On Ash Wednesday we dipped our toes in to test the Lenten waters, and begin a six-week swim to other side. Some people don’t care for Lent, treat it lightly, or never dive in. For Jesus, the wilderness story is about him, not us – his temptations, not ours. But don’t go rogue, either, and take as your Lenten counsel from a country music song, “Lead me not into temptation. I can find it all by myself.”
Lent is important and necessary – sort of like paying taxes or going to the dentist. Honestly, Lent is no more natural for us, than saying, “It’s my fault. I’m sorry.” We must work at it. Jesus never mentions Lent, nor did the early church know it. Yet scripture continually calls us to return to the Lord. Lent is a means to an end. So we give up something of value, like Twitter, Facebook, or TV, or as a wise-acre priest once said – “I’m giving up Lent for Lent.” He didn’t make it. I know. It was me. Now I set my bar low enough to safely jump it. This year I have given up Anchovy Ice Cream. Seriously, why we do go through a Lenten discipline? How do we explain what we do to friends outside the church? We do it, because we continually need to practice our obedience and loyalty to God. You’d think Jesus would have that one down pat.
The wilderness is a common place for testing and trials. Moses, Elijah, and others spend 40 days in a wilderness so God can ready them for tough days ahead. Israel circles the wilderness for forty years trying to learn to listen to and obey the Lord. Jesus is alone for forty days, not with his Father, but the devil who puts him through the paces, for our sakes, as much as his. I like to think he’s above being tested, but temptation is part of the human journey, and he’s human, too. He didn’t cave when tempted. We do. This story points toward Jesus’ success, not our failures. We need help. And winning, he gives it.
Temptation is subtle, beguiling. Had we been there, we wouldn’t have seen a being with a tail, horns and pitchfork. Jesus and the devil are pretty solid in knowing who they are and knowing what the other is there for. We are easier prey. A recent report says 59% of us don’t put up much of a fight against temptations. We take short cuts Jesus won’t. We’ll look for what’s in it for us, or rationalize an excuse, “Everyone else is doing it.” Temptation is not the problem. What we do when tempted is – the choices we make. Examine ourselves, “Do our choices lead us toward or away from God?”
Obvious temptations are easy to spot. If a non-robber gives up robbing banks for Lent, he’ll have a good chance of succeeding. On the other hand, we know it’s serious, when we are tempted to hide our choices with, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Temptations attract us because they are attractive – and ensnare us before we realize. And if we overcome one, another awaits.
So the only vaccine against yielding to temptation is to trust Jesus – trust that Jesus knows and understands when we stumble and fall, and will lift us back up, and send us back into the fray. It’s called unconditional love and salvation – a given, if we take it. A dose of humility helps, too. Jesus’ obedience to the Lord shows how far the Father’s love and forgiveness reach.
I doubt the devil or anyone will say to us, “If you are God’s Son, you can change this stone to bread.” But as Jesus’ followers, people watch how closely we follow, and the choices we make. Jesus didn’t come to do a trick and start a soup kitchen ministry – which would have been wonderful. God leaves that for us, to feed the hungry and care for the poor. “Want to rule the kingdoms, Jesus – worship me and they’re yours, mine to give,” says the devil. Jesus’ response reveals how God deals with power, leadership and getting things done. The devil offers a quick solution – that would get quick results, but not God’s. Subdue the world – coercion, threats, raw power, deceit – that’s how rulers and principalities get things done. Power under Jesus’ rule looks different: Love, patience, grace, forgiveness, mercy, faithfulness – that’s how God gets things done. And God has some thoughts about grandstanding and headline grabbing in His kingdom. The devil takes Jesus to the Temple’s pinnacle. “Look at all the people. Jump. Your Father won’t let you get hurt. Angels will catch you.” Enticing opportunity – dazzle the crowds, word spreads, instant fame – they’d love it and follow him, because he proved he’s the Messiah – but what kind of Messiah would that make him? Jesus trusts that winning people by obedience, love and forgiveness is enough, and all we need, too. Dazzle people with God’s love, welcome them, listen and love them, hold their pain with them, go to the margins and wilderness to bring them in, serving those in need. How tempted we are to live otherwise. The devil leaves to return another day. Temptation – we shall always have with us.
Lent refocuses us toward God – a time and opportunity to re-examine ourselves, see who we are, challenge our daily actions, patterns, and the way we live. Take just a small step toward God in this season. Be intentional. Don’t overstep, but do something to follow Jesus a little closer. Maybe our greatest temptation is to take God for granted, and think His love is a given, that’s his job – presume on God’s forgiveness, it’s his job. Well, yes – it is. And ours is to respond faithfully. May God grant us the grace to do the right small things, just a small step, and see where it can lead us.