You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Temptation’ tag.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. -Matthew 4:1
The devil takes a while to get to the scene of temptation.
Did you ever wonder why?
The common understanding is that the devil waited until Jesus was weakest. That makes sense, anyway – why not wait until your adversary is most likely to be defeated?
Perhaps that is the reason.
I remember, a little too clearly, what I was like in college: a white girl from a privileged Boston suburb, attending a city school, the University of Pittsburgh. I remember watching my black classmates sit together at dinner, and wondering why I found it so hard to break in to their circle. I remember participating in specifically feminist activities and events on campus, all the while being very proud of myself for not “needing” to attend a women’s college. I remember being sure, somewhere inside myself, that if God loved all of us, and if we were to love each other, we needed to spend time together. And not in segregated spaces. This, it seemed, was the point of discipleship: hadn’t Jesus called people from all over, from all walks of life, to be together in the Kin-dom? Hadn’t Paul called us members of one Body, and reminded us to eat together, to worship together, to shelter and feed each other?
When I was in college, I strove to be colorblind, to learn to compete and achieve in a man’s world. When I was in college, I believed in a meritocracy, and grounded that belief in God.
Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be baptized by John – his cousin, according to some accounts – who had been preaching prophetically, out there beyond the cities, in his own wilderness. John preached, calling out hypocrisy, reminding us of our need for repentance, which is more than just saying we are sorry, but but changing, within our hearts, in irreversible ways. This prophet knows Jesus, in a very profound way; knows not only the man, but the spirit that is within him. Perhaps it is in the face of this Spirit, that he tries to decline, tries to convince Jesus he doesn’t need this water baptism, doesn’t need to be made new, doesn’t need to know God’s grace. But Jesus insists. Jesus, fully human, needs the rebirth of baptism. And then: perhaps, only then, can he follow the Spirit.
It strikes me, reading this text, that we need to feel the need to change before the wilderness is going to do us any good at all. We need to be aware of our need for repentance before we start the fast, before we seek after grace, before we go toe to toe with the devil.
It is human nature to filter our understandings of the world through our own experiences. It is human nature for people to not see or understand what they have not themselves experienced, to assume that others experience the world as they do, and that that way is “normal.” It’s why I didn’t understand the need for the black students at Pitt to find community in common experience. It’s why I didn’t truly get the power and potential of a women’s college for finding a voice that is too often silenced. It’s why so many of us don’t fully get the outrage at young black men, disproportionately stopped, arrested, and imprisoned. It’s why so many of us don’t quite understand the need for marginalized groups to be with those who don’t need to be educated, those who aren’t going to speak in well-meaning micro-aggressions. It’s human nature to see our lives as “normal” and therefore discount the experiences of others.
And human nature is hard to overcome.
It takes real acts of grace, in the face of our dismissiveness. It takes real acts of repentance and renewal to even begin, especially when we’ve been used to seeing our human nature as God’s will.
And although human nature is hardly washed away in the waters of baptism, that seems like a pretty good place to start, if one is preparing to walk along the path that God has laid before us. Even if you’re Jesus. Because it’s not only at Christmas that we need to take the incarnation seriously: the reminder that the divine came to reside within humanity in all of its messiness. And if we do take the incarnation seriously, we need to remember that Jesus was human, with all the biases and struggles that entails; with all the need for repentance, and wilderness, and grace.
Because listening for the call of God is pretty easy, when God says what we want to hear; when we hear God speaking in our own voice – the voice of good intentions.
It took me a long time to see beyond my own privileged experiences. It took a lot of arguments before I learned to shut my mouth and listen; to recognize my own biases, my need for repentance. It took a lot of grace, from those willing to challenge my hubris. It took a long time before I was prepared even for that first step, that plunge into the water, let alone to take those first steps into the wilderness, that place of introspection and self-awareness, that place where we remember that the voice of God isn’t always calling us in ways that echo human nature. It takes a long time for human beings to recognize the particularity of our experience, especially when it’s considered “normal.” It takes a long time for humans – incarnate beings – to see our privilege: the things we can take for granted, the things that are handed to us, whether or not we deserve them. I t takes a long time to recognize the grace that we so often don’t deserve; to feel, in that grace, the need to change our hearts, our perspectives, in irreversible ways; to come face to face with the temptations this world pushes on us and recognize them for what they are.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. But the devil took a while to get there; or at least, to be recognized as such. Time enough for Jesus to take a good hard look at the world around him, in which he’d been raised, at the biases of his own human heart. Until finally, one day, in his hunger he looked at the rock and knew that he could use his power for his own benefit, but that true nourishment lies in community, not in isolation.
And that day he knew that he could leap from the highest point imaginable and not be hurt, but that true devotion was not making God fly to him, but standing with God at the margins to support those who fell easily off of pebbles. That day, he saw clearly the trappings of power, of privilege, wielded for their own sake – even with the best of intentions – served as tools of oppression, and that the true power was held in open hands, given freely and without counting the cost.
It takes time, for us to approach the Jordan.
