I’ve come to realize that Lent is good for me. And do you know why? Lent is a season for confession. So here’s one of mine: Lent is not exactly my favorite season of the church year.
But that’s precisely why it’s good for me. Because I initially react negatively to it, perhaps there’s something there to which I need to pay attention. It’s the same as saying, the only way for you to overcome some fear, is not to avoid it but to face it. And go there.
I suppose there is some consolation in believing that if we’re never challenged in our faith, if it never means we struggle with it, if it’s always supposed to be sugar-sweet and easy, if the real bad stuff happens out there with other evil people and never within me – well, in all honesty and truth – red flags should be going up all over the place.
Indeed, the kind of sins and temptations are very personal to you and to me. And subtle. And easily missed.
How is Jesus tempted? You’ll notice the temptations are not bad in and of themselves, really (Luke 4:1-13). The devil doesn’t tempt Jesus to commit murder or genocide, or destroy the lives of good people by duping them into some ponzi scheme, or sell drugs, or do some awful, despicable, unconscionable thing we see continually in our media. At the same time, they are not of the trite, superficial variety we hear about in our so-called Lenten disciplines: the devil is not tempting Jesus with chocolate.
The man has been fasting for forty days. Surely a loaf of bread is okay? Even the most rigid of diets and fasts include some basic, regular consumption.
Then, the world. We know the corruption and evil surrounding the rule of Herod in Jesus’ day and age. A change in government would be a good thing, especially one ruled by Jesus, eh? You would think.
And finally, the temple. What with the priests, Pharisees, Levites and religious leaders of the day missing God’s point so often and corrupting the spiritual and worship life of people by their control and manipulative designs – Jesus taking over by displaying the power of God in the temple would go a long way in cleansing the place, turning it around. Wouldn’t you say? Jesus in charge! Yeah! Good idea!
The temptations address the person. And Jesus is the Son of God, not something contested by the devil, you’ll notice. The temptations are meant merely to distract Jesus, throw him off course.
The temptations are essentially given to undermine Jesus’ trust in God the Father. The temptations don’t deal with who Jesus is so much as what kind of Jesus will emerge from the desert: one that acts on his own timeline, or one that waits and obeys the timing and guidance of God the Father.
Because remember, Jesus does make bread to feed the hungry; Jesus does engage the political realm preaching the coming of God’s kingdom on earth; Jesus does let go and hang on the cross trusting the angels and presence of God the Father right to the end. In the end, Jesus does in essence what the devil tempted him in the desert. But with one huge difference: not according to anyone else’s strength and timeline other than God’s.
Game, set and match to Jesus!
I think we can say the same for ourselves: What is truly dangerous temptation for us has more to do with whatever may distract us from God’s purpose for our lives. Careful discernment is required here. It may not be obvious. In fact, it may first present itself as a good thing in and of itself: Some common sense notions we live by day to day. But are they part of God’s purposes? Is it the right time? Humility is also required in this journey.
We are not Jesus. So much in the popular Christian culture today suggests that we should be like Jesus. “What Would Jesus Do? WWJD” – do you wear the bracelet? Yes, Martin Luther said we are “little christs”. But emphasis on little, please.
Because Luther was very clear to say: We cannot presume to be like Jesus in his moral perfection. Because we aren’t! When we try to be like Jesus we lean on our own strength. When we try to be like Jesus we may easily end up believing we must earn God’s favor by our good works. This is not the Gospel. We are missing the point.
Being faithful Christians we will fail in our efforts, in our striving. Then, when we do fail – what do we do, what happens, what do we believe?
Are we unworthy of God’s love and favor? Will be burn in hell for our mistakes? Will God punish us? Will we give up? Will we say, “This is not for me?” and turn our back on church? Will we despair and continue knocking ourselves down in self-rejection? I think we are familiar with this line of reasoning – and where that spirit of obsessive, fatalistic guilt takes us. And that’s not a good place. Because I don’t think that reasoning leads to a vital, energetic and committed ministry to feed the poor and proclaim the Lord’s favor shouting from the rooftops – “Christ is Lord!”
It is simply in trusting Jesus amidst our weakness and imperfection where the Gospel has powerful witness to the world. All we need to do is to accept Jesus is with us, to help us, to guide us. All we need to do, is trust. And not give up on the path.
An ancient proverb is told of a servant whose duty was to draw water from the river at dawn when it was still mostly dark, and carry a bucket-full up a winding, rocky path to the mansion where his master lived. Alas! His bucket had a crack in it. And each time he brought water up the path he lost most of it.
Curiously, the servant noticed his master standing at the door of the mansion watching him every day carry this water up the path, spilling most of it. And yet, the servant was able to see a broad, loving smile on his master’s face. Daily, the servant would drop to his knees when he reached the top.
At his master’s feet the servant would express his remorse at failing to do his job, bringing only half a bucket-full of water each time he climbed the path. The master listened lovingly, invited him inside for breakfast, and encouraged him to try again the next day. Which the servant did, faithfully, for the entire season.
When the river froze over, and the last half-bucket full was brought up the path, and once again the servant expressed his shame, sorrow and regret, the master invited him inside to share in a special feast to mark the end of the season and beginning of a new one. On the table spread with the finest breads, vegetables, cheeses and meats, he found bouquets of flowers of the most wondrous varieties and colors.
The servant gasped at the heavenly sight and asked his master, “From where did you find these beautiful flowers?” “Come, follow me,” the master said, “and see for yourself.” The master led the servant back to the front door just as the sun was rising, illuminating the pathway down to the river. And on both sides of the path the flowers were growing, able to do so because of the water that had daily leaked out from the servant’s cracked bucket.
As we follow the path of our Lenten discipline let’s keep our eyes fixed on our master Jesus. Jesus knows our limitations, our failures, our sins because he walked that path to the Cross and bore all our sins. He knows intimately this rocky, dark path that we tread.
He also sees that nothing is wasted. No effort too small or too great is missed by God’s gracious gaze. Whatever we do, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has eternal implications. And won’t we be surprised when we enter that glorious heavenly feast and see it all!
We made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ash this past week. Some may think as I once did, “how morbid and negative!”
But the path we tread is not about achieving perfection, but about not giving up. So, continue on the path returning to the Lord day after day this Lenten season, doing what we may. But keeping our vision, our focus, on Jesus even when we fail. And then see what happens.
Hope springs eternal. Surprise!