In the Name...
Two young monks both wanted to smoke during Lent and decided to ask the abbot. The first asked, but was told no. The second came out of the abbot’s office and lighted up. His friend asked, "Why did the abbot allow you to smoke and not me?" His friend replied, "Because you asked if you could smoke while you prayed, and I asked if I could pray while I smoked."
Every Lent, we start off with the same old story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. I suppose most of us know it off by heart now. And we've probably all heard enough sermons about how as we're coming into Lent we should give up something as a personal discipline so that we can resist temptation as Jesus did. We've probably heard enough of those kinds of sermons because they miss the real point of what the story is trying to tell us. The Gospel writers didn't know about Lent, so, they weren’t sending us any penitential messages. What they knew was the life of Jesus and they were focused on what the life and experiences of Jesus meant for the salvation of the world.
So, this morning, I'm going to ask you to go back in time, with me and join me in the desert. I'm also going to do something very risky and ask you to close your eyes while I speak. I know there's a risk you'll fall asleep but you might want to stay awake because I'm not going to be speaking words of God as preachers usually do. I'm going to speak the words of Satan to Jesus. I'm going to be the voice of the tempter and I want you, with your eyes closed, to imagine yourselves as Jesus. So, let’s begin.
"Shalom, Jesus. Can we have a word? Let me help you out here and make your job easier. I know you want to bring these humans a message of freedom. Forget it. I know these humans. They don't really want freedom. They just want something easy to worship.
Look, I've got it all figured out. See these stones? Change them into bread. Go ahead. Turn stones into bread and Mankind will love you for it. They'll come running after you like dogs - grateful, obedient. They'll follow anyone who feeds them. That's all they really want. Satisfy Man’s hunger and he will be yours forever. After all, don't people expect that the Messiah will be a great provider? Let them have what they want. Man is too weak for what you want to offer.
Or better yet, try power and security. Man loves that. He respects the strong. Loose a few thunderbolts. Crush a few armies. Take for yourself Caesar's purple robe. Remember, Jesus, Caesar did not declare himself to be a god. The people did. They raised him up because he brought them peace to go about their business and live their lives. Just think what you could do. Destroy the corrupt and warring rulers. Give the world peace and security such as the world understands. After all, don't people expect that the Messiah will be a great king? Let them have what they want. Man is too weak for what you want to offer.
Or spectacle. That's always an option. Man loves to be entertained. Leap from the pinnacle of the Temple. Come down from the Cross. Give Man a heavenly show complete with angels and trumpets. Man will bow down to that. He always does. Give him spectacle and celebrity. After all, don't people expect the Messiah to descend from Heaven? Let them have what they want. Man is too weak for what you want to offer.
Give in to their hopes, their expectations, and their desires. Be charitable. Don't frighten them with new things. Don't make them responsible for great things. Conform. And then you will have joined them in worshipping me."
You can open your eyes now.
Take a moment to blink and reflect. Maybe, we can say that Satan was trying to open Jesus' eyes about human reality. Bread, security, entertainment - all ways that Jesus could succeed in gaining our undying loyalty. After all, what do most people say they really want in life?
Just thinking back, there was once a time when it was common to hear evangelical preachers on TV and radio attack Wall Street and Washington because of a belief that those institutions symbolized secular values opposed to the spiritual values of the Gospel. It was more common, that is, to hear such sermons before 9/11, but Osama bin-Laden believed that secular values threatened his religion, as well.
The point is that every religion is going to be at odds with the world. Spiritual values will always be at war with material values. Greed will always be opposed to Charity; Gluttony to Moderation; and Anger to Forgiveness. Billy Graham has made this point many times when he says that there is no such thing as a Christian society. There are only Christians in society and society is at its most dangerous to Christians when it tries to use the Bible to justify our human desires, just as Satan tried in his debate with Jesus.
I'm going to use a really weird, absolutely true example to make this point. Today, we take it for granted that whales are nice animals and should be protected, but, bizarre as this may sound, the leaders of the 19thC whaling industry believed that killing whales was God's work he had entrusted to Man. If you read the stuff they were writing, back then, they believed God cursed the whale in the Bible and, so, the more whales we killed, the happier that made God.
And, in the early 20thCentury, factory owners tried to use Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard as an argument against Social Security.
Now, we might chuckle at that today but, there are lots of other ways today in which Satan helps us justify pride, hate, greed, excess, and the other deadly sins by finding the right Bible verses out of context. The name “Satan”, after all, means “deceiver.”
Yes, Satan was right in his assessment that we are weak creatures and are as weak today as we were when he got Adam and Eve to eat the apple. But, the reason Jesus rejected his blandishments was because he knows that's not the end of the matter and that's something Satan hopes we never find out. Satan hopes we never find out that, in St. John Chrysostom's words, "Man is a creature who has received a command to become god." "Man is a creature who has received a command to become god."
That is, Man has been created to rise above this material world and enter into spiritual places. Yes, Man is born weak, but, has been given strength in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and all the deceit of Satan cannot stand when that strength is used. That's why God did not give up on us when he had the chance because He believes in us. He believes in us because of what He knows we can become.
So, this Lent, let's think about that belief of His. What can we do to prove God right and Satan wrong?
In the Name...