It takes time, for us to hear the Spirit’s pull into the wilderness.
It takes time, before we are ready to grapple with the tempter.
It takes time. Sometimes, it takes 40 days, often it takes more, to make the real, irreversible changes, to bring about repentance in the face of God’s grace that calls and accompanies us throughout our preparation for discipleship.
It takes time, but at the end, we walk out of the wilderness. At the end, we walk away from temptation, into the resurrection, and the kin-dom life of God’s eternal promises.
Lent is very nearly upon us.
Did you groan at that? Even a little? Lent has something of a bad reputation as being a dark and punishing time – a time of deprivation and endurance. We slog through forty days without whatever little pleasure we’ve denied ourselves: Easter is our finish line, when deprivation can finally give way without guilt, and we can pat ourselves on the back for getting through such a miserable time.
It’s a cynical view, and one I hope none of your share in its entirety… but I very much doubt that there are many among us who didn’t recognize ourselves, at least a little, in the above description.
So perhaps this is the year to re-frame Lent.
On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortality. More than that, we are reminded that we are all made of the same stuff – the same ash, the same stardust.
Given this perspective, what is it that we might give up, during these 40 days? What would change, for you, if you were to walk through this time, saying the Ash Wednesday blessing in your heart during every interaction: “Remember that you and I are dust, and to dust we shall return”?
In Lent, we remember Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and the temptations that were presented to him: to use his abilities to feed himself, and calm his own hungers; to rule over all the world; to manipulate God.
During this time, perhaps we would do well to ask what temptations we face: To serve ourselves before others? To exercise power over others – our co-workers, our friends, our children? To try to bargain with God, or make God serve us? What is it that we are tempted to put before our love of God and God’s Creation?
What if our Lenten discipline this year were to give up convenience for the sake of community? If we were to stop using Dunkin Donuts styrofoam or plastic cups, and remember to bring our own instead? If we were to commit to buying local, or second-hand? To walking more and driving less?
What if our Lenten discipline this year were to broaden our perspectives: to commit to reading only books written by women, or people of color, Muslims, or LGBT folk? What might we learn about ourselves, our God, and our temptations, if we were to journal such an adventure? What might we learn, if what we gave up for Lent were an insular perspective?
It strikes me that Jesus did not fast so that he could really enjoy his first meal back after the wilderness experience. His fast was one of purification, of focusing priorities, of gaining perspective on the tempting distractions of this world. He fasted so that he could see the offers made him for what they were: idols that would turn him from God. He fasted so that he would be better prepared to serve God – to serve God’s creation and the Body of Christ – with his whole self.
Perhaps that should be the goal of our disciplines as well. May we remove from our lives that which distracts us from one another and from God. May our fasts leave us changed for the better, able to fully appreciate and live into the new life of Easter.
For Further Reading:
Why reading books by black* authors is important:
*the principle applies to any non-white-straight-male authors, in my opinion
Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ -John 20: 27-29
Although it seems odd, after last week’s resurrection, with the bright, glowing light of the rolled-away stone and angelic apparition, we find ourselves, now, in Eastertide, back in the dark. We find ourselves closed in with the disciples, who are still hiding, still fearful, still locked up together even though they have experienced the resurrection and witnessed the risen Christ. They remain behind closed doors, venturing out as needed, but furtively, carefully, it seems.
These ideas of light and darkness are traditional in Christian language, and have been used in just this way for centuries. As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in a recent op-ed for Time Magazine, “From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.” That’s precisely the darkness that these disciples are in, even after the resurrection. Which is, perhaps, normal, when the light doesn’t look like we expect it to.
Now, certainly, this metaphoric language of light and darkness is problematic: it has negative implications for those who are physically blind, as well as for people of color. Both groups have felt the weight of being labeled inherently sinful, an experience that we need to state and have on the table, before we dissect the language any further. For it is problematic language on another level, as well; Barbara Brown Taylor continues: “It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.”
It is easy – and done many times over, in our lives and in our tradition – to divide light and dark into God and non-God. It is easy to see God, and feel the divine presence, only when life looks a certain way, only when that presence is expected. So what do you do when you’re a disciple of the Risen Christ, but still feeling bereft of God? When things didn’t go as you’d thought they should have? When death and grief had been so present, and you are still trying to understand how they might be reversed, and what that might mean for you, hidden away in that room? What do you do when fear still seems more palpable than joy? How do you encounter God in that unexpected place, especially when you’ve made sure to lock the door?
How do any of us encounter God when we’ve locked the door for fear of the dark?
It is not surprising, that this metaphorical language of light and darkness should gain such traction within our religious traditions – for it is not just present within Christianity. We humans are diurnal creatures, and our senses are made to best function in sunlight. We tend to feel off kilter in the darkness; to be disoriented, less confident in our abilities, more aware of our limitations. We fear the dark because it shows us as we really are: vulnerable creatures who are not as independent as we prefer to believe ourselves. We fear the dark because it renders us helpless, reliant upon one another for comfort and security.
