Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The early church announced a season of Lent, from the Old English word lenten, meaning ‘spring’-not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime for the soul. Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves. I think of it as an Outward Bound for the soul.
That is a great image to capture this season. It is an adventure where we recognize realities inside and outside that might be tough to confront , that might stretch us and cause us to grow, that might help us deal with our fears.
We start Lent every year with one of the Gospel’s version of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. The fact that Jesus could be tempted, really tempted, helps us see his humanity clearly. The Devil was not just making suggestions that he could easily reject. Those temptations were difficult for him to turn down.
This story in Luke comes almost immediately after Jesus’ baptism. Remember Jesus heard a voice, a voice spoken just to him in Luke, that said, “You are my son, the Beloved. . .” Then he heads out into the wilderness to try and figure out what it would mean for him to be God’s son.
The Tempter meets him in the wilderness with that simple, but cruel address, “If you are the Son of God. . .” Are you really God’s son? Did you hear that voice clearly? If you are the Son of God, what does that mean? How are you going to live into that? The tempter says I have some ideas. And then Jesus is given three temptations.
All those temptations are potentially opportunities to do good things. One commentator says these temptations were tests to see if “even good things can lure Jesus away from a focus on God’s will.”
Feeding the hungry by turning stones into bread, becoming a benign dictator, as it were, by accepting authority over the world, or convincing the people that he was special by jumping off the Temple pinnacle without getting hurt all have potential good outcomes. Jesus is forced to decide if doing those things is what it means to be the Son of God. Are those actions consistent with his true identity?
Jesus decides that is not his calling. He uses scripture to help him. That ought to help us see the importance of scripture in withstanding temptations. But it is not that simple. Note the Devil uses scripture in the last temptation. Scripture can be manipulated to mean what we want it to mean. We will need more than biblical knowledge to deal with temptation in our lives.
All of this is may be interesting to some of us who like this glimpse into Jesus’ inner struggle. It is comforting to know he had to wrestle with his own identity. But the real power of this passage comes when we turn it to focus on ourselves. What tempts us to go against our true identity, our best selves?
A prior question is even more difficult. Who are you? What is your essence? Some would say that is simple. I am a child of God. I am a Christian. That, of course, is true, but that does not fully answer the identity question. The real answer has to do with what does it mean for you to be a child of God? How are you going to live into your identity as a Christian? Does that change over time? Does your calling change from when you are 25 to when you are 65?
We do remain a mystery to ourselves in many ways. The best we might do is come up with tentative conclusions as to who we are and what God expects us to do with that identity. And when we arrive at those conclusions the next question becomes important. What tempts us to go against that identity?
Most of us are not tempted to turn stones into bread, or to jump off high buildings and not get hurt. I suspect some of us might be tempted to rule the world, but we all know those who try that are delusional! So, what are your temptations?
Taylor talks about temptations in terms of addictions. She says many of us have addictions to “eating, shopping, blaming or taking care of other people. “ She goes on to say, “The simplest definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.” What do you use to fill that empty place? How does that distract you from God’s call in your life?
Once again I asked the lectionary class last Tuesday and they said things like fear: fear of failing, fear of looking like a fool, fear of being out of our league, fear of being incompetent. Some said trying to live up to other people’s expectations can be a temptation to not do what God is calling us to do. What tempts you? Lent is a time to explore these critical identity and temptation questions. It is a time of thoughtful introspection.
Note at the end of the passage Luke says the Devil left but would return at a more opportune time. Luke goes on to report those times later in Jesus’ life.
This raises an important question for us. What are the opportune times for us when we are vulnerable to temptations? When we are tired? When we are angry? When we become overwhelmed? How do we protect ourselves when we are vulnerable to the temptation to not respond out of our true center? It is important to recognize those vulnerable times and make sure we have people in our lives to honestly tell us when we are not making decisions true to our best selves.
Lent is a time to focus on these issues. It is a season of introspection, in the best sense of that word. It is a season when we need to focus on nourishing the best parts of ourselves, so that we can be the people God created us to be. Part of that nourishment comes when we take communion. That is why we are serving communion each Sunday of Lent this year. As we come forward today, may we commit ourselves to figuring out our God-given identity. Then let us decide how we are going to live that out.