“If you are the Son of God…”
– Matthew 4:3, 5
My Dear Friends in Christ,
Get ready to rumble!! These were the opening words for the most important matches of the WWF (World Wrestling Foundation). Back in the 80s (a decade for great music if unsatisfying cultural references in other areas), when I was just a wee lad, professional wrestling became quite the thing. It was a whole universe unto itself: a full cast of larger-than-life characters, outlandish fights in overacted situations. It was obviously staged, some would even say faked, but it attracted millions of viewers both on television and in person. Honestly, I never saw the attraction, but it continues to this day (although in a less garish way), and it did lead to a cynical satire on MTV. Called Celebrity Death Matches, these short segments were often aired as filler between music videos (when MTV actually played videos!). Each “match” was a Claymation depiction of an imagined boxing match between two famous (or infamous) characters from the news of the day. These would “fight” each other hyperbolizing the loud, overstated but underhanded dastardly ways of professional wrestling. Now, I know you’re thinking, “What the heck is he talking about?!!??” but I ask you to bear with me. I often think of professional wrestling when I think of this Gospel today of Jesus being tempted in the desert. Too many people relegate the temptation of Jesus in the desert as a Celebrity Death Match, a fake fight, created by God, manipulated like Claymation figures, for in this case “info-tainment.” Or perhaps they think of it as something like the Main Event at World Wrestling Foundation Match of the Century: a pre-staged match more real than the clay but with fighters that are only acting, the outcome predetermined, and the victory is assured! Sadly, this understanding relieves this account of the great gift and insight it could be for us. It takes away the real temptations Jesus faced and the real strength He needed to fight them off. More than that, this viewpoint doesn’t help to prepare us for the temptations that we face, that God seeks to help us overcome. And that’s the real lesson…
Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart… return to the LORD, your God… [who is] gracious and merciful… slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. (See Joel 12:1-2) These very first words of Lent remind us what Lent is truly all about: that God loves us, that God is willing to accept us no matter where we are or where we’ve been, no matter how distant or separated we’ve felt, no matter how tired or angry. And in Jesus Christ, we see that God not only accepts us coming back to HIM. Much more, God comes out to us and offers us this sacred season of Lent to get to know one another better, for God to show me that I am a beloved daughter, a beloved son, a delight, that I am cared for, supported, cherished… LOVED. And this begins in earnest today.
At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:4) It’s a fantastic story, the first celebrity death match, long, long before it was a thing on MTV. Jesus squares off against the devil in the center ring. And the devil leaves his corner pulling no punches. For a very insightful and readable explanation of the Temptation in the desert, I recommend that you read Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict. It’s an excellent insight into this passage and very helpful for your spirituality.
First, let’s look at the context. Jesus rises from the Jordan River, newly baptized by John. Suddenly, there is a sign from heaven: After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened… and… the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice… from the heavens… “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 3:16-17) Jesus is revealed as the Beloved Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit who descends like a dove and, indeed, the very voice of God directly.
And immediately following this revelation, Jesus is sent by the Spirit into the desert. Jesus needs time, space to reflect on who God is and how God works, space from the demands of daily life, quiet amid the chaos that can consume time before we know it’s gone. So, Jesus goes into the desert to spend some quiet time with his beloved Father. And, perhaps like you, certainly like me, he is immediately met by the devil who seeks to draw him away, to separate him from the Father, and to keep him in the midst of that chaos.