When’s the last time you went out for walk at night, in real darkness? No streetlights, no light pollution, no iPhone to light your way? It’s disconcerting. Even when our eyes have adjusted, we are less likely to see danger coming. Even if we are in familiar territory, we are more likely to trip, to walk into things, to get hurt. And so our use of the metaphor seems reasonable: for how can God be someplace so inhospitable, so fearful to us? How can we be sure where God is, if we don’t even know where we are?
Brené Brown is a professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, who specializes in the study of shame and vulnerability. Part of her research regards those people who seem to have the ability to love wholeheartedly, fearlessly: across the board, such people tend to be confident, lacking in a sense of internalized shame, believing themselves to be inherently worthy of love. All these are qualities – confidence, clarity, vision – that we tend to associate with light. Brown asks the question, in an interview with Krista Tippett: “does this mean our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted?” In other words, our capacity to dwell in light can never be greater than our ability to endure darkness; to be vulnerable, even wounded, and to seek God in those places of fear and disorientation. Our willingness to risk ourselves, to be heartbroken, to be courageous, depends entirely on our willingness to dwell in vulnerability: “think of the last time you did something you thought was really brave… as a researcher, 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage – moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage… that was not born completely of vulnerability.”
I wonder what Thomas would think of that.
Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, who is still sitting in darkness, fearful and bereft. Thomas, who alone turned away from not one, but two chances at vulnerability; whose fear, whose wounds kept him not just from hoping for the promised resurrection, but even from belief in the testimony of his closest colleagues. Thomas, who was called to be the first demonstration of courage in this post-resurrection ministry; who was called to faith; to believe despite darkness and disorientation; to strip away the confidence born of human senses and human judgment; to trust that God is equally present in our darkness; to see Jesus, even unexpectedly, even without seeing him.
Thomas was called; and so are we.
As we are reminded in this parable, we are called to be people who believe without seeing, without the necessity of light. We are called to be people who believe from within the darkness, from a place of vulnerability; and then to believe in ways that make us vulnerable, that do not shut and lock the door on God. We are called from that vulnerability to be people of courage; risking ourselves for the Gospel: the good news that is the light and life of the resurrection.
And that is hard. We see it in Peter’s speech to the crowd, on that Pentecost Sunday in Acts, where he is already back in the light, already in a place of power, already entirely dependent upon the confidence of human perception. Just fifty days after the resurrection, Peter is already in the midst of the crowd, rather than on the margins where his Teacher spent so much of his own ministry. I wonder what Thomas would have preached, in that moment. I wonder what any of us would have done, or said; where we would have taken that light, and Spirit, and linguistic ability.
We, who are called to vulnerability, and to courage. We, who are called to be the ones who see God in unexpected places; to hone our senses until we can have the confidence to walk in and with the dark. We, who are called to walk in all those places of fear, of disorientation; places where we may stumble or where our hearts may be broken, and seek, there, the Christ who was raised in darkness of tomb. For Christ’s return to the light did not heal his woundedness, or remove the vulnerability of his spirit, but touched and healed the woundedness of the fearful disciples.
We are called to find God in the brokenness from which we may be made whole; in the broken-heartedness from which we may love more fully; in the darkness in which we can find God’s light, even where we least expect it.
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ -Matthew 26: 40-41
Were you there?
It seems an odd question, although it’s a hymn we often sing during the latter part of Holy Week. It’s odd, because really, the whole point is that no one was there. There is tremendous desolation in the way that the synoptic gospels talk of these final days – there are no disciples present at cross, only soldiers and criminals. Even before the actual crucifixion, the sense of loneliness is pervasive: the desertion of Christ by the disciples begins before Jesus was even alone, in the resentments of Judas, in the fears of Peter and the others.
Were you there?
It’s an odd question on another level, as well, of course: these things happened 2000 years ago. Of course none of us were there. But if we had been? For us, to whom this story is familiar; for we who know ending: do we tend to say yes, knowing the grief of these days but also the triumph that is to come? Are we tempted to say, yes, we’d have been there, right at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to the grief, the pain, the torture of crucifixion?
Perhaps we would, and there are some that do; some who are able to be present in such complete pain and loss. We are certainly reminded this week of those people who run towards disaster – the people who ran towards the blasts at last year’s Boston Marathon, who disregarded the very palpable danger to themselves in order to care for the wounded.
Yet this month bears other reminders, as well: of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, 20 years ago, when no one was present. Of the Earth, whose resources we are sacrificing at an astonishing rate despite the knowledge of the pain it is causing us all. This month, we are reminded of all the times that we’ve turned away from suffering; when we’ve distanced ourselves from one another’s experiences. We are reminded of those times when relationship has been sacrificed, love set aside; of the times that human life, and the commandment to love our neighbor, are trumped by quest for power – or or even just the ease of maintaining our own ideas, and the comfort of the status quo. We are reminded, this month, of all the times we have been silent as Christ has been crucified again.
Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, blogged recently about her thoughts, approaching the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing:
This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing. We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”…
Jamarhl Crawford [a Boston journalist] speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave…
The Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss.
