There are many biblical stories that are intriguing. They captivate our imaginations and still resonate; they’re just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.
I would’ve loved to have been a “fly-on-the-wall” (so-to-speak) when Noah loaded up the Ark, and it actually began to rain. Or, when Joshua and his army marched around Jericho, blasting their horns, and the walls came tumbling down. It would have been amazing to “peek in” as Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” - and later, as the Red Sea parted. Or when Mary and Joseph settled for a barn, and made Jesus’ first cradle in a feeding trough.
Our Gospel lesson for today is such a story.
What if we could have actually been there when Jesus had his encounter with Satan? God’s Word tells us that after Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit led him out into the desert/wilderness where he fasted and prayed for 40 days. And at the end of the 40 days (when he was physically exhausted and mentally weakened) Satan approached Jesus with three temptations.
What if you or I had been there? Do you think we could have “held our ground?” Could any of us have resisted the best that the Devil could throw at us? Jesus did, but what if you were there?
The first temptation was to turn stones to bread. Now, like I said, Jesus had been fasting for 40 days. I don't know about you, but I can’t seem to go more than a few hours without nibbling on something! And when I’m trying not to eat, it’s even worse! I’ve tried “fasting” for a day before, but I can't imagine doing that 40 times in a row! Yet, Jesus did not let his physical weakness and hunger get the better of him.
Of course, this temptation was about much more than physical hunger. The real temptation here, was for Jesus to use his power as God in the Flesh, to serve himself, instead of sacrificing for others.
Jesus, as an equal part of the Trinity, was actually there at the dawn of creation. He knew the makeup of rocks before they were rocks! And had Jesus wanted... he could have made a mountain of bread from the rocks, or anything else for that matter. But Jesus didn't. He resisted the temptation to use his power in self-serving ways.
Could even the strongest of us have stood up to that? I’d say “probably not.”
You have heard the saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It's true.
In the early 1970's there was a famous study conducted at Stanford University... 24 volunteers were recruited, and randomly set-up to live in a “prison environment” - half were designated “guards” (they were given clubs, uniforms and badges) - the other half were assigned to play “prisoners” - they were assigned a number and a prison gown, and placed behind bars. And over the course of two weeks, they’d take part in an experiment testing the psychological effects of power and submission. The test had to be cancelled after only 6-days, because those who were given “authority and power” to make the rules and enforce the rules, became so domineering, so drunk on power... that the “prisoners” began to experience psychological trauma. Today, it’s known as the Zimbardo effect. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Even people with the best of intentions can become corrupted by power. The pages of history are littered with people who gained power and then used it to serve themselves. I can't imagine another human being, other than Jesus, who could have the kind of absolute power that Jesus had, and not use it selfishly. Jesus used his power for others... not for self.
And then there’s the second temptation. Satan showed Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world in an instant and said, "I will give you all this if you will but worship me.”
Earthly glory has certainly led many astray. More than a few religious or political leaders have been led off the “straight and narrow” by the lure of earthly power. But of course Jesus already had power, so something else had to be going on here. Satan’s temptation, was the offer of an easier way. But it was an easy way that led to a lower end.
The fact of the matter is: Jesus was born to be the Messiah: the King of kings. But his kingdom was not of this world. God had planned for Jesus to suffer and die to achieve the goal of a heavenly throne. Satan’s goal was to entice Jesus to lower his sites.
It's kinda like a “black Friday” sale... where flat-screen, 55" televisions are on “sale” for $100... but in the fine print, the advertisement states in 3-point font (that requires a magnifying glass to read) that each store will only carry a limited number of the TV’s at that price. Of course, they always seem to have plenty of the 30" models at the same low price! Right? It’s the old “bait and switch!”
Satan was offering Jesus a lesser model throne at a than the eternal throne God had in store for him.
Could you or I have resisted the temptation? I don’t know.... but I do know that you and I often settle for less, don’t we? Less than what God has in store for us. Less peace, less joy, less abundant life, because the things of this world entice us to settle for something easier... something faster... something cheaper.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer - “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
And that brings us to the third temptation? Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “Jump, if you’re really the Son of God, for the scriptures say that angels will catch you lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Well, I could have resisted that temptation! But I have to admit I could have resisted it only because I lack the faith it would have taken to trust that his angels would have caught me. For Jesus the temptation was more than that.
For Jesus this was really the temptation to showboat or put on a publicity stunt to gain followers. If Jesus had thrown himself off the pinnacle of the temple and all the Chief priests and scribes and other religious leaders had seen the angels swoop down, then they would have known that he was the Messiah. He would gain many followers right away.
But that wasn't God's plan. God's plan was for Jesus to suffer and die for the sins of the world - not to be swept up by the powers that be and made an earthly king. Satan was offering Jesus fame and glory from the rich and famous - instead of being the sacrifice of atonement God had intended for the world.
Could we have resisted the temptation for fame and glory? In our day people will do just about anything for 15 minutes of fame. Most people would rather have fame and recognition and the accolades of the rich and famous than take a chance on self sacrifice.
Of course, the Temptations of Jesus - ultimately remind me... that we don’t have to wish we we’re a “fly-on-the-wall” - we don’t have to wonder what it would have been like to experience Jesus’ temptations - because we’re actually part of the story, now... today... this very moment.
We live this story, every day. We’re in the desert and Satan’s lies and temptations are very real for us, just as they were for Jesus.
All have sinned... and fallen short of the glory of God. We’ve all given into the temptations of this world, and the powers that rule over it.
And that’s what the Season of Lent is all about. It’s a time to reflect on our willingness to be self-centered... and our temptation to settle for less, and our frequent desire to seek power, and fame... when we’ve been called to receive the best, and to humble ourselves... while pointing others to Christ.
The Good News is: where we fail, Christ prevails.
And as we receive more and more of his grace... we learn to walk in the light of his mercy and forgiveness. We’re not defined by what fail to do, but by the One who has chosen us to be his, and who empowers us to overcome, even as he has overcome the world.