February 23, 2007 Leave a comment
1 Lent Yr C, 25/02/2007
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
One man was determined to shed some pounds. Soon, however, the agony of deprivation became so intense that he talked himself into thinking maybe God wanted him to have a little relief. He decided to test his theory. He told himself that if there was a parking place in front of the bakery, which was usually crowded with cars, it would mean that, yes, God wanted him to indulge. Well, sure enough, on his tenth trip around the block, there was a parking place right in front of the door.
Temptation—we all face them. If we lived without temptation we wouldn’t be human, or at least we wouldn’t be sinful humans—but we are sinners, and thus we all face temptations. The devil, Satan, old scratch, Cloutie, the powers of evil, whatever you prefer to call him or it, is very real, even though we don’t understand him or it completely. There are some contemporary theologians, biblical scholars, psychiatrists and psychologists who do not have much to say about the devil or evil powers. But I personally think they are quite mistaken, all one has to do is read the front page of the newspaper on practically any day to discover that the devil or the power of evil is very much alive, real and active in the world and in people’s lives. In both Testaments of the Bible, the devil is described as a deceitful, malevolent power at work to destroy the relationship of love and trust between God and human beings. Even more sobering is today’s gospel, which gives us an account of the temptations of Jesus. Now if Jesus who was and is the perfect sinless Son of God, if he was tempted, then definitely you and I are going to be tempted—sinners that we are. So, if that is the case, then let’s have another look at our gospel and see what we can learn from it.
In the first temptation, the first thing to note here is that the devil tempts Jesus not at a time when he is at his strongest—although that can happen too—rather, he is tempted to turn a stone into bread after he had fasted for forty days, and Luke tells us Jesus was famished. This is instructive for us too, for is it not in our weakest moments when evil or the devil catches us off guard that we are tempted? For example, this I think is especially so for folks who struggle with addictions. If you’re struggling with an alcohol or drug problem, then it’s likely going to be more difficult—perhaps even impossible—to resist them if you’re at a party where everyone is over indulging than if you were in an alcohol or drug free environment. We are least able to resist temptations when we are at our weakest.
In the first temptation of Jesus, the devil plays on our Lord’s physical weakness of hunger with the offer of immediate gratification. It places so much emphasis on being rewarded right now, instantly that it confuses our needs with our wants. Our wants become an endless slavery whereby they are the be all and end all for us. Moreover, to be a slave to our immediate gratifications blinds us to the big picture of the consequences of how such behaviour can harm us, others and God’s creation. We have seen the immediate gratification kick spiralling out of control concerning matters of the environment and non-renewable resources. This has increased land, water, and air pollution to unprecedented levels. It has caused all kinds of illnesses; it has endangered many plant and animal species; it has caused social problems; and alienates us spiritually too from one another and from God. It is, in our instant society of goods and services, very difficult to resist the temptation of immediate gratification. However, Jesus, filled with God’s Holy Spirit was able to resist such a temptation.
In the second temptation, the devil offers Jesus worldly and political wealth and power and authority. Reflecting on this, Pastor John Sumwalt tells the following present-day story of this second temptation, as well as the third temptation of placing one’s life in danger for the sake of sensationalism:
The devil came to me the other day, as he often does, and he said, “Preacher, how about joining me for a little walk. It never hurts to walk and talk a little bit, now does it?” I had to admit that I couldn’t see any harm in walking and talking, and so I agreed to walk with him for a little while. He led me out the door of the church and up the street to one of our neighbourhood convenience stores. He took me up to the counter and said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll buy you one of these lottery tickets. He took out his wallet, flashed a large wad of bills, paid the cashier and handed me the ticket. My hands were trembling as I took it. I knew the jackpot this week was $40 million. “Hang on to that ticket and you will be a big winner,” he said. “You won’t have to work another day in your life.” I didn’t want to be impolite, so I discreetly put the ticket into my pocket as we left the store, thinking to myself, “I’ll tear it up later, after he’s gone.”
Then he took me up and showed me all the great pulpits of the church in a moment in time. I saw Riverside Church, and the pulpit of the great Harry Emerson Fosdick, and the Crystal Cathedral in all of its splendour. I imagined myself in a beautiful blue robe, preaching to a television audience of millions. “All of this can be yours,” he said. “I can build you a cathedral even bigger and grander than this one, and you will have more viewers than any other preacher in history. To you I will give all of this authority and glory, for it is mine to give, and I can give it to whomever I choose. If you help elect me Bishop, it shall be yours.”
I gulped as I looked at all those influential pulpits in big churches that are coveted by so many preachers but I want you to know that somehow I managed to say, “No, thank you, I’ll stay here in my little church where I’m loved and appreciated.”
And then the devil took me to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. He let me look through the telescope they have up there at a net he had set up on the pavement below. There was a large crowd gathered around the net. They were chanting, “Go go go, go for it.” I could see the television crews from CBS, ABC and CNN setting up to film the action. “Go ahead, jump,” the devil said. “It’s never been done before. Just think, you will be in The Guinness Book of World Records. There will be endorsements, talk shows, movie contracts. Think of all the souls you will be able to save when you are famous. Don’t worry about the risk. God will keep you safe. Come on, go for it.”
I think that was when I fainted. I’m afraid of heights. And when I came to, the devil was gone, at least for the time being. But I have a feeling that I’ve not seen the last of him.
Come to think of it I still have that lottery ticket….people asked me for months afterwards if I ever scratched off that ticket. I never did.1
The second temptation is to believe in a lie and not believe the truth. The devil DOES NOT have all authority over the worldly kingdoms—Christ does. Christ’s authority is greater and more powerful than the devil’s and thus it is to be trusted. (See Jn 1:1-4; Matt 28:18 & Col 1:16-17)
The third temptation is using sensationalism, the spectacular to dazzle, awe and wow people. It is to tempt or test God by deliberately placing oneself in dangerous situations to entertain people—e.g. to do things like walking across Niagara Falls on a tight rope and other life-threatening stunts.
The power of evil or the devil is a reality, as are our temptations. World history and Church history are full of examples of sinful humans falling into temptations of selfish and abusive power-tripping; placing more value in immediate gratification above all else regardless of the consequences; and the sin of idolatry—worshipping human power, glory and fame instead of God. However, God’s power and the reality of God are greater—that is the message of today’s gospel and that is the message of other Bible passages too. We know that the devil’s power, the power of evil is limited. The Good News is that one day, according to the Bible, the devil, the power of evil shall be defeated. In the meantime, we can learn from Jesus here in this gospel story to keep praying and depending on God for our strength to resist temptations; to remember the promises and truths in the Bible as we face temptations; to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and protect us; to trust in the saving power of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, he has won the ultimate victory over evil. (See e.g. Matt 25:31; Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Rev 2:10; 12:9, 12; 20:2, 10) He will see us through every temptation and evil. (See e.g. Matt 6:13; Heb 2:17-18; Ja 1:12) Amen.
1 John Sumwalt, Lectionary Stories Cycle C: 40 Tellable Tales for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1991), pp. 52-53.