Riding the Monsters Down (A sermon from Luke 4:1-13)
This brief account of Jesus’ testing could leave the impression that his testing came and went quickly. To counter that Luke tells us that Jesus was in the desert forty days. Forty is a symbolic number. It’s the number of days it rained in the great flood and the number of years Israel wandered in the wilderness. The number simply represents a lengthy period of time. Temptation never really ends. We face new tests all through our life’s journey.
For both Jesus and us, the Devil represents anything that presents a roadblock that would hinder us and prevent us from continuing on the spiritual path God has for us. We need not look outside ourselves for the Devil, for the greatest Devil we face is within us – our own ego. All three of the temptations Jesus confronts involves very subtle appeals to the ego. It would be convenient for us if the testing we face was something completely outside ourselves, for then we could excuse ourselves, like Flip Wilson used to say on “Laugh In”: The Devil made me do it. Maybe you heard about the 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 he said, “It looks even better from behind.”
In this first testing Jesus has been in a prolonged fast and the Devil tempts him to turn stones into bread. Jesus says in response, “One does not live by bread alone.” Parker Palmer makes the observation that ironically Jesus’ response has given some Christians justification for succumbing to the sin “of spiritualizing basic human needs to the point of ignoring poverty and starvation,” as if we can somehow “save the souls of the starving . . . without putting food in their mouths and without challenging the injustice that deprives them of their fair share.” The hungry need food before they need a Bible; they need a way to survive and live with some measure of dignity and be able to take care of their families, before someone preaches to them. And so there is no greater spiritual work than addressing those very physical needs.
Keep in mind, too, that Jesus’ response here is his response to the devil, not starving people. In the proper context Jesus will indeed provide bread for hungry people. In some ways the idea that there are “deeper needs” is relative. If you are hungry or your children are hungry then there is no deeper need than finding food. Your deepest need is survival. But once food is provided, then other deeper needs surface.
The Devil prefaces his first testing of Jesus with a taunt that takes a familiar form. “If you are the Son of God then . . . .” How often are we tested by that same taunt that comes in a variety of forms? If you are a real man or a real woman then . . . If you are such a good parent then . . . If you really care then . . . It’s a direct appeal to the ego. It’s the temptation to prove our identity, to prove our worth and our value. I wonder how many lives have been hurt and wrecked because they felt they could never measure up to the standards that would prove them worthy and give them significance or status or success. Think how many people are trying to earn love and acceptance.
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 them. They didn’t care about his degrees, or his prominent teaching posts at Yale and Harvard, or his ecumenical experience. They didn’t care about any of that. He couldn’t use any of the skills that had proved so practical in his past and he was suddenly faced with his naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, 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.” Maybe this is the place where we all need to come to, where we 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 who we are.
We do not earn or merit the title child of God. It’s all gift. It’s pure grace. You don’t have to believe the right things, or do the right things, or belong to the right group to be called a child of God. It’s your birthright. Richard Rohr was spending time in silence and solitude in a hermitage somewhere, and hadn’t seen another human being in several days. Then one afternoon he was out for a walk and crossed paths with another monk who recognized him, and knew he did a lot of public teaching. He told Father Rohr, “Richard,” he said, “you must tell them that God is not out there; God is in here.” And then he scurried on his way. Yes. God is in here. You are in God, in Christ, in the Holy Spirit. God is in you and you are in God. And you didn’t earn that. It has always been true. And it’s also true that the Devil is not out there somewhere. The Devil is in here too. And hence the struggle. But the first thing about us and the most important thing about is not our sin, not our struggle with our little self, our ego, but rather the first thing about is our inseparable connection to God. Some teach that sin separates us from God. But that is not really true. Sin does not separate us from God. Sin separates us from our awareness and experience of God, but not from the reality of God who indwells everyone of us. We would not be alive if we were not connected to God. God is the life source and life force of the universe.
Before Jesus was led into the wilderness to face this testing, he heard the voice of the Spirit say to him, “You are my Beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” If we are going to progress toward Christ likeness in becoming more loving persons we need to hear the Divine Voice say to us, “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased for simply being you.” That’s where we have to begin. As I say over and over: The spiritual life is about becoming who we already are. The little self, the ego is always going to question our true identity. The ego is going to present us with many temptations to abandon our true identity. The ego says, If you are a son of God or daughter of God then prove yourself. And the proof that the ego wants will always be the carrot on the stick that we cannot quite reach. Don’t fall for it sisters and brothers. You are loved right now at this moment with an eternal love. Claim it. Trust it. And let the Spirit of Christ help you become who you are.
