The Greatest Temptations

Every year, different groups collate the most popular things that people give up during Lent, based on surveys or social media mentions. The whole tradition of giving something up for Lent, as you may know, comes from our New Testament story this morning, where Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. And while individual things may move around, on the list, the basic categories of things people give up often remain the same. Technology is an increasingly popular one, especially social media. Food and drink, though, is almost always ahead of that, particularly things like alcohol, coffee, and sweets. And chocolate, in particular, is often at the top of the list.

In fact, you could probably write a doctoral dissertation on the cultural theology of chocolate. Not only is chocolate arguably the most popular choice of a fast during Lent, but chocolate is at the center of the cultural feast day of Easter. If you go into a store right now, what you will see in terms of Easter items is overwhelmingly chocolate: chocolate eggs, chocolate rabbits, assorted chocolates; if you were visiting from another planet, you might think that the seasons of Lent and Easter are primarily about chocolate: it once was lost, but now is found.

But beyond Lent and Easter specifically, we often talk about chocolate in overtly theological language. Think about how you see chocolate advertised: “sinfully rich chocolate mousse;” “sinfully delicious chocolate cake.” “Go ahead, indulge yourself,” we are urged; “give in to temptation.” In fact, it’s become a symbol of our whole cultural understanding of temptation. Culturally, temptation means the experience of wanting something that we know is bad for us but that we desire deeply all the same because of the pleasure it gives us. And, in fact, some of that pleasure is knowing that it is bad for us and doing it anyway; “I’ve been trying to be good,” we’ll even say, with a little smirk at others as we reach for the plate, “but I’ve got to have at least a little.” Then afterwards, people will literally repent from having eaten that chocolate dessert the night before and assign their own penance. “I’ve got to stop doing that,” they’ll declare firmly; “I’ll do some extra cardio today and get back on track.”

That kind of theology of temptation is not altogether wrong, but it is woefully incomplete. Yes, we may be tempted to do all kinds of things that we know are wrong because they make us feel good, at least in the moment, only to regret later having given in to that temptation. But that’s not the only kind of temptation, and it’s definitely not the most important or difficult. It’s one thing to be tempted by something that we know is bad; it’s quite another to be tempted by something that seems good.

There’s a wonderful scene about this early in the first Lord of the Rings movie, the epic fantasy trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s novels. Gandalf, an ancient and powerful wizard, is talking to Frodo, who has inherited from his uncle what he and Gandalf thought was a simple magic ring that made the wearer invisible. Gandalf has discovered that it is actually the One Ring made by the Dark Lord, the most powerful and dangerous object in history, forged to help him exert dominion over all the world. Frodo, terrified and overwhelmed, turns to Gandalf with the ring in his hand, wanting it out of his house and his land. “Take it, Gandalf, take it!” he urges, holding it out to the wizard, who recoils, refusing. “You must take it!” Frodo insists, stepping forward again. “You cannot offer me this ring!” Gandalf declares, but Frodo steps forward again: “I’m giving it to you!” Frodo declares. “Don’t tempt me, Frodo!” Gandalf shouts in desperation. That surprises Frodo, and he lowers his hand. “I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe,” Gandalf explains; “understand, Frodo: I would use this ring out of a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”

Frodo, unknowingly, is playing the role of Tempter for Gandalf exactly the same way the Devil is very intentionally doing for Jesus in our New Testament lesson today. The devil doesn’t bother with trivialities like chocolate or alcohol, with temptations of pleasure and self-indulgence. No, he goes right for temptations of power and purpose, tempting Jesus to use his power to do the wrong things for the right reasons, “out of a desire to do good,” as Gandalf put it. The devil has chosen his moment well. Jesus has been fasting for forty days; he is quite literally starving at this point, which means that he is extremely physically weak and probably mentally weak, as well. And Jesus is doing so because he is trying to figure out what he is supposed to do in terms of his earthly ministry, how he should use his power as the Son of God.

Which is right where the devil makes his first move. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf a bread.” What could be wrong with that? Jesus is starving, and he has the power to create food, as we see later in the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. After 40 days of wandering in the wilderness without food, it might even be that he lacks the strength to get out of the wilderness. Why shouldn’t he make some food, given his desperate state? If he can feed other people, then why not himself?

