‘the greatest temptation…’
March 1, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
We have all been brought up in this, our ‘American culture’, to value an independent spirit…to look up to those who are self-starters, to honor those who are able to ‘lift themselves up by their own bootstraps’ so to speak. To look with envy and admiration on those who have ‘made it’, those who are wealthy or ‘successful’…those who are, ‘independent’.
And by the same token, the notion of ‘dependence’, of having to rely on someone or something else is often seen as a sign of weakness, or at least not at all as commendable as those who have no such need. Our approach quite often is to feel that if we do not take or receive anything from others, then we do not owe anything back either, we are not therefore in a place of dependence upon, or obligation to another. By seeking to be as self-sufficient as possible, we are beholden to none, thereby free to structure and control our own lives without debt towards another. That’s, just who we are.
And yet, that whole way of thinking, that whole way of seeing the world, and in particular society around us, seems in some way to be quite at odds with what I see as the central underlying theme of our faith. And that underlying narrative of the gospel, is that God is able to work most effectively when we let go of our own striving to do it, or to go it all alone, and instead, open ourselves to the possibility that we are all in this together. By learning to rely on, or to depend on God and each other, we are actually able to do far more than we would be able to do all on our own. Our understanding of our Christian God is of a ‘three in one’ God, a God already and perpetually in loving relationship, so too, our faith started out as…and finds its greatest strength in…community.
Now it is not really that hard to understand or to see how we got here. For our culture, in fact our story as a nation, is built on this very notion of doing it ourselves, of breaking away from an oppressive monarchy and dominant royal culture over in Europe, and together fashioning a new way of living and governing ourselves, all on our own, over here in this land.
Aside from this spirit of independence, our society and culture both prize strength and ingenuity, as well as creativity and imagination, all of which are, or can be valuable gifts indeed. However, as unfortunately is often the case, when these gifts are used or rationed out in such a way as to build or protect a system that is in fact not equitable, a system that elevates some individuals at the expense of others who do not have the same opportunities, then those gifts can quickly become tools of oppression, rather than creative expressions of God’s grace meant for the common good.
So the question then, in light of our reading today, and in light of all the ‘selfish or self-centered’ temptations offered to Jesus in our reading is, just how bad is it really to have to rely on someone or something else? Is it so bad to be in relationship such that we count on being able to rely on one another? Is it really a sign of weakness to look to one another in seeking to share together the varied or different gifts we have all been given? And to share them in such a way that the whole community might be lifted up and enriched? Of course not! At least not when you put it that way.
However, it seems that there is still an underlying force at work, and one not all that dissimilar to the underlying premises of our reading. A force that still trips up a whole lot of people, including people who for the most part see themselves as honest, hardworking, and generous towards others. Which indeed, they very often are. And that is, that this notion of having to, or being forced to rely on others, still ‘sticks in the craw’ of many who have spent their whole lives being taught and learning to be strong, independent, and self-sustaining.
Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Why does it have to seem like so often the scriptures, or at least the teachings of Jesus, always find us at points of personal unease or discomfort, rather than affirming or helping to us cope with life the way we already are accustomed to doing so? Why do the words of Jesus so often go to the heart of our feelings of unease, particularly when it concerns our notions around personal security, why do they constantly hint that there is always more to this faith business than we are comfortable accepting? Do we really have to let go of personal striving for self-sufficiency in the search for a secure future, at least in these times that already seem less promising and more challenging? Do we have to always find ways to provide for others, just when we are getting close in our own plans to have a pathway forward for ourselves?
In this season of Lent…in this season when we, by grace are at least supposed to focus on our own short-comings, our own personal weaknesses, our own lacking when it comes to how we deal with various temptations we encounter…I am convinced that the single greatest temptation we face, and therefore the greatest point in need of attention, is this notion that any one of us, if we are doing things right, can be independent and not have to rely on anyone else. This temptation to in fact feel that we are capable of, and supposed to be able to get through this life all on our own, without any help from anyone else This idea that we are each islands unto ourselves, that we are capable of and responsible for doing everything all by ourselves, relying on no one or nothing other than our own strength and talent, is a temptation I believe, that is at the heart of many of our ills and struggles as a society, and indeed as the human race. We are so sure that the right pathway is to be able to make our own way, that we end up delaying or worse, entirely defeating over and over again, the process of forming true and loving community.
Now I am sure that there are those who would counter my argument by saying, ‘I have no trouble relying on God, in fact, I pray often and look daily to God for guidance and assurance’. And that may well be true for many. However, I am also convinced that the way God is most effective in bringing about change and goodness in the world around us, is through those little human acts of kindness and grace which we have multiple opportunities to do each and every day.
I feel that God works best, or at least most effectively, by use of the quite imperfect clay vessels that each one of us surely is. Vessels that have their own little imperfections, perhaps a small crack here or there, or perhaps one dulled or broken by years of use that is now finally quite incapable of holding in much if any, of the grace poured into it daily by our Lord of Love, and instead, having that same grace flow back out towards others also in need. There is a certain holiness in seeking to share the grace by which every one of us is able to breathe, to grow, and to love. And true humility, is accepting that your own gifts and strengths, and your own weaknesses, are a part of a wondrous plan by which God is able to use each one of us, to bless, and be blessed by another. The kingdom of God is amongst us…and we have a role in revealing it through lives offered to one another in compassion and love.
Some would hold I am sure, that the greatest temptation, and the temptation at the heart of the challenges Jesus faced in our passage today, is the temptation to feel that we do not in fact need even God. For surely this seems like the ultimate ‘missing of the mark’, the greatest of all sins, perhaps even the fabled, ‘unforgivable sin’. However, I would hold that as children of God, as those created in love to love one another, and as those called to love God by doing so ‘unto the least of these’…it is a far greater denunciation of our faith, and abdication of our responsibility, to feel, or to believe that we do not need each other.
For as the author of 1 John tells us in Chapter 4, ‘if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us’. It is in loving one another…and yes, being humble enough to reside in loving community together, trusting and relying on one another…that God’s love is made perfect in us…
…it is in being the family of our God, in living as a community of faith, that God is present among us. For indeed, if we have eyes to see, and ears to hear, we will know, that the kingdom is here…
…and we are so blessed to be a part of it.