In the Name...
A little girl was learning to say the Lord's Prayer from memory and she was doing quite well reciting it until she came to the line, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from e-mail." I know how she feels.
Temptation. Every year we begin Lent by hearing the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert and the lesson we usually hear is that Jesus was tempted to turn away from God, but, did not give in, and neither should we. End of sermon. In the Name...
Well, that was a short sermon - almost as short as St. Mark's version of the events. If brevity is the soul of wit, then St. Mark is nothing if not the soul of brevity. But, it isn't because he's in a hurry to get on to some more important part of the story. It's because his style is to say much in few words, so we need to look closely at what he's written, and what he hasn't written, in order to get out all that he has put into this passage.
And the key thing that St. Mark wants us to know isn't so much that Jesus was tempted, it's that Jesus was lonely and depressed. Loneliness. The feeling of loneliness can be caused by extreme emotional shifts. Lead actors and actresses, for example, say they feel loneliest immediately after the last curtain call while changing in their dressing rooms. They've suddenly gone from an emotional high to a low, and St. Mark's brevity emphasizes for us how that happened to Jesus. There he is in one sentence basking in the glory of God hearing the voice "This is my Beloved Son" and the next he's in a place fit only for wild beasts. Go directly to desert - Do not pass Go - Do not collect 200 shekels.
Now, we may wonder why a desert? We usually think of temptations coming when we're surrounded by material distractions and we often long to "get away from it all" to rid ourselves of temptations. What can possibly happen in a desert? But, the desert is not really such a safe place.
For one thing, there's the silence. The overwhelming silence. You can sit for hours and hear nothing. At least, that's what I hear because my ears are used to a lot of noise, background noise, voices, machines, cars, TV, all the sounds that come from living and working around people who are all busy living and working. Sure, we like a little quiet time to ourselves, a few hours, a day or two even. But, imagine endless quiet, 24/7. It has the potential to be a torture, to unhinge the mind. That's why solitary confinement is considered the worst of all types of imprisonment. And Jesus experienced this silence.
And he experienced it while fasting and that only compounds the mental stress and anxiety. People who have studied hunger say that for the first few days without food the mind remains sharp. Eventually, however, as the body adjusts, severe mental depression sets in. Nothing matters. There is no motivation. And Jesus experienced this depression.
This is what those few words convey. Emotionally, physically, environmentally, Jesus became as isolated and as weak as possible. And it is at this moment that Satan makes his move.
Now, St. Mark doesn't tell us what Satan said, and if we didn't have the other Gospels we wouldn't know the challenges and answers, but, even if this was the only account we had we could still make a pretty good guess about the sort of thing Satan said. How? Well, if we saw somebody lonely, starving, and depressed and we knew they had voluntarily brought it on themselves what would we say? "Hey. Why are you doing this? What are you trying to prove? You're a good person, an important person. You have a family and lots of friends. You're not just hurting yourself, you know. You have a wonderful life ahead of you. So, enough of this pointless exercise. Come back; come back to the real world."
St. Mark doesn't need to tell us the details, because we already know how we think and act and that's the great test Jesus faces in the desert, the test of character.
Character is always tested when we're alone. Somebody once said that when two people meet, there are six characters present. The me you think I am; the you I think you are; the me I think I am; the you you think you are; and finally the real you and the real me and neither of us know them very well at all. So the more people around us the less we have to worry about who we really are. But, when we're alone, we're stuck with me, myself, and I, and that can be very hard to cope with.
Much great literature, from Homer to Hemingway, has focused on the test of a man's character when stripped of all the artificial and societal constructs by which we define ourselves. And not only fiction. Navy LT Gerald Coffee spent seven years as a prisoner in Vietnam under horrific conditions. During his second year in captivity, he said he made an amazing discovery. He had lost everything by which he had measured his life - rank, uniform, family, friends, possessions. And yet, in a three by seven-foot cell, and although he was alone, depressed, and afraid, he discovered, he said, for the first time ever, what Jesus was all about and that gave him a renewed sense of purpose which carried him the rest of the way.
Unfortunately, not all his fellow prisoners made that same discovery. Under those same conditions, some, who had been religious when captured, lost their faith because many Christians have been led to believe that serious hardship or tragedy means that God is angry with them. They begin to wonder, "Where did I go wrong?" or "What have I done to deserve this?" And because there are never any good answers to those questions Satan uses them to isolate and depress us into giving up on God.
Jesus' character was tested and he was indeed tempted to give up, but, not on the Father. Not on God. No. On us. On us. The other Gospels fill in the details but that's basically what this is all about.
The challenge to turn stones to bread was not so that Jesus could cheat on his diet. It was to remind Jesus that people follow anyone who feeds them. The challenge to fly above the temple was to remind Jesus that people follow anyone who entertains them. The challenge to rule all the kingdoms was to remind Jesus that people follow anyone who protects them.
The challenge to Jesus, the temptation, was not to waste his time, let alone his life, on such pathetic and weak creatures as humans. After all, he was the Son of God. He had big, important, things to do ruling the universe. Why bother with us? We're not worth it.
And Satan has a point. It often seems we're nothing to write home about. But, there's one thing he forgot. God loves us. And knowing that in his heart and mind is what gave Jesus the strength of character to reject Satan and all his blandishments. In the desert of loneliness and depression, Jesus affirmed the power of God's love and that gave him a renewed sense of purpose which carried him the rest of the way.
Like Jesus, our characters are tested whenever we try to serve God. Satan will always try to convince us there's no point. The things we’re doing won’t matter or won’t be appreciated. He will test our character with reasonable arguments. He will try to make us feel lonely and depressed. He will do his best, or worst. And yet, if we can only keep in our hearts and minds the truth that God loves us, truly loves us, and that he did not give up on us when he had the chance, then we will have the power to rise above the desert, and overcome, not merely temptation, but ourselves. And that is the greatest victory of all.
In the Name...