by Christine Wenderoth
Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry
The version I heard of this gospel text this past Sunday began “After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned etc. etc…” Now, we would know this story was “after Jesus baptism” had we just read chapter three as well as four, and we Bible students would remember this—of course—from our studies. But for many of us, it was good to be reminded that all this wilderness temptation stuff happened after baptism, not before. Baptism does not inoculate us from wandering in the wilderness or being tempted by the devil. We’re all gonna have our wilderness to cross and temptations to resist [or not] after baptism. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is I think most of us default to a personal reading of this story. Jesus had his temptations, I have my temptations and I should look to how Jesus handled things and do likewise. Indeed, we are encouraged to think of temptations and wildernesses on the personal level by the very churches that read this temptation story out loud with us. At the Episcopal church I attend, this Lent we are using the Book of Common Prayer Rite One with its King Jamsian language of perpetual penitence to help us with our personal meditations, we were told. It’s the Great Litany with its “though unworthy, we implore you”s for the entire Sunday worship service from the Ten Commandments through dismissal. So the Great Thanksgiving goes: “And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This, just to get us to the Lord’s Prayer and Breaking of the Bread. It was a long service.
But even without reminders from the table [or altar as some would have it] reading about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is easy to personalize. It’s how our culture does things. I can look at this story and see parallels to my own life. As some of you know, I live alone, while my husband labors in the vineyards of New Providence, New Jersey. I’m an introvert, so being alone is comfortable. And it’s easy for me, like Jesus, to go for extended periods of time without eating [there being no set family meal time] until I realize, “hey, I’m famished” and I’m tempted… not to turn stones into bread but to turn microwavable, frozen entrees into a dinner. I fail the temptation. This may not be the moral equivalent of Luke’s story, but how I manage hunger does have its long term consequences, and I make the connection. Similarly, after hours on my own alone, I can become a legend in my living room—musically I become part Bonnie Raitt, part Nina Simone, part Joni Mitchell, part Ella Fitzgerald, with the piano chops of Patricia Barbara thrown in to boot. And with no one around to provide a sober reality check, I bask in the glory of my obvious talent. When what I need, clearly, is Jesus to say to me, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” And yes, in my apartment wilderness I persist in the delusion that I am safe, that I am protected from thieves, fire, knives, slippery floors, heat and cold by the angels and my four walls. Do I test the Lord? When I use the ladder, probably.
Well, OK, these are frivolous, even stupid analogies and I don’t mean to suggest this is what most people do as their Lenten discipline. Most people give up chocolate. Clearly we are bidden to examine our sin, temptation and wilderness more seriously and soberly.
And I know, too, that the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is a story of Jesus’ identity as Son of God. Read any proper Presbyterian commentary, like the Westminster John Knox series Texts for Preaching, and it will be made clear that Jesus shows his Son of Godness not just in his strength to resist temptation –unlike me eating my microwave dinner on a ladder while I belt out the blues—but in his sure knowledge that God alone gives bread, that God alone is real power, that God is not to be tested, that God alone is God. These are not trifling things.
By extension I suppose we are to see that we are not the Son of God. Presented with all these same temptations—to feed our appetites, to feel powerful and admired, to feel safe—we fail repeatedly. We don’t quite get that God alone is God, and we don’t leave our wilderness to get on with ministering to God’s hurting world.
But what if we were to do something a little more radical in our reading today? What if we were to take this story of the testing in the wilderness and consider it in the light of collective sin and weakness, rather than in terms of our own individual failings? Indeed, we are wandering in our own collective wilderness right now. We call it the Presidential campaign season, and for months we’ve been traipsing through the teeming desert of sound bites, faux debates and media circuses. The issues which are taking up our collective consciousness are those of terrorism, economic injustice, immigration, the role and size of government, climate change, health care, gun control, police behaviors, and now, Lord help us, Supreme Court appointments and confirmations. The issues are many, yet I am persuaded by New York Times columnist Charles Blow that one way of understanding them all is that they are the noises of white America suffering from a nervous breakdown. Blow writes:
Much of the energy on both the left and the right this cycle is coming from white Americans who are rejecting the direction of America and its institutions. There is a profound disappointment. On one hand, it’s about fear of dislocation of supremacy, and the surrendering of power and the security it provides. On the other hand, it’s about disillusionment that the game is rigged and the turf is tilted. [New York Times, Feb. 4, 2016]
Put another way, white Americans are wandering in the wilderness—not of Presidential elections—but of “the system that white people designed and maintained, which increased their chances of success as it suppressed those same chances [for] others. That system persists to this day in disturbing ways, but the current, vociferous naming and challenging of that system, the placing of the lamp of truth near the seesaw of privilege and oppression, has provoked a profound sense of discomfort and even anger.” to quote Blow again. President Bill Clinton, on the campaign trail a few weeks ago, put it in a funny, almost winsome way. He said much of white America is anxious over a changing demographic profile of the country and is expressing that anxiety either as anger or as “a broken heart”, broken hearts manifested in the unexpected and otherwise mysterious rise of middle-aged white suicides, alcoholism and drug overdoses.
