On Ash Wednesday I was tempted to start my homily by saying “Merry Christmas.” You know, as we pulled out of the driveway to come down here for the noon Mass I said “it looks more like Christmas than it did on Christmas.” Now, what do you think? Was that a short-term urge? Was it naughty? If I had done that, if I had said “Merry Christmas” on Ash Wednesday, would it have unsettled you?
If so, that is temptation. Temptation is any thing that draws you away from God. That’s it plain and simple. Whether it’s a snake or an apple or good sex or a Twitter storm, temptation is whatever you allow to draw you away from God. And of course, to draw you away from each other, because to be drawn apart from each other is to be drawn apart from God. Of course, temptation abounds; this is Wisconsin after all. We have beer and sausage and cheese …. and chocolate, and what else?
Well, we like to think we are innocent victims of temptation all around us. But I think sometimes that it is the other way around. That is, I think it is not so much that the world is full of temptation and we are so innocent we cannot help being seduced by it. Rather, I think it is that we spend a lot of life going about being unaware.
Let’s say I think I need to drop by the store on the way home to pick up something, a tomato, something like that. I want to go directly there, park, grab my tomato and go. The problem is, so do hundreds of other people. I don’t know about you, but I tend to forget about them …. So I think this is what happens. Something that might be in my mind a simple errand, becomes in a social situation a temptation to push and shove or leap ahead. And then it really does not matter what my intentions were if the fact is that by whatever means I have succumbed to the temptation to separate myself from others by putting myself first.
Did you notice, in the story about the Garden of Eden, what the serpent says to the woman? It says, “God knows, … that your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So, to be like God, is to know good and evil. If we are made in God’s image, then this is telling us something more about our one-ness with God. That is, that in being one with God we are like God because we know good and we know evil. Is the knowledge of good and evil the loss of innocence? Or is it the armament we need to resist temptation, to remain at one with God and with each other?
In Matthew’s Gospel we are told that Jesus went into the wilderness. It says he was led by the Spirit— the Holy Spirit— God in other words– and the purpose was to be tempted by the devil. It also says Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. Now to be famished means to be extremely hungry. It is from a Middle English root that means to starve. To starve is to die from hunger, although it is not hunger that ends life but malnourishment, deprivation of fuel to keep the body running. In other words, it was pretty extreme. But it is a metaphor of course for being apart from the Holy Spirit. To be apart from God is to be near death.
Did you notice, we have been hearing a lot about forty days lately. Last week, we heard the story of Moses who went up to the mountaintop to get the tablets of commandments directly from God. Moses went up that mountain until he entered a cloud that protected him from the devouring fire of the glory of God. And it says Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. This number of days and nights shows up again and again in the Bible. It is a way of saying “a really long time,” for sure. But it also has richer meaning. Forty is the product of five times eight. In Hebrew tradition five signified grace and eight signified a new beginning. “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved, by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearst and strengthens our wills ”[BCP 858]. So whenever we learn that something took a really long time that was forty days and forty nights it means probation, grace over time leading to a new beginning. For God’s grace, given to us, whenever realized must by definition lead to a new beginning.
For Jesus, this period of temptation was initiated by God’s Holy Spirit. It was a time of grace, and it led to a new beginning, but we are invited into the part where it was a time of trial, and deprivation. In the end, Jesus resisted all temptation and was refreshed not only by grace but it says he was fed by angels.
My maternal grandmother was a very powerful woman. She was the daughter of a Methodist circuit-riding pastor in the Moberly Missouri Quincy Illinois district. She was married about 1925 and had three daughters and her husband passed away while her girls were still in school. She went to work as a third grade teacher in Marquette Heights Illinois, and decades later I helped her decorate her classrooms. She took me to church every Sunday. Once, when there was a tornado, she rocked me in the basement until it passed. When I was nine I went to her graduation from Illinois State Normal College, she had had to get a Bachelor’s degree to keep teaching. It worked, I was so impressed that I’ve got five degrees …. Now my Grandma was the most powerful person I knew as a boy. She was in charge, she nurtured her family, she taught children, she was a good neighbor, and she drove her 57 Chevy like a rock star. In fact, often as a boy when I thought of a powerful God I thought God must be like Grandma or maybe Grandma was like God. Rocking people against the tornado, leading people into a bright future. Either way, it sounds like God to me.
Now Grandma was always saying “I have half a mind to …” or more to the point “I am tempted to …” Thing is, once she had said that, the temptation vanished. It was like a storm had passed. You see, naming it whatever it was robbed it of its power. And that is what we see in this dialog between Jesus and the devil. Temptation, yes … but more importantly understanding that naming evil tames it. Naming temptation robs it of its power over us. “Not by bread alone but by every word that comes from God.” “Do not put God to the test.” “Away with you Satan.” “Worship God, and only God.”
Now Jesus was in a kind of spiritual battle to prove that the children of God always win over the forces of evil. But, we do. Win, I mean. And we, as children of God have the power to triumph through grace over any evil. That power, as always, lies within us. It is already given to us by God, in whose image we are created. And in whose likeness we know both good and evil.
God has already saved you. All God asks is that you pay attention. Be aware, of everyone else. Do not let temptation take you by surprise. Enjoy the nurture of your loving God. And be children of grace. Amen.