Lent begins

Christians begin Lent with the reading of the temptation of Jesus. Reports of the temptation of Christ appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke. There are small variations in the details, but the basic story is the same. Jesus goes into the wilderness and fasts for forty days. During that time he is tempted by the devil. The devil suggests that he use magical powers to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. The devil offers power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world. The devil suggests that Jesus jump from a high place to see if angels will rescue him. Luke’s gospel reports both Jesus and the devil quoting scripture to support their arguments.

These stories are rarely used as examples of the humanity of Christ. They are told as stories of Jesus’ amazing restraint, or of his capacity to endure 40 days of fasting, or of his ability to discern the presence of the devil. Rarely are they told to illustrate the simple fact that every human being faces temptations and that Jesus wrestling with those temptations is part of the simple fact that he was human.

Artists depicting the story often draw the devil as a human who has horns or other distinctive features that make it seem rather easy to identify the tempter. Storytellers like to make it a clear cut case of knowing what is good and what is evil as if the choice were simple. In this life, however, the arguments of evil are often subtle and it isn’t a matter of a cartoon characters with horns and a tail sitting on your shoulder.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of humans who compromise with evil. To be human is to be tempted.

For a preacher the most familiar texts are often the most challenging because we think that we have already discovered the meanings in the stories. Taking our tradition seriously, however, requires us to take a second and a third look at the stories that we tell every year. There is a reason why we begin the season of preparation for Easter with the story of Jesus’ temptation. There is a reason why understanding Jesus as fully human is a critical element of our faith. Those reasons may be challenging to discover.

One of the temptations for interpreters of the texts is to over simplify. There have been thousands of sermons preached about being tempted by food and power and prestige. There have been plenty of preachers who make the choices seem simple: Good verses evil. Make your choice. Fewer sermons take a look at Jesus as making difficult choices. The challenge of the choices is obvious when you look at the story. It took 40 days. This was not some overnight choice. It was not a conclusion that was reached in the brief exchanges that are reported. There is a lot going on behind the scenes in this story. Luke’s version is the longest and he has the story completed in 13 verses. With the bible there is always more to the story.

In this life real people make real compromises with evil. They justify their behavior by claiming that their intent was necessary. They were “forced” into a particular choice. After all everyone has to eat. Food is necessary for life. People justify their choices by saying that they are seeking the greater good. The kingdoms of the earth are corrupt and people suffer because of the choices of cruel and evil governments. Jesus being in charge of all of the kingdoms is something for which Christians have prayed. Jesus resists that form of exercising his power and authority. Few people can resist the seductive lure of power and authority. They convince themselves that they will be good rulers and and that their positions of power are earned or deserved.

There are a thousand sermons that have yet to be preached in this familiar story. The challenge for a preacher, however, is not that of finding something that hasn’t been previously said. It is the challenge of making a real connection between the lives that worshipers live and the Gospel text. What can be said that helps people make a connection?

In many of the stories of the Gospels that we tell over and over, the connection lies in the full humanity of Jesus. It is not that Jesus somehow possessed superhuman powers. It is not that Jesus could work miracles. It is that Jesus understood fully what it means to be human. Jesus wrestled with difficult decisions. Jesus faced times of not knowing what is best. Jesus considered options that would have had dramatically different results. But we don’t tell the story of the miracle of stones turned into bread when we talk of Jesus. Jesus made choices and then lived with the consequences of those choices. Jesus was human and the stories of Jesus can help us understand what it means to be human. Instead of focusing on the ways Jesus is different from us, perhaps our lesson comes from understanding how similar Jesus is to us.

Our tradition places this story at the beginning of Lent each year in part to explain the length of the season. Easter is coming, but there are 47 days of preparation first. We, too, will be presented with choices and temptations. We, too, will need to make decisions with consequences. We, too, will have a long and sometimes hungry journey if we take Lent seriously.

The Gospel of Luke ends the story of Jesus temptation in the wilderness by saying that when the devil had ended the temptations, he departed from Jesus “until an opportune time.” Even when Jesus had successfully resisted the temptations, he was not fully free from the presence of evil. One of the big temptations for humans is to think that we’ve conquered our temptations and therefore are beyond making wrong choices. The reality is that evil is always lurking and we are tempted over and over again.

We need Lent every year. Over and over again. There is yet more truth to be revealed from these stories.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!