First Sunday of Lent
“The Gift of Temptation”
Rev. Elder Ken Martin
Modern Christians, from the pew to the seminary classroom, love to debate whether the “devil” is real or just an ancient myth. We all know the popular images, from Flip Wilson’s “The devil made me do it” to the ubiquitous presence in contemporary advertising and culture of a red-suited, pitch-fork carrying, forked-tailed, sulpher-breathing creature, selling everything up to and including potted meat products, which have seriously trivialized and may have almost obscured the reality with which Jesus battled in the desert.
What I believe in…whatever we call it…is the reality of evil: a reality that despises God and everything that is good, loving and just. I believe in it because I have stood face to face with it, and I believe in it because I don’t know how else to explain the world in which we live.
The word in today’s text that is translated “devil” is diabolos. Literally, it means “the separator”…something that separates what should not be separated, something that breaks what should remain in tact, something that fragments what should remain unified, something that destroys what should remain whole.
Gray Temple, an Episcopal Priest, writes in his book, When God Comes:
The Saturday before I was to preach on verses referring to the devil, I was standing in my bedroom, musing on the passage, frustrated that I didn’t really understand the reference. So, without giving the consequences much thought, I asked Jesus, “What is the devil stuff really about?” As usual, a whole lot happened nearly at once. I felt myself being coated with the love of God — as if warm oil were being poured all over me, and as though I were being embraced from behind. But almost simultaneously, the very air in front of me seemed to slit open like a curtain, revealing an appalling pitch dark void. As I looked into it, I realized that something alive lurked inside. But the malignancy at the bottom of the pit was vast — larger than the very solar system — and filled with a seething hatred that resembles nothing I have experienced on earth. That impotent raging hatred is aimed at God. You and I are of little interest to it — except that in hurting us it might cause discomfort to God. My initial reaction was abject terror, like a rabbit cornered by a wildcat. But I managed to plunge through the bottom of my terror and discovered a profounder sadness than I’d ever known. It broke my heart that a universe as lovely as ours should contain something so utterly loathsome. I spoke to Jesus again, groping to articulate the insight he’d given me. “When you died on the cross, it was to break the power of that — it was to hurl yourself into the pit, to dare it to take its best shot at you — right?”
“Yes,” he said.
“When you died on the cross, you were really looking over your shoulder at that — weren’t you?”
“Yes,” he said.
It was with this Spirit of Separation, this evil that despises God and what is good, that Jesus contended in the desert. It seems strange to us that God would be leading Jesus into this temptation instead of out of it. But that word has two meanings: it means to tempt and to test. And here is a possible difference: to tempt is to entice someone to do what is wrong; to test is to give a person the opportunity to do what is right. To tempt is to hope for failure; to test is to hope for success.
That is why I am suggesting this experience could be a gift. Because people are like steel. We don’t know what we are made of until we are tested. Every temptation is a fork in the road…it is as much a chance to rise as to fall, to go forward as to go back. God intends to test Jesus, but as always, there was another team on the field. So the outcome is uncertain until the match is over.
These were Jesus’ tests, but they may not necessarily be ours. His were first physical hunger, then making God prove Godself through miracles, then giving in to the desire to have everything without following the path God set for him. While they might not be ours, we can relate to them, can’t we? Here is how they might look in our lives today…first, do we really trust God to provide for all our needs? Then, is our faith strong enough to survive even without proof? And finally, do we accept and celebrate the path God has given us in this life, or do we pretend to be someone else because being the person God created us to be seems just too hard sometimes?
These were Jesus’ tests because they were the things most likely to separate him from God and God’s will for his life. It is up to you and me to discern the recurring situations in our lives that test us.
The Separator said to Jesus, “You don’t have to be the person God wants you to be. It’s too hard and there is an easier way.” But Jesus answered, “I will be who God asks me to be, and I will do what God asks me to do.”
What a wonderful way for us to begin this season of intense personal spiritual inventory…by looking honestly, as Jesus did, at the recurring situations that test our commitment to live authentically and, again like Jesus, to recommit ourselves to being exactly and only the person we were created to be.