Were you there? Are any of us?
It seems an odd question, but it is the right one. Jesus calls us to a ministry of presence and of witness: of conscious, active presence – prayerful presence, if it keeps us awake and aware. Of presence beyond ourselves, and our own needs and desires, whether they are for sleep, or for comfort, or for simplicity, or for the status quo. Jesus calls us to a ministry in which we can we be present even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it demands something of us. Can we be present, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone and our known world: when it requires our energy, our attention, our love? Can we be present, even when that presence calls us to be in relationship with someone we may never know? Can we bear witness to the suffering of this world, and through our witness, send God’s light, and God’s love to counter the despair?
Can we, by our presence – our acknowledgement, our voices lifted in prayer and support – show the suffering they are not alone? that the one crucified in desolation, the one who prayed that lonely prayer in Gethsemane, is present in us? Can we shine our light so that others see, and bear witness as well?
The ministry to which Christ calls us forces us to engage in self-reflection – to ask why we distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of this world, why we can turn aside from the brokenness that doesn’t directly affect us. We are called to open our hearts: to engage in discernment, education, outreach, and love wherever we see Christ crucified, so that we may be, not Boston Strong, but Humanity Strong. We are called to bear with one another, to be as present as the one who has borne our deepest pain, so that we might truly be made one Body in Christ.
We are called to presence, in the Gethsemanes of this life, so that when we are asked “were you there”, we might be able to say, “Yes we were.”
[The Samaritan woman] said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” John 4:29
Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in this place.
I say that every single week, at both services. It is said by UCC pastors around this country; an intentional phrase of inclusion, a correction of the historic church exclusion that has harmed so many, and made so many wary of entering our worship spaces. It is an intentional response to the judgment that so many churches practice.
It is not, however, a response to Christian exclusion. For that has never existed. This new, modern, liberal position is, in fact, none of those things, but is one of oldest tenets of our faith. Because our faith calls us to extend our ideas of who we count as neighbor, as worthy, as Godly, as recipients of grace. The extravagant welcome, the extravagant forgiveness that we work so hard to embody are not the products of modern Christianity, but ideas that Jesus himself espoused and practiced.
It seems like whenever Jesus wants to really drive this point home, the story would involve a Samaritan. There’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel, which has become so embedded in our culture that it has lost a great deal of its power. And there is this story, of the Samaritan woman at the well, only mentioned here in John’s Gospel, and where we are more likely to remark upon the protagonist’s gender and sexual history than on her geographic origins. But these are important; perhaps more important than anything else about her; for it is the fact that she is a Samaritan that makes her so totally “other”, so totally despised by the Jews. Because you never fight with anyone so badly as with your own family.
The region that in Jesus’ time was called Samaria had been, before the Babylonian exile, the Kingdom of Israel – the northern half of King David’s realm, which had broken with Judah to the south and become its enemy. The battles of these kingdoms are recorded in the historic books of the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 17), as was their eventual fall to the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Still: Samaria and Judea had a shared history, through the lineage of David, and earlier, of Abraham: the well from which Jesus proposed to drink was the well of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. The Samaritans, too, were people of the covenant, with the same scriptures and the same commandments and many of the same practices as their neighbors – their cousins – to the south. But to the Jews – Judeans – there were inexcusable differences in practice that rendered the Samaritans “impure” and “fallen”: notably here, that the center of their worship was Mt. Gerezim (in Samaria) rather than Jerusalem (in Judea). The Judeans despised the Samaritans for having received the same revelations of God, the same covenant with God, and responding to it in a different manner.
So to have this woman, so very “other” from the average reader of – or listener to – John’s Gospel as the protagonist, let alone the intelligent, perceptive protagonist that this woman is… it would have been nothing short of mind-blowing.
But it would not have been an accident.
John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be written, around 120CE. It is the only one in our Bible to include an innovation of written storytelling: a strong sense of narrative and structure. Far more than just strings of parables and sea crossings over the course of three years, like the other (Synoptic) Gospels; John is intentional in its placement of stories and parables. Today’s reading is a good example: the internal structure of John 4 contrasts Jesus’ conversation with the woman, and the results of that, with his conversation with the disciples. To both, he talks about physical needs as metaphor for spiritual ones – hungers and thirsts have both superficial and larger meanings. But this story is also placed in a larger context, and draws another contrast; this time with the character we met in the previous chapter, the Pharisee Nicodemus – the Jewish man rather than the Samaritan woman, who came to Jesus in midnight darkness rather than noonday sun. John’s careful use of story and narrative not only gives explicit examples, but drives us towards an implicit understanding of God’s love and grace; God’s extravagant welcome.
