Lent 1(C): All of The Things!
By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff
The irony of this passage is that it tempts the preacher to write about ALL OF THE THINGS![i] There is SO much packed into this short segment that it provides rich fodder for the preaching and pastoral imagination, and it could be explored any number of ways. The challenge, then, is to pick one direction – what is the one thing that you most want your people to hear in this story?
The trial of a well-known text, for me, is finding the refreshing new angle; the new thing to say about it that hasn’t already been heard, preached, or commented on umpteen times. And yet, as I read once again this familiar story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, I heard something I had never heard before in the many times I have heard it proclaimed and preached and meditated on: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Forty days (Bible speak for a really long time) of tempting and testing and trial and tribulation precede the three traditional temptations that we focus on. The thing I never noticed before is that Jesus only gets these three major temptations when he’s already at the end of his rope. (Not to mention not eating anything all that time! If Jesus was anything like me without food, he was probably hangry, too.) If he’s gone through test after test after test, he’s likely bone-tired, creativity drained, energy exhausted; mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally spent.
Haven’t we all been there? At some point or other, it all catches up to us. Perhaps our forty days have been the last few months, or a year, or maybe even longer. Everything that could go wrong, it seems, has. Bills pile up. Job satisfaction is low. The country, maybe even the world, appears happily headed to hell in a handbasket. Our communities are in chaos, the drama is never-ending. Maybe we’ve been through abnormally painful personal ordeals: friendships and marriages fail, toxic family relationships demand more than we have to give, an unexpected medical or spiritual illness zaps our strength, we lose out on that dream job.
It’s then – when we’re bone-tired, creativity drained, mental, spiritual, physical, emotional energy exhausted – at that moment when we’re starving for refreshment, that the devil pops into our head with a juicy temptation. Why not just cut off that toxic family member? Why not just tell that friend to go to hell? Why not throw that difficult coworker under the bus and take the promotion yourself? Why not just call it quits entirely, walk away and don’t look back?
But here’s the thing… we only reach those moments of total burnout, and the temptation to give in and give it all up, when, like Jesus, we have been tested for a really long time during which we have eaten nothing at all. I wonder if this story introduces us not to the divine Jesus, but to the fundamentally human Jesus? This is a Jesus I can relate to: hangry, tired, fed up, and really, truly tempted to take advantage of the options the Devil offers.
The first temptation is to put the gifts I’ve been given to the wrong use, where my own self-interest becomes my fundamental priority. This is why I love my tradition’s definition of sin: the seeking of my own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting my relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. We live in a culture that tells us our happiness is dependent on “making it” to that place where we feel fulfilled, happy, stable. And, of course, tells us that the way to do that is to accumulate. Fill our lives with things that will give us that sense of happiness and stability. But if my “happiness” and “stability” is dependent on physical fulfillment – whether having that perfect closet of clothes and accessories to support the “got it all together” image I want to project, or having enough money in the bank to not have to worry about buying groceries or paying rent – I have given in to the temptation to self-reliance and independence from God. I think a lot of people think “I’ll give my gifts when I’m stable enough to give.” I think a lot of us humans convince ourselves that once we’ve “made it” we’ll be in a better position to help the other people God calls our attention to. When my hunger is met, of course I’ll my power to turn stones into bread to help feed other people. Jesus himself could have put that power to good use and become a very popular guy with all those actual hungry people he was trying to minister to. But the problem is, we never “make it.” Life happens. There will always be some other problem, some other bill to pay, some other item I have to have to fill the void. And when my behavior reinforces putting myself first every time, by the time there’s enough or more than enough to meet my own needs, I tend not to give or to give as much as I could because, well, there’s that vacation I really want to take, or that next item to purchase that will convince me I have all I need. The energetic and spiritual deprivation that comes with accumulation, ironically, results in deeper hunger to have more. One only needs to listen to Lily Allen’s song, The Fear, to understand the toll this culture of consumption takes on our spiritual well-being.
Jesus’s response to the temptation to put himself first was to remind himself that “one does not live by bread alone.” Those who live in poverty, who actually struggle every day to meet their physical needs, are often those who trust most in God’s provision and care. They have to. Those with resources tend to rely on themselves; those without know they are dependent on others and on God and have the humility to admit it. Even those of us with resources are only one major illness or accident away from finding ourselves in the place of depending on God and others to get us through. We get it backwards – our cultural ideals of “happiness” and “stability” are fleeting. Physical satisfaction alone cannot satiate spiritual hunger, and self-care is different from self-absorption. Only our deep relationship with the Divine, the source of the things that truly matter in life, and connection with compassionate communities of care provide us the spiritual nourishment necessary to bring us through the wildernesses we journey through.
