Luke 4:1-13; First Sunday of Lent
February 14, 2016
“Turn these stones to bread.”
“Worship me to gain power over the kingdoms of this world.”
“Fall from the pinnacle so we can all watch the angels swoop in and rescue you.”
These are the temptations the devil throws out to Jesus in the wilderness. They are temptations about power: to control the natural world, to control the people of the world, to control God. How much ego would someone have to have to give in to these temptations?
During a political season, it’s not hard to find examples of people who have given in to the temptations of ego. Any day of the week you can hear a news story about a candidate claiming unreasonable powers; you can see candidates bowing down to various and sundry devils in an attempt to gain power over the kingdom of the United States; you can cringe as one candidate after another tries to prove that God is on their side.
And it’s not just politicians. I told Joey that if we had a projector here, I would be tempted to show the smirking face of Martin Shkreli—the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals who raised the price of an AIDS drug by 5,000%. That seems a good visual example of sinful ego, of misuse of power. The face of someone quite wealthy, quite comfortable, who really doesn’t care that he is essentially denying needed medical care to those less well-off.
“Take what you want.”
“Set your integrity aside to gain power over people.”
“Show us that God loves you best.”
These are temptations of ego. Temptations that are easy to fall into for those who believe that they truly are special, that the rules don’t apply to them, that God really does love them best.
Yes. These are temptations of ego. Unless . . . Unless we pay closer attention to the way the devil introduces the first and third temptations: “If you are the son of God . . .”.
That little pesky word “if.” “If” doesn’t play so much to the ego as to the insecurities. “If” is a claim that we have to prove ourselves, prove our worth, prove that God loves us. “If” is not born out of ego, but out of fear that we are not enough.
This week I came across a story from last summer about 13-year-old Izabel Laxamana who killed herself by jumping off a bridge. Some people blame her dad, who had cut her hair as punishment for her sending a sexy photo of herself to a boy. Some people blame peers who bullied and ridiculed her. A note she left suggests she was ashamed for sending the picture and worried that it would haunt her the rest of her life.
First, please hear this: I am not saying that Izabel was sinful, that her suicide, or any suicide, was shameful. Suicide is not shameful, it is tragic. And it is often the result of clinical depression, which is a disease, not a personal failure or a sin.
In Izabel’s particular story, mixed up with whatever mental health concerns she was dealing with; mixed up with all of the complexities of family life and school life and being a teenager in general—mixed in with everything else is a story of a troubled girl giving in to the temptation of the “if”s. “If you want to be popular . . . “ “If you want this boy to like you . . .” “If you were really a good daughter . . .”
That’s one of the problems of the “if”s. They contradict each other. What you might do if you want the devil to give you power over the world will be different from what you will do if you want to prove God loves you. What you might do if you want the boy to like you might be different from what you do if you want to be a good daughter. We can never satisfy all of the “if”s. We can never prove ourselves worthy of everyone.
We can’t even prove that we are children of God. We are. Of course we are. But it’s not something we can prove. Jesus was able to resist the devil’s temptations because he didn’t feel the need to prove his identity. He didn’t fall prey to the lure of the “if.”
So here is a true “if” statement. If we do not recognize our inherent worth as human beings, as people of God, we will be very susceptible to the tricks of the devil. Now, my understanding of the devil—in this story and in life today—is basically along the lines of what Biblical scholar N.T. Wright suggests: The devil as “as a string of natural ideas” in our heads that “are plausible, attractive, and make, as we would say, a lot of sense.”1
Still, as we think about temptation, about our propensity to do the thing that is NOT the most helpful, the most healthy, the most loving, as we think about the devils in our world, it can sometimes be helpful to imagine the internal voice as an external figure skulking around the wilderness.
Whatever we think of the devil, we all know the feeling of temptation. And we can agree, I suspect, that if our egos are too big, we can tumble into temptation head first. AND, if we don’t think enough of ourselves, we can slip and slide from giving in to one temptation and then another, trying desperately to get external validation for our internal worth.
There is a Jewish saying that I think about often—particularly in the season of Lent that begins with Ash Wednesday. It is attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa:
Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need.
When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”
But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”
“For my sake the world was created.”
“I am but dust and ashes.”
In the end, of course, both are true.
The temptations can trip us up on either end–if we spend too much time reading the note in one pocket and forget about the note in the other.
It is true for individuals. People who think too much of themselves and people who think too little of themselves are all miserable in their own unique ways.
It is also, I think, true of churches. Churches that are all praise choruses and prosperity, positive-thought preaching simply don’t ring true—and don’t accomplish the work of the Gospel. But, of course, neither can every day be Ash Wednesday.
We remember we are ashes, and then we wash the smudges off of our foreheads and get on with doing the work God calls us to do and living the life God calls us to live.
“Take what you want,” says the devil.
“God provides for everyone’s needs,” says Jesus.
“Set your integrity aside to gain power over people,” says the devil.
“You already have power over yourself, which is the only power you need,” says Jesus.
“Show us that God loves you best,” says the devil.
“God is love. Just trust that,” says Jesus.
“If you are the child of God . . .” says the devil.
“We are all dearly beloved children of God,” says Jesus.
Thanks be to God.