Keep this in mind. Because the Spirit is the life and breath in whom we live, move, and have our being, our awareness of our true worth and identity is tied to our awareness of the true worth and identity of every other human being. And this brings us to the second testing. The Devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world – their power and glory and says, “This can all be yours, if you worship me.” This is what the ego says to us: “if you will serve me, you can have it all and you can be over all.” It’s the temptation to see and treat ourselves as separate from others, and as better than others. And when we see ourselves as better than others, then others become our pawns to be used for our own personal advantage or advancement. Or maybe it’s the group that we see as better – our religious faith, or political party, or nationality, or nation – our kind of people whoever that may be. The same goes for the creation. When we see ourselves as separate from creation, then creation becomes expendable, something we use and exploit to our own advantage and advancement.
In response to this challenge Jesus says, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” The way we resist this temptation of the religious ego is by worshiping and serving God as the universal God, the God of all the kingdoms of the earth. I was interviewed last week by a young reporter who was doing a story on what some clergy felt about inclusivity. This, of course, was in the wake of the struggle in the United Methodist church for inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, which did not go well by the way. I told him that I believed the movement from exclusion to inclusion is critical to our movement toward Christ-likeness and becoming more loving people, which is what spirituality is all about. The temptation of the religious ego is the temptation to exclude people from the circle of God’s family because of religion, social status, sexual orientation, or whatever, so we can set ourselves up as better – more spiritual or blessed. It’s not enough to trust that we are loved; we must trust that we are all loved. We are all chosen. We all belong.
The final test Jesus faces is what Henry Nouwen calls the temptation to be spectacular. If you are the Son of God, says the Devil, jump off the temple and God will dramatically intervene to save you. The ego says, “If you put on a good show and draw a crowd, and give that crowd something to talk about, think how much good you could do.” The problem is that once we get on that train, we come to care less and less about doing good, and more and more about gaining in status and popularity. A lot of preachers have went down that path. Jesus says in response, “No.” And tells us to say no as well. Jesus says if you want to do good the way I do good, then deny your little self, your ego self, take up your cross, and follow me. That’s the path of discipleship.
Now, these temptations Jesus faced in the desert, he will face over and over again in subtle ways throughout his ministry. The way to overcome them is by facing them honestly and struggling with them. It’s significant that our story begins by telling us that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit to encounter the Devil in the wilderness. The Spirit led Jesus into this confrontation and struggle with his ego. The Spirit will always lead us to honestly face these struggles of our honestly. The Spirit of God leads us to confront questions about who we are and how we find worth. The Spirit leads us to confront the desire in our hearts to be superior to others and more special than the rest. And the Spirit leads us to admit our longings for popularity, position, and power, which we can easily conceal under the guise of all the good we can do. Our culture will allow us, perhaps even encourage us to ignore, deny, conceal, and repress the longings and desires of the little self/the ego; whereas the Spirit of Christ will lead us to be honest, truthful, and confessional regarding the struggles that go on in our soul. There is no need to conceal anything from God. We don’t have to prove ourselves. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less and nothing we can do to make God love us more
The Quaker educator Parker Palmer tells about being terrified at the prospect of propelling down a 110 foot cliff as part of an outdoor program he participated in called Outward Bound. As he made his way down the side of the cliff, he came to a very large crevice in the rock, and he froze. He couldn’t move. So 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. He couldn’t go over it or around it. His only way out was to go in. Author Annie Dillard says that in the depths of human reality are “the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us.” Then she suggests riding these monsters down until we come to a place that “our sciences cannot locate or name . . which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil.”
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. What better way to begin than with a commitment to ride the monsters down into the depths of our hearts and souls. We will never overcome the temptations of the ego by ignoring them, denying them, or repressing them. We have to face them, ride them down, struggle with them, so that we can open our hearts and minds and souls to the power of God’s Spirit, which is nothing less than the power of Love.
As we begin our journey to the cross and beyond, O God, may we each be honest with you, with ourselves, and with one another about the longings, temptations, and struggles we struggle to overcome. Amen