So we find Jesus at noon at a well in Samaria, having left Judea because it was prudent, for the time being, for him to put some distance between himself and the authorities in Jerusalem. And in his travels, he found himself in need of water; at a well but without a bucket. It is one of the rare references to Jesus’ humanity in this Gospel, yet a good reason to situate this story at noon; an unusual time for anyone to visit a well and draw water. Why the woman should come to draw at noon is the subject of speculation, but it seems prudent not to read too much into it. Things happen that we couldn’t predict when we went to draw water in the early morning, not least of which is that God calls us and moves in us in unexpected ways. Not to mention that the Gospel writer needed Jesus to be alone with the woman; to get no external clues about who she was or her history.
So: noon. Not midnight, as with Nicodemus; for the woman, there were no shadows to hide in. Nothing except the bright, clear light of the desert sun; nothing except clarity, and the vision that allowed Christ to see the woman entirely: to see the precariousness of her position as a woman in society, to see all she would have had to do to survive. There was only the vision that allowed Christ to see the sharp intelligence, the quick grasp that this woman – so very “other – had of all that he was telling her. And the clarity that allowed woman to ask shrewd questions in return, to examine what Jesus really meant by his offers of acceptance and grace. She asked the questions that any might ask of us, when we assert that all are welcome here: what does that really mean? “Am I allowed even if I don’t worship as you do? In Jerusalem? Am I welcome even as a Samaritan? even as a woman? No, seriously, what’s the catch? What conversion or change is required?” The Samaritan woman stood before Jesus in the brilliant, shadowless light of the noonday sun; in the light that allowed her to stand vulnerable but unafraid before the one who could see her entirely, in the light that allowed her to see him clearly as well, and to name Jesus as prophet and Messiah, in the light that allowed there to be nothing hidden between them at all.
It takes courage, to achieve such clarity. It takes courage to come to such intimacy as we usually reserve for few, if any, in our lives. We, who turn away from bright lights, who shield our eyes and our hearts from the rawness and pain of human life; we, who protect ourselves in shadows; we are uncomfortable with that level of light, of vision, of clarity. We are uncomfortable with the idea of being seen entirely, of being broken open, with all that we would rather hide made made suddenly visible. We are afraid of having on display the fears, the insecurities, the desperations of our lives; of being vulnerable, especially to one whom we suspect despises and judges us (and whom do we not suspect of judgment and derision?) And so we remain in shadow, fearful of being seen; fearful as well of seeing.
For what might it mean for us to see the fears and desires that drive someone else? to see and understand the root of their hurts, their shame? What might it mean for us to see that none of us are really all that different, despite what we’d rather believe: despite the superficial, created differences of race, or class, or gender? Despite the equally superficial differences of politics, practices or beliefs? Despite the all-too-human desire to be special, unique?
What might it mean to see ourselves in the mentally ill? In the addict? In the young woman on welfare, or the young man whose unemployment insurance has run out?
What might it mean to see ourselves in those whom we might otherwise judge so harshly?
Is it any wonder we prefer shadows, w what we might see in the light?
The problem is that we tend to think God prefers the shadows, too. We, like Nicodemus, think we can find full understanding of the love that welcomes us so extravagantly, yet without having to see or be seen. We hide our fears and our failings, as though we might be hiding them from God, as though these might be the deal-breaker that excludes us from love and grace. We keep to the shadows because it enables us to continue believing what we would really prefer to believe, despite our fear: that there are those who are, in fact, not welcome, not worthy: a Fred Phelps, an Adam Lanza, a one who has gone so far from love as to be cut off from grace… as we fear we might be, if we were truly and clearly seen.
We, like the disciples, prefer to focus on the human, the mundane, the safe. We concentrate on human hungers and human thirsts. We dwell in the places where it’s comfortable to look, without too much light, lest it hurt our eyes and our hearts. We hide ourselves in the the dappled shadows of otherness and difference – the human reassurance that “we” are not like “them”, but are worthy of love, and of acceptance, and of grace… if no one looks too close.
We talk fairly regularly about God’s light at work in this world, banishing the shadows that would hide us from one another. It’s pretty frequent imagery for mainline churches, but we talk about it rather like we talk about the coming Kingdom, as a sorta-now-but-mostly-later thing; a let’s-look-for-signs rather than a let’s-help-it-arrive thing. We rejoice in God’s Kingdom… as long as it doesn’t mess with our comfortable, happy lives. We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t expose us too badly; as long as we can use it to banish other people’s shadows, over there, away from us, where we can’t actually see.
We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t make us see clearly that which we’d rather not see, as long as it doesn’t open our hearts to that which we’d prefer to not understand, as long as it doesn’t make us see ourselves in those whom we’d rather despise.
We pray for God’s light, as long as we can still seek Jesus from the shadows, like Nicodemus, as long as we can stay safe, and not actually risk ourselves in the process.
God’s light is in the world, and we throw up our hands to shield our eyes. We create shadows in which to hide while urging the light to dispel other shadows, somewhere else. We create shadows from which we can claim not to see, blinded as we are by the brightness beyond our reach. And we survive on pale excuses for sustenance: busyness and diet and causes that fall within our comfort zone; we settle for being full, rather than nourished.
