In my thirteen years of preaching in the Episcopal Church, I don’t think I’ve preached on sin and temptation, per se; at the most a few times. I’ve probably preached around the topic, or used another word for sin, like “mistakes,” or “those things that separate us from the divine.” Having grown up in the Southern Baptist Church, sin was a popular topic, particularly those obvious “Big Sins” that dealt with sex, money, and power. For the most part now, I think the majority of people who attend church do their best to steer clear of the sins of the obvious.
We work hard to avoid these temptations. But, temptation is actually a good thing. St Anthony of the Desert said that temptation is necessary for our spiritual growth. Which is probably why we heard in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11) that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. St Anthony also said that the more mature the person is in their spirituality, the subtler the temptations would become.
We can’t study Jesus’ temptations without first making some sense of the other major character in this story, Satan. We can get some clue about who Satan was in this story by looking back at the Book of Job. In that story, all the heavenly beings were with God. There, Satan told God he had spent time on earth among God’s people. God asked Satan if he had seen Job, God’s servant, the man among men of earth that had turned away from evil and walked God’s path. Satan challenged God, suggesting that Job just hadn’t been tempted severely enough. So, God let Satan have his way with Job. Job might be considered the Old Testament Christ figure—a son of God would never turn his back on God, no matter what lie ahead. And who is Satan? Well, an easy way to look at that character would be to consider Satan like the older brother in the story. The one who always tells you, “Go ahead, it’s okay, you can do it, you won’t get in trouble.” But in the end, big brother leads you astray. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Jesus’ temptations.
First, Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. It is interesting that Jesus would, later in his ministry, turn “stones” into bread. At the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus would take the meager lunch of a boy and use it to inspire the disciples “hearts of stone” of disbelief, into enough food to feed the hungry masses. So, turning stones into bread wasn’t the temptation. The real temptation for Jesus was to do something good, at the wrong time for the wrong reason.
I’m pretty familiar with that temptation. There are a lot of things I’m asked to do that are good things to do—things I can do, things I’m qualified to do—the problem is, either the timing or my reason is wrong. I’m constantly being asked to serve on a committee, teach a class, train a group of people, take on some assignment—the issue is timing or my reason for accepting. Is this the right time for me? The better question is, “Do I have the time to do a good job?” The other question is, “What’s my reason for considering doing this thing?” Is it my ego that’s feeling good by being asked or is this something I’m really supposed to do?”
What did Jesus do in this circumstance? He looked for the deeper meaning. The answer wouldn’t be found by feeding his ego. Instead, he would discern by listening to the voice of God. Turning the stones into bread wasn’t a bad thing—it was just a “Good thing, at the wrong time for the wrong reason.”
Second, Jesus was tempted to jump off a pinnacle and rely on God to save him. Once again, Jesus would actually do this later in his ministry; he would crawl high upon the pinnacle of the Cross and leap off into the dark abyss of death, relying on God to save him. The real temptation here, though, would be that Jesus was tempted to avoid the hard work that needed to be done on the Cross.
Well, I’m pretty familiar with this temptation as well. There are things that I know are going to take a lot of hard work—dark night of the soul kind of stuff. And I know it would be a lot easier to avoid that work in my life, to simply turn around and walk away. The problem is, when I avoid walking through the storm, I miss all the work the Spirit will do in my life. It takes about two hours to drive the 100 miles of Ireland’s Wicklow Way, while it takes seven days to walk it. As Carl Jung would say, without the outer pilgrimage, there is no inner journey; no walking, no inner pilgrimage. Jesus didn’t avoid the hard work of the Cross. And he challenged us to take up our cross, to do our hard work in the dark night of the soul. Giving in to the temptation of avoidance will reduce our opportunity for spiritual growth.
Jesus’ third temptation in the desert was even more subtle than the first two. Typically, we take this temptation on face value—Jesus was tempted to worship Satan. But was Jesus really tempted to worship Satan? Maybe we could go a bit deeper and say that Jesus was tempted with power. Again, that doesn’t seem like anything Jesus would really be tempted by. Truthfully, after 400 years after Jesus walked on the earth he would be worshipped by the kingdoms of the world. So, how was he being tempted? I think Jesus was tempted by the sin of immediacy. “It can all be yours, now. You don’t have to wait.”
Oh, I know this temptation so well. My lack of patience tempts me to say, “We can fix this problem right now if we just do it my way.” The old adage my dad used to tell me rings in my ears, “if you want it done right, do it yourself.” But the immediate solution is not often the sustainable or systemic way to solve the problem. God’s way is outside the equation of time. God’s work has a long arc and takes a lot of patience.
Like Jesus, we too are tempted to do good things, though the timing and the reason might be off. We are also tempted to avoid the hard work of the dark night of the soul. And we are tempted to by the sin of immediacy.
Like Jesus, we must slow down and listen to God through our prayers. There we will find the strength to persevere those temptations that plague us. And like Jesus, eventually the tempter will leave us and then the angels will minister to our needs.