After his baptism, 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. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “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.'”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.Luke 4:1-13
And so we enter into Lent; the broccoli of the Church Year. A time of bitter, bland, spiritual vegetables that everyone knows is good for them, but no one really likes unless you’re crazy, covering it in salt and cheese so it is nutritionally destroyed, or just choke it down grumbling and biding time until the Easter candy comes. Yet to think of Lent merely as something to get through in preparation for Easter, the greens before the dessert, is to do a grave disservice to ourselves, and even worse; to make light of the sufferings our fore-bearers endured that made this season what it is.
Lent as a season was not born out of joy or a calm, comfortable life, but out of blood, treachery, regret, and ultimately, love and reconciliation. For those of you who were here for Ash Wednesday services, the prayer book introduced us to Lent as a time when the first Christians prepared catechumenate, new converts to the faith, for Baptism. Over time Lent also became a time for those who “…because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.” (BCP 265). Who were those people, what were their sins? These sinners were bishops, priests, deacons, monks, and lay Christians. They were known as Traditors, “those who handed over”, the word quite plainly morphed into our modern English term “traitor”. These Traditors were made during the most severe persecution of Christians in history, Started by Emperor Diocletian in an effort to restore Rome to its former glory by returning to traditional religion. Starting at the beginning of the fourth century, lasting only a few years, and ending only when Constantine I won a civil war and began giving state sponsorship to Christianity. But the persecution was brutal enough that it has left an indelible mark on our faith, even though it is now mostly forgotten. Christians had their property seized, were tortured, used as bait to wild animals in colosseum entertainment, executed, humiliated, exiled, impoverished, and more. There were brave people who rather than deny their faith, suffered for their integrity, we know them as the Martyrs. But there was a substantially larger group of people who gave into the Roman authorities.
Part of the reason this particular persecution was so insidious was that there was an easy way to avoid all the suffering. Hand over your bible, and drop a grain of sweet-smelling incense on a small fire made in honor of the emperor. If you were particularly difficult, then you had to give up names of people so that the state could make sure that they were honestly loyal to Rome. A speck of incense is all it took. It’d be so easy, and you don’t even have to mean it! Jesus even said “render unto caesar what belongs to caesar”. If Ceaser wants a speck of incense to show that you don’t plan on causing trouble let him have it! It’s not worth your life, or worse the lives of your family, friends, or the honor of your name is it? That’s what many people did, they handed over their scriptures and gave a speck of incense to save their life and the lives of their family members. They had become traitors.
It was for these people that Lent became less about education and more about penance. Because when the persecutions ended, those who had hid or stayed true to the faith were furious at those who had relented. Answering the crisis is one of the reasons Lent begins with the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. It was chosen partially to punish those who had compromised their faith, but also to prepare the community to receive them once again. This story one of the crucial moments where we get a glimpse of Jesus’ full humanity. Luke chose to summarize all the temptations we face in three offers the devil gives to Jesus.
“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” Here Jesus is tempted by the most basic of human needs, hunger. He’s been fasting for 40 days, he has the power to seize what he wants to end his discomfort. It’s even an opportunity to give a sign, it would be like God sending manna in Exodus! But this temptation isn’t about bread, we let our guard down when we see it as so simple. This is about security. How much are our lives driven by seeking security? Making sure we have enough money, enough to eat, enough stuff, enough insurance to protect our stuff, and so on. If you ask someone how much money they need to be secure, their answer will always be “more”. There’s been some research about this and we have a general figure. Whether you are a millionaire or middle-class, most people will say if they had about 20% more income they would feel financially secure. It’s not about greed, that would be a much simpler temptation, it’s about security. We aren’t always tempted by money to make us feel secure, often the temptation is to prevent becoming our best selves because of our fear. Even if you are so brave as to take risks for existential fulfillment, everyone is going to be trying to put you right back, “don’t trade bread for stones”.
Bill Watterson, the author of the beloved comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, like many artists, faced a difficult decision to give up steady work in advertising and take the risk of writing and trying to get a daily strip published. For a while his family had to primarily rely on his wife’s income. All the while meeting resistance from friends and family. “Aren’t you the man? You should be providing.” “How could this be responsible for your children?” When he did find success, he spent over a year in a legal dispute to keep his characters from being merchandised and turned into profit for his publisher, against his own values. Financially this was spitting in the face of success, opportunities, security he never dreamed of. Turning stones into bread.
But “man does not live by bread alone”.
The Devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” This is the temptation that cut to the heart of the penitent. Because in a world full of the corrupt finding success, and the righteous suffering, it often feels like the Devil really has authority in the world. For those who had relented during the persecution, giving that pinch of incense to Caesar was admitting that God was not the ruler of this world, but rather evil. Underlying this temptation is the question that humanity always struggles with: when to hold fast, and be uncompromising, and when to make concessions for the sake of the greater good, or to accept someone for the sake of love. Or in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers: to “know when to hold em’, know when to fold em’, know when to walk away, and know when to run”. A few years ago there was a “controversy” sparked over the color of starbucks coffee cups. Someone got offended that they took off explicitly Christian phrases and images off the christmas season coffee cups. They felt it was their duty as a Christian to publically lament the secularization of America. Then all the people who dislike Christianity took it as an example of Christians trying to impose their beliefs on others when they are not warranted. Both sides would not sully their integrity by backing down and the whole thing blew up into ridiculous fighting. And you know who won in this whole fiasco? Starbucks. A multimillion dollar company got millions of dollars worth of news coverage and free advertising because suddenly everyone was talking about them. Everyone else lost, because all it did was dig people further into their trenches. Were those who thought themselves defenders of the faith really honoring God? Or were they worshipping something else?
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him”
The last temptation comes straight from our psalm “He will give angels charge over you”. Of all of them, this is the most dire temptation. As with all the others, it’s about far more than it appears, and our recent history clouds our own interpretation. Jesus’ answer that you shall not test God seems legalistic, something he is just parroting because he’s been told to by the Torah. While it is true that this answer, like all of them, is quoting from Deuteronomy, Jesus isn’t parroting back moralisms and ancient laws blindly. Because when we think of testing, we understand it in the scientific sense, “I can’t be sure that God won’t let me die unless I test the hypothesis first”.Testing, as in this context is about not believing in God’s promises. The psalm the devil quotes is praising how much God loves humanity and how God has promised to always be loving, and to always be merciful. While the previous temptation cut the heart of the traitors, this temptation cuts to the heart of the rest of the congregation. By failing to love those who had failed in a time of crisis, or to believe that they were no longer beloved by God because they had betrayed Him, those who held on to grudges were failing to believe in God’s promises.
“You shall not test the Lord God”
Jesus is the culmination of God’s promises, by believing in God’s promises, he is finally ready to begin his mission. The story of Christ’s temptations begin our Lent because they echo throughout the ages. They are universal human experience. They prepare us to go into the world to share God’s love with those who do not yet know it, or have forgotten it. They condemn our wrongs, yet at the same time heal us from the mistakes that we have made. While it is never pleasant to reflect on the sins of our past, or the hurts dealt to us, make this time holy. Make it a time to prepare yourself to change the world. Make it a time to honor all that has been sacrificed for us. Much blood was spent to make this season, just as much blood was spent to win our Salvation.