But the light is there – brighter than the desert sun at noonday. The grace is still there, that knows us and still invites us out of the shadows. The grace that invites all of us – our fears and insecurities and shame included. The grace that invites all of us: humanity in all its varied forms, with its most basic, shared needs for food and water, unconditional love and extravagant welcome. The grace that invites all of us: Fred Phelps and Mathew Shepherd; Adam Lanza and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; victims and offenders, the fearful and the…. fearful.
Grace invites us: all of us who fear that God’s love might actually have limits – because we don’t worship in Jerusalem; because we are Samaritans, we are “other”; because we have hurt one another; because we are broken, and fearful, and hurting.
Grace invites us, still, to live by God’s abundant love, to live in God’s extravagant welcome. Grace invites us, even in our fear.
God’s light is in the world, and we need not hide, for what shadows can hide us from God? What shadows can hide us from the one who knows everything we have ever done? We have been seen entirely, and are beloved despite it all.
God’s light is in the world so that we might see one another, and be seen by one another… and in the clarity of that light, we might recognize God in our midst: even by the well at noon; even in the Samaritan woman; even in person who is so “other”, that we would far rather they simply burn in hell.
God’s light is in the world, in the hopes that we might stand within it, vulnerable and unafraid, to accept the living waters of grace; to nourish ourselves on the food that is light, and grace, and love spread throughout this creation. God’s light is in the world, and we are welcomed by grace – whoever we are, and wherever we are on life’s journey.
“[Eve] took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” Genesis 3: 6a-7
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”‘ ” Matthew 4: 5-6
It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? The thing Adam and Eve did with their amazing new knowledge was to make clothes, and cover themselves. They were alone in the garden; they’d already seen each other naked, yet suddenly it became imperative that they be clothed. They didn’t look around them at the complex splendors of the Garden and the intricate creation that God had wrought – they scrambled for cover.
Shame is cultural, as I think we recognize pretty generally. Shame around nakedness is also cultural – spending just a few minutes looking at National Geographic should be enough to remind us of that, as it has reminded generations of ten-year-olds. The need to be clothed is a learned behavior: small children readily strip off their clothes in the summer, or around the house, regardless of who might we watching. And so this immediate need that Adam and Eve felt to cover themselves, speaks not to some inherent element of the human condition, but to the culture that told these narratives and wrote them down.
Because, of course, Adam and Eve did not write Genesis. As with all Biblical narrative, these stories began as oral traditions – stories told to make sense of the world and our place in it. These stories, as they were handed down, shifted and developed according to the understandings of the cultures in which they were being told: the language was updated, the examples adjusted to speak to the current generation. Only when the stories were finally written down did their evolution slow, and even then changes get made – Disney’s retelling and updating of stories like “Rapunzel” (in the recent movie, “Tangled”) being a good example. Our ways of telling stories, the words we choose to heighten the tension or illustrate emotional content speak far more clearly to the needs and concerns of the listeners, than to the stories’ characters, inevitably.
And this story from Genesis is no exception. The culture that finally codified the story, in roughly the form in which we read it today, came from a culture that used clothing as a marker: to distinguish between themselves and other cultures, to differentiate the rungs of the cultural and social ladder. This was a culture that viewed others, who wore less clothing, as less-than, uncivilized, unGodly. For these people, clothes showed status, and the mark of a person’s God-like-ness.
For that is the real temptation, always. It was the real temptation underlying the serpent’s cunning words to Adam and Eve. It was the real temptation that the devil offered Jesus: the temptation to be God-like. These stories are not about making a fig-leaf fashion statement; not about being knowledgeable for the sake of of knowledge per se: but about being powerful for the sake of power alone: powerful in a way that humans never can be.
There is something to the parenting metaphor that we often use for God. No matter what the language – Father and Mother have both been used, not just by our generation but back into antiquity – there are times when the metaphor just works well. Not just because I can totally see God, in next scene, looking at Adam and Eve in their new clothes and saying, “I knew it was too quiet around here…” But because God, in this story, is dealing with something that many parents hear and deal with in their own children. Because most children say, at some point, “I wish I was grown up!” Most children see, and envy, the privileges, the freedom, the ability to set rules that adults often enjoy, and even take for granted. Children see freedom of movement, of bedtime, of TV watching… without seeing the responsibilities, the constraints of adulthood. And they want what they see – didn’t we, as children? And if there had been a piece of fruit that offered us all that we saw, and wanted, and dreamed about… wouldn’t any of us have eaten it?
Wouldn’t we still? Wouldn’t we eat the fruit that would make us as important as we want to be?
Wouldn’t we throw ourselves from the peak, just for the joy of being seen, by all of Jerusalem, as the one who was important enough to be caught by angels? Would we refuse such symbols of power and status: the clothes, the objects, that prove us to be more civilized, more important… more God-like?
What would God wear? Fig leaves? LL Bean? Brooks Brothers?
Or more to the point: how would we dress God, in human vesture and after our own image?
