Text: Luke 4:1-13
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand and hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
You may recognize these words from one of the greatest epic poems in all of literature. They are the concluding lines of Paradise Lost by John Milton. In his earlier poems, Milton had run variations on the theme of temptation, but in Paradise Lost he made it his central theme. He set forth two sets of successful temptations in Paradise Lost, Satan’s temptation of the angels and Satan’s temptation of Eve. As the poem progresses, Milton presents a God who sees providentially that the Seed, who is also the Son, or Jesus Christ, will ultimately be the one to resist all temptation. In a later work, Paradise Regain’d, Milton would attempt to answer Thomas Ellwood’s question, “Thou hast said much here on paradise lost, but what hast thou to say of paradise found?” Indeed, the first work focused on temptation, the second on resisting temptation. Like Milton, other poets, philosophers, novelists, theologians, and psychologists have explored the theme of temptation and the human experience. And rightly so, for who among us hasn’t dealt with life’s temptations and struggled with how to resist them?
For sure, it is a universal human experience. I was struck this week as I listened to Tiger Woods describe his “fall from grace” and the words he chose to explain his actions and offer his apology. He said, “I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply…I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. And thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them.” It was that line, “all the temptations around me” that caught my attention. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed it had I not been working on this sermon in which the focus is Jesus facing his own temptations in the wilderness. For whatever reasons, it made me wonder about what all those temptations are that “are all around us.” Are they any different from the ones Jesus encountered in the wilderness or are they the same—the temptations of success, power and control, ego and prestige?
For modern readers, the problem with Jesus’ temptation story is that at a cursory glance it seems unreal, far removed from our experience. The devil does not appear to us and transport us from place to place. No, the temptations we experience are often not so clearly recognizable. The choice we most often face is not between good and bad but between bad and worse or good and better. In our world, we mostly deal in “gray areas.” We seldom experience such clear choices any longer, and even if we have the moral fortitude to handle the clearly recognizable evils, we often lack the wisdom to deal with the moral choices we face more typically. Our temptations are more likely to surface when asking questions like: When does what is good for the corporate body outweigh the need of an individual? For example, which has the higher claim, the needs of the unemployed for a job or the anti-pollution standards that protect the ecology but close down certain industries? What are the real temptations surrounding us?
Luke’s story tells us that the devil tempted Jesus three times. On the surface, the first temptation deals with basic survival: having the nourishment necessary to literally sustain life. But Richard Rohr writes, “The first temptation of Christ, to turn stone into bread, is [really] about the need to be effective, successful, relevant, to make things happen. You’ve done something and people say, ‘WOW! Good job! You did it right. You’re OK.’” But usually, Rohr notes, “When you buy into that too quickly, you’re feeding the false self, which tells you what it immediately wants and seldom knows what it really needs.” Everywhere we look in our world, there are temptations all around us feeding our wants—telling us what we need to buy or do in order to be successful and effective in the world. When Jesus resists the first temptation, he says to us, go deeper. Look for what your heart really hungers for. Is it to be successful? Or is it to be true to the deeper longings of the heart?
The second temptation is in many ways far more subtle than the first. If the first dealt with basic survival, the second deals with almost as basic a human desire, if not need: power. The devil tells Jesus to bow down before the systems of this world: “All of them you can have.” Just buy them. Believe in them. They can be yours. The commentaries tell us that the so-called Mountain of Temptation sits in a wasteland hundreds of feet below sea level, and that the view if affords is not of large kingdoms but of tiny, impoverished hamlets and sheepfolds, and that the only town nearby is the famous but humble Jericho. The devil, however, wasn’t offering real estate so much as he was appealing to that human need for power and control. But Jesus refuses to bow down before the little kingdoms of this world, the corporations and the nation-states, the security systems, the idols of militarism. The price of this love of power meant to “fall at Satan’s feet and worship him” and once again Jesus resisted the temptation of such power—the kind of power that is only concerned with self-interest. Jesus knew a different kind of power—a power in which self-interest cannot dominate.
The third and final temptation in Luke’s account is fully as ingenious as the others. This one appeals to the sense of identity and the need to prove who we are. “If you are really who you think you are,” says the devil, “prove it.” No one likes to have their identity challenged or threatened; we struggle enough with our identity without someone always demanding proof that we are who we say we are. Once again, Jesus is able to transcend the temptation. But how often do we fall prey to our ego and our need to be “special?” How often are we tempted to try and be someone that we are not? This temptation is all around us.
As we enter Lent, this story calls us, as individuals, to consider how these temptations—the temptation to sacrifice our heart’s deepest desire in order to be successful, or to gain power and control at all cost, or to allow our ego and the need to be special to shape our identity rather than believing that we are loved just as we are, is at play in our lives. These are the temptations all around us. But this story is not just happening on an individual level. These temptations are at the core of the problems we face as a country—our desire to be the best, the most successful, to indulge in want we want rather than what we truly need (it’s called greed); our insatiable desire for power and control at all costs—concerned only with our self-interest; and finally, our inflated ego—the idea that we know best how everyone else in the world should live and order their lives
That is the hard word for today. But there is a hopeful word. It is found in the opening lines of Milton’s other paradise poem, Paradise Regain’d.
Who e’re while the happy Garden sung,
By one mans disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind,
By one mans firm obedience fully tri’d
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d
In all his wiles, defeated and repuls’t,
And Eden raised in the wast Wilderness.
Yes, temptations are all around us—individually and collectively. We can choose to avoid them and live in paradise lost; or we can choose to confront them and find the hope of paradise regained. There is a gift we receive when we face our temptations and it is this: knowing fully who we are and to whom we belong. It is my hope that throughout this Lenten season you will discover this gift and that you will find water in the wilderness and that your Eden will be raised in the waste wilderness. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with the devil that is inside of you. It may be the only way to know fully who you are and to whom you belong. It is the Lenten way.