No Escaping the Desert (a sermon on Luke 4:1-11)

The devil has been the subject of many jokes. For those of you my age or older who can forget Flip Wilson on “Laugh in” poking fun saying, “The Devil made me do it.” I heard about one lady who purchased a very expensive dress and when she got home her husband asked her why she bought it. He said, “You know, we can’t afford that.” She said, “Well, honey, the devil made me do it. I was trying it on in the store and he whispered, ‘I’ve never seen you look more gorgeous than you do in that dress.’ Her husband quipped, “Why didn’t you say, ‘Get behind me, Satan?’” She said, “I did” and the devil said, “It looks great from behind too.”

I try to avoid two extremes in reading this story. There are those, on the one hand, who read this literally or factually. There are others, at the polar opposite who dismiss it as legend or fable. I don’t take it literally, but I take it very seriously. This is a story of the struggles that we all face in the quest to discern who we are and what we are about. And in particular, how will we go about what we are about. The challenge Jesus faced and the challenge anyone who aspires to do good must face is: How do I go about it? What means will I employ to bring about a good end?

The desert throughout the biblical story is a place of testing. There is no escaping the desert – either for Jesus or his followers. In the crucible of trial we are tested. It’s where character is forged.

The spiritual writer Henry Nouwen calls this first temptation the temptation to be relevant. Jesus had been fasting and was hungry. The devil seems to speak with the voice of reason, even compassion. What could be more relevant than providing bread for Jesus to eat after a long fast. But sometimes the presenting problem is not the real problem. Is bread what one needs when coming off a fast? An extended fast is broken not by eating a chunk of bread, but is broken gradually with liquids and soft foods.

When Jesus responds, “One does not live by bread alone” he is suggesting that there are deeper needs. Of course, if you are hungry or your children are hungry then you are not concerned with deeper needs. You have no need to be. Your concern is feeding your family. Your concern is survival. But once these needs are met then we are faced with deeper ones.

Henry Nouwen left his teaching post at Harvard to be a chaplain to a house of handicapped people. He said that the first thing that struck him was how their liking or disliking him had nothing to do with any of the useful things he had done until then. They didn’t care about his degrees, or his prominent teaching posts at Yale and Harvard, or his wide church experience. They didn’t care about any of that, nor did they need to.    

The skills that had proved so practical and useful in his past was not much good there.  He suddenly faced his naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and shrugs, all dependent on how he was perceived at the moment. Nouwen writes, “it forced me to rediscover my true identity . . . forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” 

I believe this is the place where we all need to come to, where we are compelled to let go of our relevant self and stand before God and each other in all our vulnerability to be loved not for what we have done or can do, but for simply being ourselves

Next, Jesus is taken to a high place and shown all the kingdoms of the world and offered all their authority and power if he would bow down to the devil. This is not simply a temptation to acquire power. Think of all the good Jesus could do with that kind of power. The subtlety of temptation is: If I had this position or power, think of all the good I could do. But power comes with a cost.

When you think about it, no one really seizes power, it seizes them. We think we will exercise power for good, but power tends to take on a life of its own. Think of the symbolism of the ring of power in the Lord of the Rings. That story captures something that is very true about human nature. Gollum is turned into a monstrous, pathetic little creature by the ring of power. In fact, the ring of power draws everyone who possesses it into its own power. Actually, no one possesses it, it possesses them. Those who wield its power think they will wield it for good, but it always turns its possessor into a lesser human being.   

Perhaps one of the reasons the temptation to grasp power is so appealing is that it offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It is easier to play God than love God, easier to control people than to love people. It’s easier to tell people what to do than have them to do it out of respect or gratitude or love.
Jesus knew quite clearly the way to real spiritual transformation. Real conversion comes not by assuming a high place, but by assuming a low place. The Gospels tells us that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for the liberation of others. According to the great Christ hymn in Philippians 2 spiritual power is experienced not through grasping, but emptying ourselves of any need for worldly power. Then we can serve others simply for the good of others and not for some personal benefit.

