Sunday, March 9, 2014

The First Temptations of Christ (and Us): First Sunday in Lent

I couldn't go to church today.  A nasty head cold that has settled into my chest made me think twice about getting up early, showering, and driving the 45-minutes it takes for me to get to St. Thomas.  I figured it was better for me, and everyone that would have been sitting around me, if I stay home today, and simply do the readings in my sick bed.  

But doing lessons and such at home on Sunday feels so incomplete to me.  So, dear reader, you get to do church with me!  Isn't that fun?  

Let's start with the Collect of the Day... aptly called, "The First Sunday in Lent"

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The collects are just what they sound like: the collective prayer that encompasses what we are going to hear in the readings that make up the Liturgy of the Word.  And I suppose this is why today we started with the second creation story of Adam and Eve, in which our first couple fall prey to the temptation to eat of the tree in the middle of the garden, the very tree that God said, "Don't get near that tree."  This account of "the fall" is then paired with the Gospel lesson from Matthew of Jesus' temptation out in the wilderness.  Bridging these two stories is St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, in which he does what I might call a theological reflection on both of these accounts.  Paul argues that while Adam's (and by the same token Eve's) acts of disobedience and using their free will to do the one thing God said not to do resulted in sin and death for all, Jesus' ability to resist temptation and ultimately follow God's lead to the cross has resulted in righteousness and life for all.   This isn't the order of how these things get presented in church, so we get Paul's synthesis before we hear the Gospel.  But it still seems to me that this is the over-arching theme: free will gives us the choice of eternal life or eternal death.  And, as God said to the Hebrew people through the words of the Deuteronomist, "Choose Life."

Jesus' moment of temptation happens very early on in the Matthew account of his life and ministry.  Remember that just moments before this event in the wilderness, Jesus was at the Jordan River being baptized, and hearing in his ears, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!"  It is after this moment with the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove that Jesus is led by this same Spirit into the wilderness where he faces the temptation to take this power from the proclamation and use it for his own satisfaction.  I think it's important to put this in context because I think it says something powerful to anyone who strives to walk with God: the minute you make that conscious commitment, there will be much to test you on how sincere you'll be in that commitment.  

Out in the wilderness, Jesus is hungry.  Here comes Satan to say, "You're hungry?  Then why don't you, Son of God, turn these stones into bread and feed yourself ?"  Think of what it's like for us sometimes when we're hungry.  How easy is it for us in America to eat empty fast-food calories instead of something home-made and more nutritionally sound?  Jesus responds to this temptation with "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."  We are challenged to feed our bodies, the temples of our soul, with something more balanced than a McDonald's hamburger.

Satan isn't done.  He takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and tells him, essentially, "Jump, Son of God!  The angels will catch you and bear you up, so that no harm comes to you."  Again, consider what this is like for us.  How are we tempted to take chances with our lives in the belief that we are immortal, invincible, the Gods of our own destiny?  I know for me, I have done some things that, in retrospect, were dangerously stupid.  When I was a teenager, I could have easily thrown myself from a footbridge on my prep school campus.  As a young adult, I didn't always do a cost-benefit analysis of my actions when I got behind the wheel of a car.  And I certainly didn't give much thought to accepting the reporting assignment to witness an execution.  Jesus answered the Tempter with, "Do not put The Lord God to the test."  He knew that he was a mortal, and throwing himself from the pinnacle of the Temple was testing God to step in and make a dramatic save.  Not gonna happen, and Jesus knew it.

Satan, determined to make Jesus succumb to his human ego, then shows him all the cities of the world.  This could all be yours, says the Tempter, if you will fall down and worship me.  Key word in this statement, I believe, is that Satan wants Jesus to worship "me."  Me, meaning the ego: that sense that we can live apart from God and be the Kings and Queens of all the world.  This is a huge test for the humaness of Jesus, just as it is in our own lives.  Worship "Me" and believe that all that you accomplish is because you are so smart.  Worship "Me" and amass a fortune to satisfy "Me".   Worship "Me" and forget about you.  Or you.  Or you.  This is all about "Me."  We are always tempted to follow self-serving interests.  Just look at the state of our health care, elder care, day care.  If you have means, you might be OK.  And if you have means, then the last thing you might want to do is help out the person who is less financially able.  That wouldn't be all about "Me" now, would it?  Jesus, who I can imagine is quite weary at this point, blasts at his Tempter to get lost, "Away with you, Satan, for it is written, 'Worship The Lord your God and serve only him.'"   What do we do when faced with this temptation to follow the will of the ego?

Now, we can always say, "Oh, well, but he's Jesus.  He won't sin because he's God."  But I believe the reason this event occurs in the Gospel following his baptism is that Jesus, the human, must come to know for himself the types of temptations that are always before humans, the very things that will pull us away from God.  This is all part of the refining of Jesus in preparation for his ultimate task, so that he can set his face toward Jerusalem and not be afraid.

The diviners of the Lectionary begin our Lenten season with this collection of Scripture to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.  Perhaps the purpose is to highlight for us that choice that still is with us: we can choose the path of Adam and Eve, or we can choose the path of Jesus.  We can fall into the temptation of sin and death or we can live into the free gift of righteousness and life.   Both of these choices are always with us.  Choose life.

And now I must go prepare my own Liturgy of the Table: cinnamon toast and a plastic cup of Robitussin.  You're invited to a better meal to remind you of the goodness of God!        


fr dougal said...

Good points: do look after yourself in the next wee while, that cold may be a reaction to all the stress of bereavement, so take care of yourself a bit. Communion with God can be just as real when you let yourself be ministered to rather than push yourself to go to Church. Get well soon.

SCG said...

Thanks so much, fr dougal. I'm sure grief opened the door to knocking me down with this nasty cold. I'm hoping good rest, and good tea, will help do the trick.