Based on Luke 4:1-15
A few years ago, as part of the Spiritual Care Network for BC Conference, I was given a lovely book by Parker Palmer called, “The Active Life – a spirituality of work, creativity and caring.” I have found it to be a profound little book, and it just happens to have a chapter on Jesus in the Desert: the Temptations of Action. So I want to share some of its gems of wisdom today. We could get into a good discussion about what we really mean by the word `devil’ but for today’s purposes, I’ll use `devil’ and `tempter’ interchangeably.
Stones to bread: The temptations listed in this story only take up 12verses – surely any of us could manage a pop quiz on the last day of a lovely forty day retreat. But Luke says Jesus was tempted for forty days – so welcome to the constant presence that confronts, questions, twists the truth, and creates the doubts.
We begin with the devil using Jesus hunger as an opportunity. If you are the Chosen One, turn these stones to bread. The main temptation isn’t to do a magic trick, and it’s not even about satisfying his hunger. This is more than the temptation to be relevant to the situation. More than “If you feed them, they will come.” Parker Palmer say the taunt that takes a familiar form.
“If you are the Chosen One…” Though few of us get needled for thinking we are Chosen, the tone of that taunt should remind us of those voices in our own head, or outside of us – If you are so able, if you are such a good parent,…if you are a real man… or woman… if you are truly the caring person you say you are… The temptation is to prove our identity, which many of us feel we must.“
But identity on whose terms? Jesus idea of being the Chosen One (the Messiah) was radically different than what the tempter was suggesting.
I will give you power: Then we hear of Jesus flirtation with the idea of power. The tempter says, “All this is mine to do with as I will, and this is your lucky day, I’ve decided to give it to you, all you have to do is worship me – acknowledge that I am the source of all you need. Note that power means power over someone or something, not power with or for.
Palmer say there are two illusions that go with power over:
(a) Power over will keep us from being immersed in the suffering of those under our power. We don’t have to look far to see what a deeply ingrained illusion that is. The United States of America claims to be the most powerful nation on earth. Really? It seems to me that especially manifest those running for the Republican party; they are the most frightened people in the world. If you are standing on top of the heap, the only place for you to go is down, so you have to be in constant fear that those who are suffering under your power, will want to rise up.
Lest we be smug, in our own country we are coming to terms with the ill-conceived history of having power over the indigenous people of the land. We can only move ahead as equals when we acknowledge the suffering this `power over’ has caused.
(b) The second illusion – Power will not corrupt us. (Well it won’t corrupt me!) You just don’t have to think too long before you can think of numerous examples of things going sideways when individuals or groups have too much power.
Besides, is power the devils’ to give? Palmer says, “People cannot give away what they do not have, and yet a million exchanges are made every day in which people promise to do exactly that.” P110
E.g. ads… buy this body spray and you will have gorgeous women swarming around you like cats in heat! Get this educational degree and you will have status and dignity, or… a big student debt and a job for which you are way over qualified. How about `You’re not just buying a home, you are buying a lifestyle.’ (Yes, it’s also called debt!)
When Jesus quoted scripture back – about worshiping and serving God alone, he wasn’t just being pious. He was stating the fact – power and glory are not the devil’s to give. They belong to God alone, and only through God can we share in them. P111
Throw Yourself Down: Then we move to the `two can play this game’ temptations. Throw yourself down from the top of the temple, for scripture says…
Henri Nouwen calls this the temptation to be spectacular. If you made bread you have to deal with the hungry, if you accept power, you have to govern disgruntled people who send you petitions and email their annoyance.
But to just be spectacular – wow – you can inspire awe that leaves your ego inflated without any obligations. If you can jump unharmed from the top of the temple, you might get invited to lots of parties. I expect that when we live in such a highly individualist society, the pressure to be spectacular is particularly great. Whether it’s pushing everything else out of your life in order to reach Olympic gold, or commit acts of violence that say, “Look, I have power, pay attention to me,!’ there is something in all of us that wants to be noticed.
Is it ok not be spectacular? Is it ok to just let your light quietly shine, and not be a firecracker?
In the December UC Observer, the church of Hillhurst United in Calgary was featured as an `inspiration.’ In this month’s UC Observer, Rev. Anna Christie had the courage to write” the problem with stories like “The Hillhurst effect’ is that they can do more shaming than inspiring. Lots of ministers/boards/congregations do exactly the same kind of thing, and their churches don’t grow at all. It also irks me to use the word “success” in terms of numbers and money. As followers of Jesus, we should know that success is discipleship. Picking up crosses: that’ success.”
Parker Palmer writes “When I think of the great works we are called to in our lives, works we avoid at peril of our souls, I think of works in which we cannot possibly be “effective.” I meant such things as loving other people, opposing injustice, comforting the grieving, bringing an end to war. There can be no “effectiveness” in these tasks, only the commitment to work away at them. And if we judge such work by the standard of measurable outcomes, the only possible result will be defeat and despair.” P76
When my Dad and I get on the phone we razz each other about our jobs. `It must be nice’ he says to me, to be in ministry and only work one hour a week. ’To which I respond, ‘Yup, sure is. It must be nice to be retired and not do a darn thing.” We both know that we do work that doesn’t look very effective.
Once more from Palmer – “Jesus’ ability to see through the illusion is at the core of his resistance to the devil. He knows `right action does not require us to be relevant, powerful, or spectacular. It only requires that we respond faithfully to our own inner truth and to the truth around us. The right action is no more or less than the action it is right to take, taken without anxiety about results. If right action is taken with integrity, its outcomes will achieve whatever is possible – which is the best that anyone can do.”p115
It’s a strong temptation – to be effective, when what we really need to do is be faithful to our calling and our identity.
Where have you seen faithfulness at work? Where have you lived it out and where will you live it out?
That wild and holy Spirit that sent Jesus out to the desert also sends us from time to time, to take stock, to reflect on our values and actions, to see what’s under the visible surface of the iceberg, motivating our thoughts and actions. What is it that frightens us, inspires us, inhibits us, challenges and tempts us?” At the end of 40 days, it says that the tempter finally left, to come back at an opportune time. An opportune time; that my friends, could mean any minute now! As we begin this 40 days of Lent, may the Holy Spirit companion us through the light and shadow. Amen.