The second temptation is to take the easy way out, to trade what God calls me to do for power and prestige. To do what’s convenient instead of what’s right or just. We need look no further than the halls of power in our own country to see how prevalent and rampant this particular human temptation is, and the impact that thirst for power has on the whole. Or perhaps our own churches. Or our own families. The human craving for power is as ancient and insidious as the human desire to be like God that tempted the first humans in the garden. And power plays play out in all kinds of ways. Promoting my own agenda instead of what’s best for the group. Withholding affection, or resources, or support in order to get my own way. Allowing my own perception of reality to sway my participation towards what I’m most comfortable with over what requires me to change. Our lives are not lived in black and white; usually we find ourselves in gray areas where right and wrong aren’t terribly clear. More often, our choice is between bad and worse, or good and better. Subtle, seemingly small and insignificant choices in how I live, how I progress through the journey of life, whether I accept the reward for conforming to the status quo and upholding misused power and control – these are the moments that can greatly affect the state of my soul, my relationship with God, and with my neighbor. The temptation to “get ahead” might lead me to base my worth, my value, on success rather than faithfulness. Or to use my power to exercise control over people instead of advocating for justice and mutuality. Or to allow the riches of the world to distract and captivate my attention instead of doing the work God has given me to do. Or to compromise where God might want me to take a stand. When we trade on our integrity for comfort and convenience, the rewards may be great indeed… but what does it profit me to gain the world and lose my soul?
Jesus responds to this second temptation by remembering and recognizing the Ultimate source of his power and authority. All he has been given is to be used to accomplish God’s purpose, which is also Jesus’s purpose: reconciling humanity with God and God incarnate in humanity. Jesus will exercise power. He will forgive sins, cast out demons, heal disease and infirmity. I suppose that Jesus could have decided to set up shop, could have made a lucrative career out of being a healer and miracle-worker, could have taken the easy way out and the easy power the Devil offered. But he didn’t. He kept his focus on God, trusted in God’s call and God’s will, and refused to be distracted from the mission God gave him. And through him, God’s love reigned supreme, love which overturns and transforms human power and greed.
The final temptation I once heard described at a leadership conference as the temptation to perform to the expectations of the crowd. The problem with basing your self-worth on the approval of the crowd is that you’ll have to throw yourself off higher and higher heights to continue to impress. Jumped off the Temple, you say? Saw that one last week. We’ll really be impressed when you jump off that cliff! That’s a great interpretation, but the deeper challenge here is whether or not we’ll really submit, really surrender to God’s will and God’s call regardless of where God might lead us. God’s call, while always good, is rarely easy. Death is certainly involved, even if only dying to self-will, but to truly follow God’s call often comes with a cost to give up more than we might want to. And so this temptation usually comes at the most opportune moment – in that moment when I’ve given all I think I have to give, when I’m at the end of my rope, when I’m tired or discouraged or frustrated and there’s nothing but me and the choice I must make to trust the call that I’ve heard. Those moments when I’ve been tempted to throw it all in and get out while I can, those are the moments I’m tempted by escape, rescue from the burden of following God where I really don’t want to go. Maybe it’s escape from my vocation, or from the particular ministry I’m involved in, maybe from having to give up my possessions and move halfway around the globe to be a missionary to unknown people in an unknown land. Maybe it’s to do the hard work of confronting broken relationship. Maybe it’s being present in and with the extreme suffering of another person. Maybe it’s having to excise those parts of my ego and psyche that continually resist God’s commands.
In this challenge, the Devil presents Jesus with the temptation to be rescued from sure and certain death. This is the mother of all temptations. Go ahead, put God’s promises to the test. What I’ve discovered is that this temptation to escape usually comes precisely at the moment I’m actually most in concert with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. When I actually am doing God’s will. When I am following, however imperfectly, though I may know nothing about it. If the forces of evil really want to work a number on us, this is the way to do it. Get her to give up when she’s just getting going. Make it seem like nothing he’s doing is accomplishing anything. Kick them out of sync with what God’s about to do, derail the plan. But Jesus’s response is to submit to God’s command. To drink the cup though he did not want to. Jesus fulfills God’s purpose, and his purpose, not by escaping but by accepting his call. Trusting. Choosing to do what he knew God wanted of him, even though it meant suffering and death, even though he would have chosen otherwise if left to his own devices. And in following God’s call, Jesus utterly vanquished the powers of evil and death.
Jesus knew temptation, a universally human experience. For me, the power in this story, “the wonder is not that Jesus was incapable of sinning, but that he was able to avoid sinning although he was tempted.”[ii] What gave Jesus the strength, over and over again? Because these refusals weren’t the end: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” For us humans, the opportune time are those moments when we’re bone-tired, creativity drained, mental, spiritual, physical, emotional energy exhausted. If that’s where you’re at, you definitely haven’t been eating enough!
We could do worse than to adopt Jesus’s rule of life:
“One does not live by bread alone”: go do something that fills you with joy! Connect with a friend. Do something creative. Get out of your office and take a walk. Whatever it is that gives you joy, joy is one of the sure signs that God’s kingdom is present and active.
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”: Fill your mind, heart, and soul with scripture – know it and use it as Jesus did. Choose to trust in God’s promises. God’s brought you to this moment, right now, and hasn’t done that just to drop you on your face. Believe that you are beloved, you are called, and you are enough.
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”: Faithfully resist the temptation to do less or other than what God has called YOU to do. God has given you everything you need to fulfill the purpose for which you are chosen. Pray regularly for God to guide and direct your paths. All of us have to “work it out” as St. Paul says; “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”[iii]
The more that I learn about the spiritual life, this strange calling to walk in the Way of Jesus, the more I fall in love with this beloved prayer penned by Thomas Merton – may it be comfort and grace to you, too.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
[i] For an excellent explanation of ALL OF THE THINGS contained in this text, including some of the thoughts that influenced this essay, see Alan Culpepper’s commentary on this passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible.
[iii] Philippians 2:12-13
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.