Several times a week I receive emails from AARP; they cover a multitude of topics, of special interest to the over-50 crowd. This week I noticed an article about the latest crop of scams.
It’s not just about rich Nigerian widows any more. There are countless cons out there, many of them relying on the internet. There’s the tech support scam, the IRS scam, the “please verify your account details” scam, the faith-based dating site scam and many more. Older Americans are conned out of nearly $13 billion every year. And it’s not just about money. Social media are full of scams that simply set out to waste your time or mislead you with suggestions that you must share a post if you want to keep your friends or have your prayers answered. I know about scams, but I have a tendency to trust people until otherwise persuaded, so I still get caught out.
Discerning truth from falsehood can be very hard. The current political process is demonstrating this to a massive extent. Who is telling the truth? Whom should we believe? They all quote Scripture when it suits them, so that’s not a reliable guide. If I wanted to be a real cynic I might think that some of the political consultants have taken their cue from the story of the temptation of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke.
Jesus has just received the baptism of John and the Holy Spirit at the Jordan. It’s time for him to begin his ministry, but, typically for Luke, first he must pray. So he goes on retreat in the desert. I don’t know what image you have of the desert, but I can tell you that I have never seen any terrain more barren than the Judean wilderness between Jerusalem and the Jordan. If it isn’t artifically irrigated, it has no life in it. I cannot imagine surviving 40 days in it alone, with or without the leading of the Holy Spirit.
In this relentless environment, Jesus wrestles with what it means to be God’s beloved. He faces a wilderness that is fertile with nothing except temptation. Temptation doesn’t usually arrive with a big disclaimer label on it. It can be disguised as expediency, logic, beauty, common sense, kindness, entitlement, self-preservation, even generosity. The temptations presented to Jesus would allow him to do good: feed the hungry, rule the world, demonstrate his divinity. He could save millions of lives, achieve world peace, get everyone in line. Tempting indeed.
Luke tells us that the devil begins his fishing expedition with a modest bait: a single stone, that Jesus may, if he chooses, transform into just enough bread to take the edge off his hunger. What harm can there be in that? But Jesus sees through the trap: for one beloved by God, physical comfort must not take priority over trust in God’s abundant care. Next, the devil claims ownership of the glory and authority of all the kingdoms of the world. It is his to bestow, he says (that’s a lie, of course), and he asks just one small thing, an acknowledgment that he is equal to God. Not on your life, says Jesus, the law by which we live makes very clear whom we are to worship, and it isn’t you.
Finally, the devil creates a dizzy-making illusion: “Look, here you are, poised over the center of power in your world. Quick, take my offer before you fall! You don’t have to bother with living a human life, going through all the pain and toil of wandering through the countryside recruiting followers and preaching the Gospel. You can go straight to the finish line, prove who you are with one spectacular stunt, and claim the crown.” For who in Jerusalem would doubt that he is indeed the Messiah if he were to float down unharmed from the Temple’s pinnacle?
But this is not how God’s beloved is to prove himself. Even when Scripture seems to prove the point, Jesus can stand firm, can keep his eye on the big picture, will not be distracted by short-cuts or easy answers. Jesus is able to see through the devil’s lies, to recognize that he, as the Truth of God incarnate, must make no compromise with falsehood, must remain faithful to the call to live among humankind as one of us, Emmanuel, God with us, taking the same winding routes to Jerusalem as his neighbors, enduring the same pangs of hunger, facing the same frustrations of serving a God whose ways are mysterious, whose time is so often not our time, whose truth can be hard to hear, whose call can mean suffering and weakness and even death.
The devil retreats, defeated, for now, by the spiritual strength that Jesus draws from the deep well of God’s love. But Luke adds one last tantalizing detail: the devil departed from him until an opportune time. The master story-teller provides a clue for the attentive reader, leaving us to wonder: when will that opportune time arrive?
We know, because we know the end of the story, when this final temptation becomes deeply ironic. Jesus isn’t protected by the angels in Jerusalem. In fact, the horror and abandonment of his death is the essence of his mission: he suffers for and with us, he endures death, so that we will trust that God is always with us, even to the end of the age.
Returning to the present moment, we can see that, in this testing, Jesus provides a model for our discipleship. Like him we have received the Holy Spirit at baptism. Like him, we wander in wildernesses and face temptations tailored to our particular callings. Like him, we have been claimed as God’s beloved. And as God’s beloved, we must walk through the world and do our best to discern truth from lies.
The master of lies appears in many guises and disguises, often dressed up as something good and attractive, often appearing when things are going really well. In fact, it’s been my experience that when I or an institution I’m part of is really on the right track, growing spiritually, doing the work of the Kingdom, we can count on the devil showing up, redoubling his efforts to derail us, even quoting Scripture, manifesting himself in resistance to change, or new bad habits, or a serious case of distraction.
Who has the truth? Which direction, which fork in the road do we take? Is it the one with the fast-track solution, the easy answer, the special offer that you must accept immediately or forfeit the opportunity? Or is it the one that promises a lasting relationship, something worth working on, a trust to build and a promise to keep?
If you want the truth, there’s no substitute for incarnation. Jesus comes to us, in person as the truth of God. We can trust him because he has shown up. When we show up in person we are saying that you matter, this community matters. That’s what many of us did on Ash Wednesday all over this city. That’s what we did for the Muslim women last month. That’s what we do when we participate in the AIDS walk and the Pride parade. That’s what our Stephen Ministers do for fellow parishioners going through a hard time. We show up, to be Christ for others, to demonstrate that God’s love is true. That’s the kind of truth that will set us free.
Our temptations are tailored to our uniqueness, as they were tailored to Jesus’s uniqueness. What are your particular temptations? What have you given up for Lent? Chocolate, alcohol, Starbucks? Or have you chosen less material weaknesses, like gossip, or complaining, or worry? Perhaps you are taking something on, like a devotional reading or more intentionality in what you say and how you treat others.
Whatever your Lenten discipline, you are likely to face temptations, and you may need some extra help in staying the course. Jesus had secret weapons with him in the wilderness that helped him withstand the seductive voice of sin: he was secure in God’s love and the Holy Spirit was with him. The same applies to us. Each of us is God’s beloved, each of us has received the Spirit. And as we together walk the path of discipleship, we will draw our strength from the very words of God as we hear them in today’s Psalm, the same Psalm the devil quoted to our Lord: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.” Therein lies our Lenten hope.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
February 14, 2016. First Sunday in Lent