Saturday, February 16, 2013

Temptation and the First Sunday of Lent

The Lord Jesus, a man like us in all things but sin, demonstrates his close kinship to us in the desert today as he is tempted by Satan.

Is there anything more human than to suffer temptation?  Temptation is not sin.  Temptation is that nagging conviction which resides just behind the heart and slightly above the stomach, that gut-wrenching suspicion that true happiness lies not in doing what I should but in what I want.  It is the lie that happiness will be found not in obedient surrender, but in selfish grasping.

It is the agony of the three year old at the cookie jar, or the fifth grader sitting by the smart kid with the answers to the quiz, or the teen overwhelmed by lust, or his father doing his taxes or the spouse with just the right words to strike back or the old man whose just fed up or the addict with a bottle or the couple who just learned they are inconveniently pregnant.  

As Old as the Hills
Temptation is as old as paradise, when our first parents heard the whisper of the snake in the Tree that they could be like God if they would just do what they knew to be wrong.     

Do you remember when Kind David was tempted to steal Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite,  He saw her one hot night at a distance and fell immediately in lust.  So overwhelming was the temptation experienced by the chosen one of Israel that he forgot himself and his God and ordered that Uriah be sent into battle at the front of the army to face certain death.  Then he sent for the object of his desire and took what was not his to have.

Do you remember what the Prophet Nathan said to David the next day?  With all the skill required to surgically untangle the web of deception which David’s sin had woven, Nathan proposed a case for the wise King to judge. It seems, Nathan proposed, there was in David’s Kingdom a certain rich man and a certain poor man: The rich man had many sheep, while the poor man had only one little ewe, whom he loved more than anything else in the world. A traveler approached the rich man for food, whereby, instead of sharing of his own riches, the man took the poor guy’s beloved sheep and gave it away to the stranger.

Hearing this story, David grew angry and replied: "As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

At which, in one of the greatest dramatic moments of human history, Nathan shouts in David’s face, "You are the man!"

David had been caught by God.  And like everyone from Adam to Lance Armstrong, he is amazed that God has caught him.  For the real source of temptation is the Devil’s lie that you are bigger and smarter than God.  And the real act of sin is to believe it.

How Can We Resist?
Such is sin, and temptation is always the entry-way to it.  How then, can we resist temptation?

Perhaps the Lord gives us a hint in his struggle with the Devil in the Judean desert this morning when, three times, he is tempted.  You heard the temptations and Jesus’ response:

He’s hungry and the devil tempts him to turn the stones into bread.

He’s powerless and the devil tempts him to use all of creation for his own benefit.

He seems overwrought by the devil and he’s tempted to just give up and give in to the dark side.

In other word’s, he's tempted just like you and me to pleasure, to power, and to despair.  But to each, the Lord responds with, not just a witty retort, but a true antidote to a particular species of temptation.  Listen to what Jesus says to the devil:
  • When he tempts with pleasure, the Lord responds: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word which comes from the mouth of God.
  • When he is tempted by power, he retorts: you shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone.
  • And when the devil suggests he might just gave it all up and give it all to him, Jesus declares: you shall not tempt the Lord your God.
The antidote to temptations to selfish pleasure then is fasting, to the lust for power, prayer, and to despair, the discipline of penance.

A brief word about each, for this Lenten agenda of Fasting, Prayer, and Penance form the triple agenda of these forty days.

Fasting, as every second grader knows, is giving something up.  But not giving up just because something is bad.  We fast so that we might later feast.  We give up so that we might appreciate the value of that from which we abstain.  Thus we fast from joyous music and resurrectional acclamations in our music that we might sing those songs with all the more fervor on the night of Paschal joy.  We drape the crucifix and our glorious Cathedral in purple with not a flower in sight that we might be all the more deeply touched by the smell and the beauty of lilies and white and gold on Easter Sunday morning.

We fast from rich foods and meats each Friday, that our hunger might soon be replaced with reminders of the joys of heaven.  We discipline our minds and bodies in little things that we might prepare them for the spiritual battle required to accept the incredible love of him who is the first born of many brothers and who destroys even death by his Paschal sacrifice.

Fasting, then, is a powerful tool against Satan and his tempting lies.  And the more we fast, the less is the power of the Prince of Darkness.

And then there’s prayer.  Prayer is a funny thing, for in order to pray I must kneel down, or at least bow my heart and my will before God.  Prayer cannot happen unless I admit that I am little and God is big.  Prayer is never a dialogue between equals but the cry of a wretched suppliant before a benevolent patron.  Prayer establishes right relationships and reminds me who’s boss.

And finally, there’s penance, of which fasting is a species, but not the whole enchilada.  Penance is a constant self-examination, a rooting around in my life for that which is rotten or selfish or which refuses to love.  It is a radical turning from self to other, from selfishness to loving, from me to God.

So good luck with your temptations, for they will come.  Customized for your time and state in life, the Devil will spend a great deal of time wrapping his gifts for you this Lent.  But you and I have the weapons of fasting and prayer and penance to defeat him and all his vanities. All we have to do is to decide to use them.