During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time. My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction. Our reading for Ash Wednesday came from Matthew 4:1-11.
Do you remember the first time that you and I met? Take a look around the room at the other people you could call friends or acquaintances. How about them? Can you remember the first time you laid eyes on each other?
If you are like me, I would imagine that there are some folk for whom that first meeting stands out with vivid clarity in your mind’s eye. Yet I suspect that most of the people in your life have sort of edged in there gradually. You don’t carry around a first impression so much as you have a sense of who this person has been to you, what this person means to you today, and what hopes you might have for your relationship in the days and months to come. I suspect that for most of us, most of our relationships are a story of returning to the same people again and again and again.
This Lent, we will spend some time in worship getting to know some people who came to Jesus again. The Gospels tell us a number of stories of people who met Jesus once and their lives were changed forever – the Canaanite woman, for instance, or the thief on the cross. Yet there are many stories of people who had an encounter with Jesus, and then walked away from him only to return another day.
Tonight, we begin that exploration by considering the encounter between the devil and Jesus, a reading that is often shared at the beginning of Lent.
And you might be tempted to call a foul on the play and say, “Look, Pastor Dave, you are breaking your own rules! The gospels do not record any prior conversation between Jesus and the devil. How can this be a ‘returning’ story if this is the first time?
Well, I could say that since Jesus is a co-eternal person of the Holy Trinity and since Satan is a fallen angel who despised God’s authority, their fingerprints have been all over each other since the beginning of time.
Or I could point out that the devil begins the conversation by saying, “if you are…” or “since you are the Son of God…”, that presumes a knowledge of and some sort of relationship with Jesus.
Or you could simply throw me a bone and accept the fact that the devil comes back to Jesus three times in this one reading. I think it’s fair to call this a “returning” story.
And on every occasion in this story, the tempter suggests that Jesus would be happier if he believed less about God.
“God is not caring for you the way that you deserve to be cared for. Turn these stones into bread.”
“God is not protecting you as well as you ought to be protected. Prove that you are in control of your own destiny.”
“God can’t give you what you really want. I will.”
Again and again, the tempter returns to Jesus and says, “You know, you really ought to settle for less than that which you were called to be.”
And again and again, Jesus turns back to God. He re-turns to the promise of the Word and anchors himself, his answers, and his hope in God’s word, God’s presence, and God’s power.
I mentioned that this passage is often read at the beginning of Lent, and I would not be the first pastor to claim that this is proof of the fact that Jesus is just like us in that he knows what it means to be tempted. In fact, the unknown author of the book of Hebrews puts it this way: “Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin!”
And that makes sense, I’m sure. However, I have never had the urge to myself off of Mount Washington just to see what would happen. When Sharon and I were driving through the desert last month and I missed lunch, it never occurred to me to grab a boulder and try to turn it into a Big Mac.
However, even though the temptations that I face are not listed in this reading from Matthew, I sure know what it’s like to be tempted, and to hear the suggestion that I, like Jesus, ought to settle for less than God’s best for my life.
How do you deal with temptation in your life? What do you do when you find yourself dealing with a burning desire or a secret sin or wanting something so badly that you’ll do something foolish in order to get it? Allow me to make a couple of suggestions.
First, re-turn to God. Were you distracted? Did you lose focus? Do you know what it means to really blow it, big time? Of course you do. That’s going to happen if you’re human. You are not Jesus. When you find yourself dealing with or even succumbing to temptation, re-orient yourself. Re-turn, and look toward God again. The Biblical word for that is one that sounds really religious: ‘repent’. It means ‘turn around’. Stop looking over there and look over here. The best way to get back on track spiritually is to acknowledge the fact that you’ve gotten off track and re-set your steps.
As you do this, you will find that it is immensely helpful if you are clear about what, and who, you are fighting. Listen: in the passage that we’ve heard from Matthew, the identity of Jesus’ opponent emerges gradually. In verse 3, we’re told that “the tempter” approached the Lord. The Greek word there is peirazon, and it means ‘the one who tempts or tests’.
Later on, in verse 5, we see that the tempter is also diabolos – the slanderer, or the devil. The one who tests is also the one who lies about the nature of reality, God, and yourself. As both the number and frequency of the temptations grows, and as Jesus is bearing an increasing load, he turns and addresses his opponent by name in verse 10: “Away from me, Satan!” Satanas: the adversary has a name: Satan. The Lord calls the tempter by name and reveals him for who he is. I have found that to be an excellent strategy in my own life. When you find yourself facing temptation, think about what is really happening and name the real evil that confronts you.
For instance, if you struggle with food and body image, I’m not convinced that the enemy is named “fat”. I think that there are two lies behind your struggle. On the one hand, there are those who will say that God doesn’t really care about your body, that all God cares about is your soul. On the other hand, there is a lie that far too many of us believe that says we are only lovable if we look a certain way. In either case, the extra piece of pizza or the second helping of mashed potatoes is not the real temptation: the temptation is that you are being asked to believe less than the best about yourself. God isn’t going to love you any more when you are skinny – yet if you are dwelling in a rich and true relationship with God, you accept the notion that how you treat and how you view your body matters – because that body is a gift from God and a way to honor God.
Similarly, you are well aware of the impact of pornography on our culture. You may struggle with porn – but if you do, the worst thing is not that your parents or spouse or boss or pastor will find out what you’ve got on your laptop. The worst thing is that pornography sends out a signal that preys on a deep fear: that somehow, there is no real person who will love me for who I am…and so I am in an imaginary relationship with an assortment of perfect – but unreal – partners… because I do not measure up, somehow.
Do you see what I mean? When you find that you are in the grip of temptation, let me ask you to ask yourself, What am I really afraid of here? What deep need is this desire really uncovering in my life? The problem is the pepperoni or the Penthouse – the problem is that you, like Jesus, are being asked to accept a shadow of something real for which you have been intended. Can you name the real need to which your secret sin, or addiction, or fear, or excess, is pointing? And, having done that, can you re-turn to God in the light of the hope that he offers to meet you in the worst place of your life?
The invitation of Lent is to constantly re-orient yourself in a Godward direction, to wake up once more in a desert place and say, “Well, God, here I am. Again. In this place. Fighting this foe. Heal me, Lord. Fill me. Send me. Use me. Allow me to be the me that you have intended from the foundation of the world, and take away from me anything, however shiny, that is less than your best for me. Just as you sent your angels to attend to Jesus, send me the encouragement that I need this hour.”
The Christian faith is not a “one and done” kind of deal. It is a daily walk, with Christ, that gives us the opportunity to turn, re-turn, and re-re-turn to the Lord. Thanks be to God for that! Amen.