In the final temptation Jesus is taken to the highest point of the temple and told to throw himself off forcing a divine deliverance. What could be gained by putting on a good show? What can be accomplished by the spectacular and the sensational? Well, I suspect that not a few would say a lot can be done. A lot of time and money in religion and Christianity in particular goes in to putting on a good show.

Of course, Jesus again would not have been enticed to simply be popular. He might, however, think of all the good he could do if he was popular. And that’s the real temptation for many of us isn’t it? Think of all the good we can do.

Luke concludes this story by saying that when the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him for an opportune time—suggesting that we can never let down on guard. It would not be hard to justify individually or as a church corporately the pursuit of relevance, power, or popularity for the sake of a greater good. Just think of all the good we could do. It’s an easy sell. After all, this is exactly how the kingdoms of the world function right? The problem is that it makes us less human rather than more human. Remember the question Jesus asked, “What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your soul in the process?”

The struggle here gets at the heart and soul of who we are and what we are about. You may have noticed that twice the tempter begins with the words, “If you are the Son of God.” Dare we believe that we really are the daughters and sons of God? Dare we claim our true identity as God’s beloved children? Dare we claim to be loved with an eternal love before all other loves?

The paradox here is that we come to experience such love, we come to realize our true identity as God’s daughters and sons, not by denying or ignoring the sinful parts of us, but by accepting and owning them.

The renowned writer, Annie Dillard has said that in the depths of human reality are “the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us.” But she has said, if we “ride these monsters deeper down” then we come to a place that “our sciences cannot locate or name.” We discover that place “which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil.”

The Quaker educator Parker Palmer tells about being terrified at the prospect of propelling down a 110 foot cliff as part of an outdoor challenge program he participated in called Outward Bound. On his way down he came to a very large crevice in the rock, and he froze. He couldn’t move. The instructor yelled down to him that he needed to do exactly what the Outward Bound motto says to do. Parker didn’t know the motto. The instructor called out: If you can’t get out of it, get into it. His only way out was to go in.

Some monsters won’t go away. If we ignore them or deny them or repress them, they simply come back with a vengeance. We can’t go around them or avoid them. We have to face them. Our story today begins with Luke telling us that Jesus was led (actually compelled) by the Spirit into the desert. The Spirit always leads us into this struggle.  

The way we become more like Christ, the way we grow and become more caring, loving, compassionate human beings, is not by denying our egocentricity, it’s not by denying that we have these longings for relevance, for power, for popularity, or anything else that feeds the ego. The only way forward is to face very honestly and sincerely these monsters that lurk within. We have to ride these monsters down into the depths so that when we emerge, we can leave the monsters down there – at least for a time anyway.

Mark’s account of the temptation is very brief covering only two verses. Mark’s Gospel simply says Jesus was tempted by Satan and that “he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The symbolism here is powerful. We all live in the midst of wild beasts and angels. There are angelic and demonic powers swirling about inside and outside of us. If we hope to become more - more grateful, generous, gracious human beings – then then we have to confront the wild beasts lurking at the door, we have to name the demons that want to possess us, remembering that angels are here to help us, and the angels come in many forms. 

Now sisters and brothers, lest we become too discouraged it behooves us to remember that the really good news is that no matter what monsters or demons we struggle with, nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God that we have come to know in Christ. Don’t be afraid of the desert sisters and brothers. Don’t be afraid to ride the monsters down. Let the Spirit lead you there.

Our good God as we begin the journey of Lent  give us the will and courage to be honest with ourselves, to not fear these inner demons, to not hide our selfish inclinations – whether its toward relevance, or power, or popularity, or whatever promises to boost our ego or make us happy. Give us the will to face and struggle with anything that falls short of your love and goodness and grace. May we be willing to honestly look at ourselves as we share in the bread and cup which is offered to all of us. 


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