Temptation – Sun. March 10, 2019
Henri Nouwen is one of the spiritual giants of the 20th century. He was a Dutch Catholic priest as well as a writer, theologian and professor. He taught at Yale and Harvard Divinity schools before going to live with a L’Arche Daybreak community of people with disabilities in Ontario. He was also a prolific writer with 39 books and hundreds of articles to his credit. One of those books is this little gem: In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, published in 1989 while he was living in the L’Arche community and a mere 7 years before his death. It’s a short, simple and easy-to-read book based on the 3 temptations we hear Jesus facing in the wilderness today.
Having just been declared God’s own Beloved Son in baptism, and placed in sacred human history through a detailed genealogy, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit… was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…” to be tempted by the devil for 40 days. He ate nothing all those days and so Jesus’ first temptation comes in the face of his great hunger. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” the devil taunts. It is a temptation Nouwen describes, to be relevant.
How many times have we heard… or have we said… “the church just isn’t relevant…” or “the church needs to be more relevant…”? Nouwen kinda blows that up… which calls for a little further explanation. The relevance that Nouwen describes is one that makes us, and keeps us, busier and busier and busier. It is a relevance that’s about doing more… feeding a world in desperate need… accomplishing more and more good things. It is about valuing what we do at the expense of who we are, as though our worth is only about our productivity. This relevance is measured by what we contribute in GDP or job creation or volunteer hours or a thousand other things. And yet, Nouwen writes, “Beneath all the great accomplishment of our time there is a deep currant of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.” (33) The temptation to relevance… the temptation to turn a stone into bread… is about playing by the world’s rules.
Jesus, however, makes a different choice: “‘It is written,’” he answers, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” The discipline Nouwen proposes as embodying this alternative is contemplative prayer. The turn to the mystical from the moral is about deepening our first identity as God’s beloved. “God loves us,” Nouwen writes, “not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.” (30) We can only truly share God’s love with others when we know it ourselves, deeply in our souls. Contemplative prayer is the spiritual practice that teaches us, and reminds us, who we are as God’s beloved children.
The second temptation Jesus faced is one, Nouwen describes, of being powerful. The devil “led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world… and said: ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’” You can have all the power in the world. How tempting it is, because, Nouwen writes, “power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” From very early in creation, “we have been tempted to replace love with power.” (77) If only people “out there” would just do what we say… if only you would do what I say… if only the church had more power and control in the world… all would be well.
Jesus knew better. Jesus knew God’s call was to “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Jesus knew that the way of being a leader was to be led by God’s Spirit, even to the cross. The necessary quality is humility to let ourselves be led where we would rather not go… to unknown, undesirable and even painful places. (81) The spiritual discipline necessary here is, Nouwen describes, is strenuous theological reflection. It is only through critical discernment that we can discover where we are being led. “Theological reflection” Nouwen writes, “is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus and thereby raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance.” (88)
The third and final temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness was the temptation to be spectacular. “‘If you are the Son of God,’ the devil mocks, “throw yourself down from [this pinnacle of the temple]…” and let God save you in grand and spectacular fashion! Who wouldn’t believe in God after that?!? You might even get your picture in the paper and be asked to sign some autographs. The video could go viral! It is a temptation to popularity, to individual stardom and to heroism. We want to be liked and applauded and to do things people will like. More than ever in our society, certainly more than when Nouwen wrote his little book, the temptation to popularity and the spectacular is as present in the church as anywhere else in our competitive society. The image of the self-made woman or man who can do it all alone remains prevalent.
But Jesus wasn’t called to be popular. Jesus was called to ministry. And ministry is a team sport. Jesus gathered followers around him and sent them out, not alone, but two-by-two. Christian community cannot be practiced through individual heroism because it goes against the very core of community. Christian community has us bumping up against other broken and imperfect people and so at the very heart of community has to be the spiritual practice of confession and forgiveness. More than saying abstract words on a page, acknowledging our mistakes and missteps with one another, giving and receiving forgiveness, is how we practice love. It is how we truly love ourselves and one another, as God did first. The practices of confession and forgiveness are the difference between being a collection of individuals and being a community of Christ followers.
Jesus rebuffs the third and last of the devil’s temptations by saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Instead of testing God, Jesus chooses to trust God. It wasn’t so long ago that Jesus was baptized and heard a voice from heaven declare: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3:22) Those are the words, the words of God, in which Jesus trusted through the difficult wilderness days and the wily temptations of the devil. Twice in today’s Gospel, the devil dared Jesus to turn away from God’s love, saying: “If you are the Son of God…” The devil’s first and primary desire was to turn Jesus away from his first identity as God’s own son… God’s Beloved. But Jesus chose to trust God instead.
Our Gospel today is not about “garden variety challenges to individual faith,” as one commentator warns. It isn’t about trying really, really hard to do something we don’t want to do, or to not do something we shouldn’t do. It is, rather about particular tests of Jesus’ identity. Facing temptation, then, is not about self-control so much as it is about trust… trust in God’s words of life and of love. “If you are the Son of God…” the devil challenges… And the question is: Will Jesus trust that he already is God’s beloved, with whom God is already well pleased? Will you? Through the temptations to be relevant, to be powerful and to be popular, and whatever other trials and temptation you face this lent, will you remember who you are as God’s own Beloved child, and trust in God?