That is the temptation that faced humans in Eden, that faced the human Jesus, that faces us all today; in the cunning of external forces, and the whispers of our own doubts and fears: temptation to reduce God to our level. The temptation to make reduce God to the testable, the sensible; the puppeteer and controller of our lives. To make God into the one who blesses us with human status, power, and wealth; into one who lives and judges by human values.
It is the temptation to believe that God is present when we succeed and against us when we fail; the temptation to believe that God – that love – might be present when we assuage our own hungers before seeing to the needs of others.
It is the temptation to put individual importance before community, to be the one the angels catch, rather than the angel who catches the poor soul in free fall.
It is the temptation to think that knowledge means wisdom, and makes us like Gods ourselves.
What would it look like if this story had been transmitted orally all the way to us, adapting to suit values of each generation – including, ultimately, this one? what would Adam and Eve have done with their newfound knowledge, what would they have made to show their new status? What symbol of our civilization would we give them to make the listener understand that that fruit had made them God-like?
In what do we put our faith, we humans? What is it that makes us, even now, children of Eden, rather than disciples of Christ, unable to resist the promise of the unattainable?
What tempts us, even today? And what is our response?
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. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. -Luke 4: 1-2
This is another one of those familiar texts, for those of us who have been going to church for more than a couple of years. This one gets reproduced, almost verbatim, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and so we hear very nearly the exact same words every single year, on the first Sunday in Lent. And so it doesn’t seem a very strange text, to us; but it is a very strange text.
It is strange to see Jesus alone. This is something that we’re not going to see much of again before Holy Week. That doesn’t seem like a very long time to us, now, in our liturgical year, but it was a much longer time in Jesus’ ministry.
It is strange to us to see Jesus being so intensely, almost entirely human, in this moent
It is strange to us – at least it should be – to hear the word Devil. Which may seem odd in our Christian tradition, with our imagery and our concept of this red guy with the horns and the tail and the pitchfork. But this is a rarity in the Gospels, it’s a rarity in the Bible at all to talk about the Devil. So it is a very normal question – not one we usually ask, but still a very normal question, to ask ourselves what on Earth is going on here? Who is this Devil character anyway?
I think we read this story and we see Jesus out in the desert, probably looking kind of skeletal after 40 days, and this being appears, whispering in Jesus’ ear, suggesting all manner of trouble. We see the Devil as an external force of evil, sent precisely down to tempt Jesus in this moment. We conflate this Devil, this mention, with Satan, who comes in Job, back in the Hebrew Bible, who was, in fact, a somewhat-embodied angelic being who wreaked real havoc with poor Job’s life. And I think it really helps us; I think it does something within our hearts, to see these as beings. To see them as external to us, somehow, these conniving, compelling, fallen angels who are trying to pull us away from God. In a way, it helps us to see them as somehow Darth Vader-like perhaps with a light-saber for good measure. We want this to be a visible, a tangible creature; someone with whom we could conceivably do battle. Someone with whom Jesus could do battle, and have it be that story of Good vs. Evil, because we know how that ends. We have that story, throughout the history of human literature, the Good vs. Evil story, from the earliest mythology right up through Star Wars and Harry Potter. And they end, almost inevitably, with the unblemished Good still managing to overcome Evil personified. As though we could, in fact, rid the world of Evil.
And I think we would all feel pretty good about this story – and I know this is what would happen if Hollywood ever got a hold of this one – if up there, on the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus and the Devil had that last little tempting conversation; if instead of the Devil just giving up, somehow Jesus’ powerful love pushed the Devil off of the pinnacle and he fell down into a little pile of dust and was never heard from again… wouldn’t that be a great ending?
But we run, in that moment, right into temptation ourselves. Right into one of the temptations already on offer in that moment. Because what is on offer here? What is the Devil saying to Jesus in this moment, in the desert (or wherever he took him)?
He’s saying, “You know, there is an easier way. I know what you want to do, I know what you’re trying to do. Did it occur to you that you might be taking the convoluted path, that there might be a smoother option? A way of leading, maybe not by example, but by power? You have the power, Jesus, you know that. You could show them what you can do. You can perform the miracles. You can throw yourself off the Temple and the angels would descend to save you, and wouldn’t that just wow ’em? You’d have them eating out of the palm of your hand. And yeah, I get that you don’t want to turn the rock into bread, because that would just be feeding you, but what about for the sake of your ministry? How about a miracle? Wouldn’t that make life easier? You want those people out there? Because I can give them to you. You want their hearts and minds? I can get that for you. And I can do it in a way that isn’t going to take all the work, it isn’t going to take the pain. Because you know what pain is, now, don’t you? You’re hungry, aren’t you. You want the easy way?”
In that moment, that has got to sound so much easier than what Jesus knows lies ahead of him. Maybe not longer lasting – maybe the easy way is the short-term solution. But in that moment, out there fasting in the desert, you have to wonder if the hard way is going to last any longer. Even if Jesus goes all the way to the cross, is it actually going to last any longer than the memory of the miracle of the angels rescuing the guy who was falling from the Temple?
Because that’s the problem with temptation. It just all sounds so reasonable.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about God, it’s that while God is all-knowing, and all-powerful, and all-loving… nowhere is it written that God is all-reasonable.