At any rate, I think Charles Blow is right, and he has helped me see something. The topics of this year’s Presidential campaign—be it ISIS, Wall Street, Muslim immigrants, the Paris Climate Accord, the Affordable Health Care Act, or gun control—are the same temptations placed before Jesus by the devil—namely, the temptations of appetite, power, safety.
"If you are famished, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Appetite, hunger. “To you I will give glory and all this authority.” Power, the desire for power. “On their hands God's angels will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Safety, security. These are temptations we all face. Our presidential candidates offer us bread, glory & authority, and protection… of one kind or another. And we are famished. We are needy. We are scared. And so we bite.
There’s just one little problem as Jesus points out. God alone gives bread, God alone is glory and power, God alone protects, God alone is God. Not Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, not Ted Cruz, not Jeb Bush, not even…Bernie Sanders. I’m not saying these candidates offer themselves up as God. [Well, maybe the Donald.] I’m not saying these candidates are offering eternal comfort, absolute authority or complete protection. But they are offering bread, power and security, at least in some measure.
Well, there’s another little problem. As I say, we think our hunger, our weakness, our insecurity is ours alone, our own little personal problem. We are individuals primarily. We think the devil is doing little one-on-one temptations with all of us and we need to work on ourselves. We see Jesus on that hilltop or the pinnacle of that temple and we imagine ourselves in his place, the devil whispering sweet nothings into our ear. All I have to do is curb my appetite, my pride, my fear. “I’ll give up chocolate for Lent. That’s the most I can do, that’s the most any of us can do.” It doesn’t occur to us that our private temptations are part of a larger system of evil.
We are, in fact, tempted by the false nostalgia for a system of privilege and power that most of us white folks never saw for what it was. We thought it was a sin of personal attitudes, something called “prejudice”. We believe in an America that rose to greatness by sheer ruggedness, ingenuity and hard work, conveniently forgetting that the prosperity of some Americans always hinged on the oppression of other Americans. The devil has done a number on us. He has gotten us to shift focus, look the wrong direction. We look to ourselves. We have been tempted and we have succumbed to the temptation. The system of white power and privilege, the collective sin, prevails because we don’t even attend to it… until it whoops us upside the head. And so we wander in the wilderness of our Presidential elections choosing either this prescription or that, but never getting to the truth because the truth is so BIG: that only God is God. Only God is God. The god of white privilege and some fictional America of yesteryear is a false god, a small god, and we yet we keep worshiping it.
But how do we stop worshipping the false god? How do we leave the wilderness? How do we resist the temptations of appetite, power and security that grab us in private moments but are tiny pieces of systemic sin? I don’t know. None of us do, really, or we wouldn’t still be in the wilderness, baptized but tempted.
But I have a hunch. Two hunches that come to me from reading today’s gospel lesson. I’ve already spoken the first and it’s obviously this: We must exercise our hermeneutic muscles, not focus on the lesser sins of candy bars and other personal desires. Don’t ignore those entirely but remember that sin is not simply a private matter. Forefront the corporate. Reframe the wilderness.
My second hunch goes back to this baptism thing, the thing that began this whole story. There is a promise, a promise we made and a promise God made. Yes, baptism isn’t an insurance policy that we whip out when we have need. It isn’t a birth certificate, identifying us as members of a respectable family, the Christians. It is a set of promises in which [in the words of the baptismal liturgy] the community promised to nurture and guide us, we promised to turn away from sin and to turn towards God, and God promised in Jesus Christ to help us with that turn. They promised, we promised and God promised.
We fall down on our promises all the time. We are not God. But the promise is to keep trying.
God’s promises are utterly reliable. And in part we reread these Bible stories, to remind us of just that. In this election year, this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness should be required reading. God promised something, and the promise was kept. But the devil is always looking for an opportune time.