Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lent 1

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Roman 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

In our Gospel for today we are told that
“When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from [Jesus] for a time.”
Every temptation?
We are only told of three.
But there is a sense in which
these three temptations
contain within themselves
the fundamental pattern of all temptation,
a compact description of the different ways
our desires can be led astray,
a kind of encapsulation
of the devil’s comprehensive strategy of enticement.

The devil begins
with the most basic form of human desire:
our need to satisfy our bodily cravings.
As animals we have natural physical yearnings
for food and for drink,
for sleep and for sex.
So he says, “You are hungry;
turn these stones into bread.”
Surely there is nothing wrong with this.

The devil then moves on
to a subtler human desire:
the desire for wealth and power,
not to satisfy an immediate need,
but to secure our lives
from the whims of fortune and chance.
He says, “Here is all of the world’s
power and glory;
reach out and take it
and you will never worry about hunger again.”
Surely there is nothing wrong with this.

Finally, the devil appeals
to perhaps the subtlest of human desires:
not a material need at all,
but the quest for human recognition and admiration.
He says, “Throw yourself off of the Temple
and when the angels catch you up
all people will acclaim your power
as God’s anointed.”
Surely there is nothing wrong with this.

The temptations grow ever more refined,
from the satisfaction
of our basic animal desires,
through the desire for the security
bought by wealth and power,
to our need to be admired
and thought highly of.

My own experience of the enticement of evil
is that it matches up pretty well
with these three temptations.
All too often
I let my immediate physical needs
override any concern I should feel
for my long-term well-being,
my attention to those things
that go beyond my simple animal cravings.
All too often
the promise of the latest glittering technological toy
and the diversion and security it promises
keeps me from asking questions
about how my resources could be spent
so as to best aid those
who lack life’s basic necessities.
All too often
I act in ways designed to make me appear
impressively clever or competent
in the eyes of others,
so that I can hide from them
(and from myself)
the many ways in which
I can be quite foolish and hapless.
There are certainly other ways of describing
how evil gets its hooks in us,
but these three temptations
do a pretty comprehensive job of it for me.

Yet in this holy season of Lent
our tradition offers us
an equally comprehensive plan
for combatting these temptations.
The three fundamental practices
of the Lenten season—
fasting, almsgiving, and prayer—
can serve as an antidote to these temptations.
Fasting teaches us
to curb our immediate physical cravings
so that they do not dominate and control us.
Almsgiving trains us out of the habit
of desire for control through acquisition
by training us into habits
of generosity toward others.
Prayer requires us to set aside our vanity
as we call upon the God before whom we are needy,
the God who is not at our beck and call,
and to ask for God’s help
for ourselves and those we love.
In the face of the devil’s
comprehensive plan of temptation,
Lent offers us a comprehensive plan
for resisting that temptation.

Now I have some good news
and some bad news about all this.

First the bad news:
you will fail.
Your fasting
will probably not make you less gluttonous;
your almsgiving
will probably not make you less greedy;
your prayer
will probably not make you less vain.
And, even if they do,
they will not make you immune
from future temptation.
The Lent disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer
simply don’t work as a self-improvement program
and to think that they do
is to fall into that most subtle of temptations:
the temptation to think
that we can fix ourselves,
on our own,
without God.

But now the good news
(and by this I mean
the capital-G-capital-N
Good News of the Gospel):
while Lent might not be a self-improvement program,
God has given us this holy season as an opportunity
for our fasting, almsgiving, and prayer
to invite Jesus Christ and his Spirit
to enter more deeply into our lives
through God’s grace,
to help us recognize our failings
and seek God’s mercy.

Another way to put this
is that God’s answer
to the devil’s comprehensive strategy of enticement
is this Lenten season of God’s comprehensive mercy,
the mercy of Jesus our high priest who,
as the Letter to the Hebrews says,
is able to sympathize with our weaknesses,
because he has been tempted in every way
that we are tempted,
yet without sin.

As we begin Lent,
our Gospel reminds us
that Jesus does not stand aloof
from our temptation,
a distant observer of our struggle
waiting to pass judgment on our failure;
the Good News is
that he has entered into that struggle
to fight on our behalf,
that he has triumphed
over the power of evil’s allure,
that he invites us to share in his victory
through repentance and forgiveness,
that his mercy endures forever.