Jesus has been baptized, and the Holy Spirit has descended upon him, symbolized by the dove. God has declared Jesus as “beloved.” And, he has been transformed before three of his disciples, establishing his authority. Now the beloved is led to go on a quiet day retreat. Only it isn’t a comfy one short day retreat planned by his rabbi, complete with all that is necessary to meet his every need or comfort. No, this will be a 40-day journey not only into a geographic wilderness, but also a 40-day journey into a spiritual wilderness.
In monastic communities, if a brother or sister embarks on such a time of fasting and prayer, he or she must notify someone in the house to check in and oversee the venture. The reason is that people can become delusional or they can suffer great anxiety.
But something else usually happens, especially if one combines extended isolation, fasting, prayer, with focusing on God’s Word. A kind of clarity can occur. Stripped of distractions, comforts, and the tyranny of the urgent, the mind becomes sharp, focused, and extremely sensitized as one is better able to see God. This state is also one of great vulnerability, and so the monk or nun knows to have support.
It is into such a state of vulnerability that the Spirit of God sends Jesus. And who does he run into after being out there? Right—the evil one shows up.
Now, about the Devil, or Satan, or the Evil One as he is called… We have this image of the puny little red guy with horns, a tail, hands and feet like claws, and pointy, jagged teeth. He wears a bone-chilling evil smile and carries a pitchfork. To be perfectly honest, you won’t find this version of the devil in the bible. This version was an early artist’s rendition, meant to personify evil in sacred, or sometimes not so sacred, art.
How do we come up with this personification? I suggest to you that human beings have created this idea of the devil. We anthropomorphize Satan, meaning we give him human features and countenance. Oh come on, you say, the nasty looking creature in Medieval paintings doesn’t look like me. No, but he does look like our most vile sins all dumped onto a personified being. He does look like all of the evil that the human heart and mind can cook up when we fail to live into the image of God.
Have you ever noticed that when someone in a movie is supposed to be the bad guy or the devil in human form, he is dressed in black, sports an ominous looking goatee, has dark eyes and hair and is sort of gaunt in his appearance? Yet he is handsome and extremely seductive. We know what evil looks like, or what we think it looks like. Except that is…when we ourselves sin. Then we can be deceived.
Well, Jesus is fasting, praying, and seeking God with all of his being for 40 days and don’t forget—40 nights. The nights can be the worst time when one is being tempted or tormented by evil thoughts and temptations. Scripture tells us that Jesus, being human as well as divine, was tempted in all the ways we are.
Page 2In this time Jesus has prayed to the Father and contemplated his ministry and life’s call. Many scholars say that he was given his commission during this time. Apparently Jesus came to understand his mission, but he also came to understand his magnificent power. The temptation to use his newly found power in ways other than God has intended is set before him.
Famished, nothing but skin and bones, weak in the knees and light headed, why not use his power to turn a stone into a loaf of bread? Would it be so bad? Who said he couldn’t have something to eat? After all, this fast was self-imposed. And then, think of all the good that can be done with this kind of power. Why, Jesus could go about zapping stones everywhere into bread and feed the hungry of the world. Wouldn’t that be good?
Unfortunately, this is a false good. It is deception of the worse kind. It would be all about him and his power. Human beings would never learn what it means to become Godlike, feeling the rest of humanity’s pain and suffering and responding in self-giving, the most Godly trait that Jesus ultimately showed us.
Next, of course, along comes the allure of doubt. Have you ever noticed that when you are tempted to behave in an unseemly way or to think evil thoughts, how doubt is created in your mind to subvert your noblest intentions? Or have you noticed how some essence of possible good creeps into the evil temptation to sweeten the pot?
Let’s go back to the biblical myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve looks at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the fruit of which God forbids them to eat. Along comes the tempter. Hmmm…those apples really do look quite lovely. They must be delicious. But no, God said we cannot eat of them, Eve rightly responds. Then doubt creeps in, “Did God really say that you cannot eat of this fruit?”
That’s the hook! “Did God really say?” It happens to us all the time in one way or another. If the tempter can create doubt in our minds, our defenses are weakened. Eve’s were, and she gave in.
Jesus, however, confronts both doubt and false good. How? Jesus uses the most powerful tool possible to confront and tear down both doubt and the false good tactic. He uses Truth. Jesus responds with the Truth of God’s word, which he knew from reading and studying and praying since his childhood. “It is written,” he says to the temptation (or the Devil), “One does not live by bread alone.”
Well, trying to meet Jesus’ immediate need by tempting him to use his power falsely to satisfy himself doesn’t work. So, Satan ramps it up a notch. The one who has power in this world offers it all to Jesus if he will only worship him instead of serving the Living God. Talk about an ego trip. Imagine, taking hold of that kind of power. But that kind of power would have corrupted Jesus and ruined God’s intention for the world.
Why? Because, it would have left you and me out of the equation. We could have stayed stubborn, self-centered human beings, outside of the reach of God’s mercy, instead of learning how to repent, be forgiven and healed, and walk the path to being transformed. Again Jesus uses Truth to get out of the hot seat of temptation. “It is written,” he responds, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Finally, Satan tries one last time. He uses the Word of God to tempt Jesus. He is fighting fire with fire. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not
dash your foot against a stone.’” Satan is intentionally misusing God’s Word. Again, Jesus answers with what he knows to be the Truth about God. “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” All of the ultimate temptations of pride and ego have been thrown at Jesus.
Now, notice something here: the Devil did not lure Jesus into the wilderness. Rather it was the Holy Spirit. This is an important lesson for us. Because, after having a mountaintop spiritual experience (such as last week’s transfiguration), or after having been given great acclaim for how spiritual we are or how good we are at something for God’s glory, we are more vulnerable to be open to pride. And, that can become our downfall if we are not vigilant to stay close to Jesus. Remember that the evil one’s temptations weaken each time we succeed in resisting, and instead do God’s bidding.
Scripture tells us that Satan prowls about like a lion seeking whom he can devour. Weak little Christians make tasty morsels. But friends, be of good cheer! God does not leave us defenseless.
Jesus gives us the way to resist temptation. But, we can’t use the greatest tool available to resist temptation—the Truth of God’s Word—if we don’t know it!
Your spiritual battery will be weak and you won’t have the power to resist evil thoughts, self-pity, hurtful imaginations, selfishness, greed, lust, gluttony, drunkenness, laziness (all the sins we can name), neglect of our responsibilities on and to this earth, and the worst sin of all—apathy—simply not caring about anything or anyone except our own gain and pleasure, or conversely, our own misery. That is, unless we cling to the one who loves and guards us.
What will you do with these 40 days of Lent? Will you go on with business as usual? Will you give God last place in your list of priorities? Will you continue to fight the same demons you’ve been fighting for years, usually losing, and then struggle with the miserable guilt and shame that accompany failure?
Or will you set aside a time each day to forego something in your life, so that you can focus more fully and clearly on Jesus and his desire and power to forgive you, heal you, and keep you on the path to wholeness? Are you willing to be open to God’s highest and best for you? Are you willing to face your demons, strengthened by the Holy Spirit?
Will you focus on God’s Word and spend time alone with Jesus, away from the distractions and temptations of life? Are you willing to make a confession of your pride and failures and seek God’s help?
God longs to protect, nourish, encourage, comfort, heal, and strengthen you against false perceived goods and haunting doubts. However, if you aren’t willing to allow God’s truth to save and protect you, as it did Jesus in the wilderness, don’t be surprised when you decide to give in to doubt and the temptation of false good and pride…and you eat the apple… Amen