Reason is a human thing, not a divine thing. Reason is a measure of our human understanding. Let’s remember that not all that long ago, the idea that the earth revolved around the sun was unreasonable. God is not calling us to be reasonable beings. God is not calling us to common sense – there’s precious little of that in the Bible, either, quite frankly. God is calling us to love. And love is not reasonable. And love is not common sense. And love is not something we do out of human nature.
Human nature, in this moment, is exactly where we find Jesus. Totally pulled into this human body that is, in that moment, suffering. Can you imagine forty days of fasting? There is nothing going on in Jesus’ head, other than what is going on – or not going on – in Jesus’ stomach. There is just no way. There is no way he can be thinking about much beyond when the next meal is going to happen. He is not battling an external projection of evil; he is not battling a Vader or a Voldemort with light-sabers or wands or whatever we need to make this story really awesome. He’s battling his stomach. He’s battling that little voice within us all, that little one that says, “Well… but… what if?” He’s battling the knowledge that this road that he is starting down is going to be really, really hard. That people won’t always hear him. That he’s going to be upending the status quo and that that is not going to be popular – oh, man, is that going to be unpopular because there is no way that such a thing is ever going to be popular – and that it’s probably going to end him up in even worse pain than forty days without food.
He’s battling the little voice of fear that must pop up in moments like that: fear that no one is going to listen, that no one is going to hear him, that nothing is going to happen – no matter how he goes out and preaches, that the crowds won’t come, that maybe humanity is already too far gone.
He’s battling that little voice of doubt. That’s not a little voice in this story, it’s the loudest voice in this story, did you hear it? The Devil says to Jesus, “IF you are the Son of God, take that rock, turn it into bread, and feed yourself. Think you can do it? Are you sure? IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the Temple. You know what’s promised, you know what will happen. Or don’t you quite believe it? Are you willing to take that risk? Are you really the Son of God, Jesus? Would the Son of God be this hungry right now?” The Devil throws them like darts into a suffering body: “IF… IF God will provide… IF? IF God will save you… or any of us…”
It’s a familiar moment, it’s a human moment in a hungering body, when divine power seems no more than temptation itself. when all those voices stop sounding like fear, and start sounding like common sense.
Maybe, in this moment, we can all remember how those old Good vs. Evil stories really go: how Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side to protect his love and unborn child. How even Dumbledore, in the story – the good guy, the one we all looked up to – flirted with the power that he was given, and considered turning it to evil purposes. Maybe in this moment, we can realize that the Devil never, actually, is external.
And we find ourselves now in Lent. Lent, the forty days before Easter when, in memory of that forty-day fast, we, too, give things up. When, in memory of that human hunger, we deprive ourselves, even in small ways. Or we add things into our schedules – because we assume he wasn’t just fasting, out there in the desert, but that he was praying; and so we add a new prayer practice, or we add service, or we add acts of loving-kindness, and we make those our Lenten disciplines. And they’re all good – don’t get me wrong, if any of that sounds like what you have decided to do this Lent, I will not discourage you from acts of loving-kindness! But over the course of forty days, there will come that moment, it happens to all of us, when we’re tempted to cheat, just a little bit. When we’re tempted to suspend those rules that we set for ourselves because after all, we’re the ones who set the rules, so we can bend them, it’s not a big deal. We weren’t thinking ahead, that’s all, there has to be some sort of reasonable clause in there for unforeseen circumstances, for the unexpected…
And in that moment, Lent can begin.
Because there comes a point in all of it when we find ourselves saying, “Well, yeah, I suppose that makes sense…” When the external voices stir up internal fears and doubts, and another way forward seems so much smoother and easier… and Lent can begin.
Lent can begin at any point, not only during this particular set of forty days, but Lent can begin when each of us on this path can recognize the fears that each and every one of us carries. When we recognize that little voice of doubt that will not leave us alone. When we find ourselves questioning God’s provision, God’s abundance and God’s care. Maybe we even question the idea that God is, in fact, all-loving. Or we question whether God actually understands our fears and our doubts, when we wonder if God will actually forgive us, this time.
Lent will begin, for each of us, when we recognize the voice that is within, that little Devil-whisper that occurs in every human heart. It will begin when we are ready to stand up and square off against that voice, to hold ourselves firmly in the path that God has set for us, even though it’s not going to be the easy way. When we are willing to trust that people will come, that the money will be there, that we’re all going to be okay in the end, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. That we, as individuals, as the church, as a community, can not only live, but thrive, if we can just stop acting out of a place of fear.
Lent will begin when we can realize that the story of Good vs. Evil – that ubiquitous story through all of human experience, is our story – each and every one of us individually. That there aren’t light sabers or wands or excitement. That getting rid of the personification of evil isn’t necessarily going to help. That we are going to be consistently doing battle throughout our lives with the little, quiet, compelling voice from deep within us.
Lent will begin with our willingness to face that voice, to recognize it, to name it… and to say No.