it by using the gifts of God not for God’s purpose but for your own.
The Wizard of Earthsea is a long story about a young wizard who becomes so proud of his gifts that he uses them to show off. But in showing off, a dark side of him splits off and the rest of the tale is a story of how that darkness darkens the world until finally the wizard, Sparrowhawk, must confront the darkness. Along the way, he learns this most important lesson: that all gifts are given with a purpose and the purpose is to serve others and serve the larger unfolding, blossoming purpose of the creator. The challenge of the temptation to Jesus asks whether he will serve his own needs or stand in humility and serve the unfolding purpose of God. Why am I hungry, he must have wondered: the answer is so that in hunger, he can learn humility.
The final temptation in the wilderness sums all temptation up because it asks who Jesus is serving. All the kingdoms of the world are offered, a way of summing up worldly success; only serve me, the tempter says.
How does Jesus face these temptations? He faces them by living from God’s Word. Today we live in such a self-regarding culture that worship is often judged by the standards of entertainment. “I really enjoyed that,” someone will say, and there are endless advertisements for preachers to help us make worship more fun, more interesting, more light-hearted. But worship is really a way to come back to the Word of God. This is what finally answers temptation and it is the only thing that answers it. Three times Jesus is tempted; three times he quotes back God’s Word to the tempter.
We all walk through times of temptation. We all walk through wildernesses. We all face questions. Tracy Cochran writes,
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men;as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright;exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
If we want to find the adventure, we have to walk through the temptation and answer the question of who we are serving.
This year, this season, this Lent, I hope to walk with you, listen to God’s Word, listen to the characters in the story, listen to their questions. Here is the first and most important and the tempter is asking it every single day: who are you serving? Ranier Rilke, a German poet said in a letter to a young friend,
I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
This season, we are challenged to live the questions God’s Word asks, to confront them, to wonder with them, to let them live in us and change us.