Because when you’ve been entrusted with great power to use for the benefit of others, the shortest route to corruption is to start using that power to benefit yourself. It’s a cliché, really: how many leaders of liberation movements around the world, people who suffered and sacrificed for years to win freedom and justice for their people, finally attain power and then start using that power to live in luxury and crush any criticism while their people continue to languish? When you’re the leader of a great movement, you often become the movement personified, so it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the needs and benefits of the movement from the needs and benefits of yourself. And it becomes very easy to tell yourself that what benefits you benefits the movement because the movement and you are indistinguishable. Turning the stones into bread seems innocuous, given Jesus’ hunger, but that’s why the devil chooses it; it seems simple and perfectly fine, but what he’s actually doing is tempting Jesus to fuse his ministry to the world with his own self-interest. Jesus passes that test: “one does not live by bread alone,” he says, quoting Scripture about the Moses and the Israelites in desert being fed with manna from heaven by God.

Undeterred, the devil ups the ante, offering Jesus authority over all the kingdoms of the world, if he will only submit himself to the devil in turn. This one really is the temptation of the One Ring that I mentioned earlier. Jesus is tempted by this offer out of a desire to do good. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is constantly confronted by people who believe he is the Messiah, but understand his power of salvation in political and military terms. That’s the Messiah they want, one that can beat the Romans at their own game; that’s a mission they can understand, because that’s power that works in the real world against real-world problems. But Jesus understands what they don’t; that that’s not the kind of Messiah he is or that God wants, and so he responds that Scripture says, “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” When it gets down to it, Jesus did not actually come to serve the people; he came to serve God. But he understands that serving God means serving the people, even when it’s not the service they want.

Finally, the devil tempts him with the option of throwing himself off the top of the temple, trusting in God to protect him. This one seems a little corny at first; he just got offered all the kingdoms of the earth, and now he’s being tempted by the chance to do a better-than-average magic act? But think about it: if he did this, it would simultaneously show his favor in the eyes of God, prove his power over death, and allow him to avoid the horrors of his crucifixion as he did so. That’s pretty tempting: he gets the impact without the suffering. But Jesus understands this is cheating death, not conquering it; and more importantly, it is making God serve his will rather than him serving God’s will. So again, Jesus resists temptation, and the devil gives up and leaves “until an opportune time.”

The significance of these temptations, though, is not in their individual enticements. Each one has its power, to be sure, but the greatest temptation is when you put them together. It is the narrative, the overall story that the devil is telling through all of this, that is the greatest temptation: that Jesus can serve and protect his own interests, and meet the desires and expectations of the people, while still serving God’s will and purpose. In fact, it is always stories that are the greatest temptations away from God’s will and purpose. Not forbidden pleasures, not secret desires, but stories: false or deceptive stories that tell us what we want to believe, or what we already believe, or what we can’t help but believe about ourselves, or the world, or God; stories that play into our fears at least as much as our desires.

It is false stories that tell us we need to fear our neighbors who look or think or speak or act or love differently than us, because if they are different in those ways, they are dangerous. It is false stories that tell us that God couldn’t possibly love someone like us, and that other people wouldn’t either, if they really knew the truth about us. It is false stories that tell us that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and blessing, and so those who have it should be treated with honor, and those who don’t should be treated with suspicion or contempt. There are constantly false stories being told that we are tempted to believe, because they sound or feel right: the Lord helps those who help themselves; everything happens for a reason; God never gives us more than we can handle; hate the sin, but love the sinner. None of those stories are true; none are reconcilable with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Oh, you might pull a Scripture verse or two out of context to make an argument for some of these, but as we’ve heard this morning, even the devil can do that. And some of them are even told and believed out of a desire to do good. But that doesn’t mean they are good; and it certainly doesn’t mean they are true.

Jesus doesn’t fall for the devil’s false story because he never loses sight of the real story, the gospel story: that in and through him, God will do whatever it takes to get to us and save us, from being born in a manger, to being killed on a cross, to being raised again from the dead, demonstrating once and for all that God is stronger than our best attempts to push God aside and handle things for ourselves. And in some ways, that’s a harder story to believe than the ones that the devil tells, the ones that promise us blessings without service, and power without responsibility, and that the gospel is ultimately about meeting our desires rather than fulfilling God’s purposes. Which is why we often fall for them, because we’re not Jesus. But when we do, and we eventually find out that they’re not true, and we’re on our knees in confusion or despair or anger, that’s when Jesus comes to us, and kneels down beside us, and says, “I know how you feel. I’ve been there. They’re easy to fall for. So let me help you up, and then I’ve got a story for you. I know you’ve heard it before, but good stories are worth hearing over and over. So let’s start again.”

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