I appreciate how the sequence of events are reported in Chapters 3 and 4 in the Gospel of Matthew. We read at the end of chapter 3 about Jesus’ baptism—his cousin John baptizes him in the river Jordan and as Jesus comes up out of the water he hears these words of affirmation—this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. And then…there is the word “then” starting in chapter 4. “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…”
Here Jesus has just had a glorious moment, is probably feeling pretty good and solid in who he is and then he’s led into the wilderness to face incredible challenges…it reminds of a young person who shared with me his story of being baptized. He was a teenager belonging to a Baptist Church so this was full immersion baptism, a full dunking. He told me that his baptism was a wonderful experience and filled him with great joy.
And then…he came home and that afternoon had the biggest fight ever with his sister—completely ruined his day.
So here goes Jesus into the wilderness and he is challenged with three tests. I am going to lean on the book In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen who does good work in dissecting these temptations.
Jesus’ first temptation is to turn stones to bread. He has a hunger problem and needs food. He is tempted to turn stones to bread to satisfy his hunger. Henri Nouwen calls this the temptation to be relevant.
Who doesn’t want to be relevant? We want to be people who do things, solve problems, prove things, build things. What good is it if we do not offer solutions and make things better. Working with issues of poverty and hunger in Madison, how we wish we could solve problems and bring people what they need.
I think of teachers and the needs students bring to the classroom—the basic needs of food, safety, shelter, compassion. The deep desire to be relevant and give students what they need is something teachers face every day.
And for the social workers, and the health care providers, and those who volunteer to bring support to our neighbors, to help them find jobs, to help them stay in their homes, I would think the temptation to be relevant is always present.
And I would argue that this is not so much a temptation but a deep desire to change things and solve things. It becomes a temptation when we think we have to prove our worth by solving these problems. And this is what Jesus recognized. He was being tempted to prove his worth—to prove that he was the Son of God. His answer is brilliant and tells us something about what it means to be human. Jesus tells us in one sentence where his worth and value come from—they come from God. “Human beings live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Wow.
In addition to describing the temptations, Henri Nouwen suggests a response to each one of the temptations that can feed us and lead us into life and grace. In response to the temptation to be relevant Henri Nouwen suggests prayer. Now maybe some of us were hoping for a better response than that. But Nouwen knows what Jesus is talking about when Jesus shares that none of us are able to live on just bread alone. We are spiritual beings that need to be fed spiritually. We need to reminded that our identity is formed in God. And this reminder can happen in prayer. I would offer that this response to pray doesn’t have to mean going off for hours to pray. I suggest something simpler but still very helpful. I wonder about having a one sentence prayer that we can hold onto throughout the day—a sentence that brings us back to God.
Here are some examples of sentence prayers:
Breathe in me your life, oh God.
Thank you that I’m your child.
Fill me with your grace.
A sentence prayer offered throughout the day can feed our souls, restore our sanity, and keep us grounded in what really matters.
Nouwen shares that “Through prayer we have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them. Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep, personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject. But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses to Love without being manipulative.”
The second temptation Jesus experienced was the temptation to do something spectacular, something that could win him great applause. “Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, and let the angels catch you.” “But Jesus refused to be a stunt man. He did not come to prove himself. He did not come to walk on hot coals, swallow fire, or put his hand in the lion’s mouth to demonstrate that he had something worthwhile to say.” (Nouwen)
Oh, how I want to be spectacular in ministry. I want to be spectacular so that children and youth love coming to church, want to be involved, seek God, find friends here, feel included. I want to do lots of spectacular tricks so that we never have youth who struggle to find acceptance and a sense of belonging here.
I think of us as parents and the temptation we face to be spectacular—to do everything perfect in order to raise the best kids ever. We are bombarded with ideas that tell us how we can raise kids to be smart and happy and well-adjusted. The pressure to produce great kids is enormous—and to do this we need to be spectacular.
But the very danger in this temptation to be spectacular besides wearing us out, is it has us competing with one another—who can be the most spectacular parent! It brings out this rivalry in us as we are tempted to compare ourselves to others and then judge others for being more or less spectacular than us. And where does this take us? Down the road of isolationism. When we are striving to be spectacular or perfect, we keep ourselves from each other, too frightened, too proud, or too ashamed to admit our weaknesses and failures as parents.
The opposite of being spectacular is being vulnerable. In our vulnerability we recognize our limitations, our struggles, our pride that thinks we are better or worse than others. In our vulnerability we are able to confess to one another and to forgive one another—this is what builds up community and builds up ourselves. This is the response Henri Nouwen suggests to the temptation to be spectacular—the discipline of confession and forgiveness.
There is certainly great fear in this kind of vulnerability. Maybe some of us fear this more than death. Exposing our brokenness is not what is modeled in the world.
Yet, God promises in scripture over and over again that she is with us. We act on faith and the belief that God will be with us as we share our vulnerabilities with one another. To confess, to unload, to share our limitations and our struggles is freeing and healing. We discover in this process of confessing, forgiving, and healing that we indeed can survive our vulnerability and not fear it. This is wonderful news.
The third temptation Jesus faced was the temptation of power. “I will give you all the kingdoms of this world in their splendor,” the tempter said to Jesus.
Nouwen shares that “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
Michael Kerr in the book Family Evaluation explains this temptation to power in a way that I can relate to. He says: “The more anxious, frustrated, judgmental, angry, overly sympathetic, or omnipotent one feels about the problems of others, the more it says about unresolved problems in self.” Omnipotence means “I know what your problem is and what you need to do about it.”
Do you struggle with this temptation? I do. I am much more inclined to think I have the power to change others than spend time focusing on myself.
Henri Nouwen’s response to this temptation is theological reflection. I would call it Listening with the Heart of God. Instead of trying to control others, we are called to listen deeply to people, having them reflect on their painful and joyful realities of everyday life. We listen with the mind of Christ thereby trying to see God’s gentle guidance in their everyday events. “This is a hard discipline, since God’s presence is often a hidden presence, a presence that needs to be discovered. The loud, boisterous noises of the world make us deaf to the soft, gentle, and loving voice of God. We are called to help people to hear that voice and so be comforted and consoled.” In a world that too quickly wants to diagnose others, we are called to listen and help identify where we see the Grace of God intersecting our lives.
In all three of these temptations, Jesus relies on his relationship with God to stay true to himself and his mission. These same temptations will surface repeatedly in the story of Jesus’ life and, in each instance, he refuses to compromise. He is nurtured by an intimacy with God that allows him to stay true to his principles.
After this 3rd temptation, Jesus tells the tempter to leave. And then Jesus is nourished by angels. I’m not sure who these angels were but they helped Jesus be restored.
Who are the angels in your life? Those people who you can be vulnerable with, who help carry your sufferings, your temptations, and point you back to God?
As we move through this time of Lent, might these responses of prayer, confessing and forgiving, and listening deeply help us change some of the patterns we are stuck in, patterns that are wearing us out?
May we hear God’s voice this day—a voice that says we are beloved children of God and may we follow that voice that leads us to deeper trust and wholeness. Amen.