The Endless Well of Temptations
In our Gospel from Matthew this morning, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. Now any Jewish reader hearing this story, and hopefully, you, as long time Christians, would recognize the familiar pattern here from the Old Testament. First, we have God leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the desert. There they face trials and temptations to do with their literal survival: where’s my food, water and shelter, where’s my power to control my own fate, get rid of my enemies and take over the land I should have as the people of the almighty God.
Second, we have God giving his faithful servant Job over to Satan. Job loses everything – his livelihood, his reputation, his contentment. God stakes his claim on Job though, and tells Satan that even though Job will be tempted by his wife, his friends, the expectations of his culture and his society, he will not lose his faith in God. God is correct, albeit, as the book unfolds, we see Job’s own deep struggle, including with God, to stay afloat on the ol’ boat of faith.
Likewise, in our Gospel, it is God himself, the Person of the Holy Spirit, who leads Jesus out into the desert where he’s tempted by all the things the Israelites, Job, and you and I are tempted with: substituting our own desires, mitigating our fears, trusting in things and people who give us power, control and prestige, rather than waiting on God’s provision, God’s direction and God’s way for us. If you’re the Son of God, turn these stones into bread, jump from here and let the angels save you and turn from God to me Satan says. Jesus replies that a person doesn’t live on bread alone but on the Word of God. God knows that we need to eat and drink, he knows we need shelter, safety, security, land, and love.
But these things will never satisfy us if we don’t first prioritize God in how we go about obtaining them. The difficulty is that if we don’t prioritize God first, our pursuit of what we need will become an obsessive, consumerist, and ultimately idolatrous pursuit of securing ourselves at any cost, whether that comes at the cost of others lives, their value, worth, security and safety or not. And to satisfy ourselves, we'll have to keep going back to the well, as it were, over and over and over.
In short, if we do not prioritize God in how we obtain these things, we run the risk of our idolizing the things of this world far beyond our own needs in such a way that we end up harming or destroying our neighbour and we violate the second and so then the first commandments. Don’t believe me, look at the history of human efforts to obtain goods of food, clothing, gasoline, or land.
Our real difficulty isn’t necessarily in falling to the temptations we’re aware of. Rather when things get difficult, when we feel afraid, or frustrated, or challenged, or angry, we’re simply more liable to fall to the temptations that have become a justified habit, or a consistent way that we tend to respond to people or events.
What God shows us in Christ, foretold in Job’s life and Israel’s too, is that he is not just with us, but allows us to endure testing and temptation, so that we can learn the humility of Job and Christ. So that we will turn to God first when determining how to respond. So throughout Lent we find these stories where we encounter figures who humble themselves before God by confessing their temptations, their habits, known and unknown, and where they ask God to reshape their hearts so they can think and act in accordance with Christ’s own way, his response to Satan. Lent is not the time for us to “do something.” Rather it is the time for us to let go, to give up, and to allow God in so he might remake us in his image. AMEN.