Tell these stones to become loaves of bread. (Matthew 4:3). Jesus has spent 40 days in the desert, forgoing the distractions of food or water, focusing only on God and the Father’s love. And so, the devil tempts Jesus to use God’s power, perform a magic trick to relieve his bodily discomfort. After all, shouldn’t the Messiah, the anointed of God be able to feed the hungry? Shouldn’t Jesus relive the suffering of those in the world? God fed the Israelites in the desert when they were hungry… if Jesus is God’s son then why not do something like that. Jesus refuses. As important as food is, there is something more important: one’s relationship with God. After all, when the time comes, Jesus will create bread not from stones but by multiplying 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed 5,000 and then again, Jesus will feed his disciples at the Last Supper, offering Himself as Bread for the world. Jesus makes it clear: simple hunger, as devastating as it can be, cannot separate one who has faith from God: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Stymied, the devil changes tactics: “…throw yourself down from this parapet of the Temple…see if God saves you. (Matthew 4:5-6). The sacred Temple was the dwelling place of God, where all good Jews made a pilgrimage to be with God. The Devil takes Jesus where holiness enfolds and one is able to know, depend on God. Once there, he pushes Jesus to provoke an artificial crisis to force God into visible action. And further, the Devil tempts Jesus quoting Scripture, better to say misquoting: God will command the angels to support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. But Jesus knows full well that’s not how God works. Testing God, asking for immediate material signs of God’s help and love, demonstrates a lack of trust in God, a scarcity of faith. True faith doesn’t need a crisis for God to demonstrate His power. True faith is taking joy in God’s Presence, knowing God’s close no matter the situation, no matter what God does, or NOT, in any situation. And in fact, on the Cross, Jesus will take this leap of faith, now figurative but no less profound and demanding, trusting only in God, even and especially when it seems that God has abandoned him. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit…(Luke 23:46). Jesus, aware that one’s trust in God is not returned by parlor tricks, shows with absolute definitiveness where he stands: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
Once more, the Devil hasn’t won but He’s saved his best temptation for last: transporting Jesus to the greatest earthly height, showing AND offering, the very best the world has to offer: riches, power, wealth, possessions, and, perhaps even more importantly the control, domination, and security they seem to provide on earth. All these I shall give to you, if you…worship me. (Matthew 4:8-9) Isn’t this the very mission of the Messiah, to use all things for God’s glory and gather them all to God? It seems that the Devil is just trying to make Jesus’s job easy. Actually, the Devil wants Jesus to forget who He is, wants to get between Jesus and the Father, wants to question, even thwart Jesus’ faith in God alone. Instead, the Devil offers immediate gratification, focusing on creature comforts and earthly control rather than purity of faith and belief in and worship of God ALONE. The Devil offers worldly power over the powerlessness of faith, over the earthly powerlessness of Jesus.
The Devil wants to shift Jesus’ focus from eternal salvation to the difficulty at hand, to shrink all time to the trial of this present moment, offering anything Jesus could need to and overcome this obstacle. Jesus responds with a short and incisive command: “Get away, Satan,” (Matthew 4:10) naming the tempter for the first time: “Satan”, that is, ‘Adversary’ or ‘Enemy’ the death seeking opposition to God’s life-giving designs for our salvation. Jesus choses not earthly power but God’s power, love over domination, gentleness over brute force, not an easy choice to make or defend in His day (a world that seeks to have Barrabas released instead of Jesus), or in ours (a world that would rather storm the Capitol than accept defeat.
As the Lord suffers temptation after temptation, he peels away the layers of sly disguise and reveals evil for what it is. Jesus counters the specificity of evil with the specificity of Good. Every temptation is met with trust in God, a reminder that my life and my faith are based in God, bigger than this or any challenge, suffering, or difficulty. Jesus perseveres in His identity, continuing to trust in God, bringing every temptation and spiritual crisis back to one central principle: God alone!
It’s why Satan qualifies each temptation: If you are the Son of God… (Words that we’ll hear again as Jesus hangs on the Cross and is mocked by the passers-by. With these words, Satan offers Jesus an identity that is far easier than the primary one Jesus is experiencing as God’s Son. Satan offers an identity that has no suffering and makes no demands, or at least, makes demands that we can accept (like “Worship me.”) over those that are troubling us (the challenge at hand whether it is the death of a loved one, the sickness of child, a loss of income, unemployment, addiction, persecution). The Devil wants to substitute the faith of Jesus, uncertain, challenging, untested, only future rewards, for the immediate earthly security of food, comfort, wealth and domination.
You and I, each one of us is, like Jesus a child of God. What Jesus was by nature, we share by baptism. God has called each of us: You are my beloved Daughter. You are my beloved Son. The Devil, Satan, the tempter is challenging us too, more subtly than with Jesus but no less really, challenging us with the current moment, to THINK about who God is and How God works. But the Devil wants us to focus only on our immediate wants and desires, on the apparent absence of God if we don’t get what we want or if we experience suffering, on what we think we need to live our lives rather than trusting in God to give us everything to get us through. Think, the Devil says, and be dismayed, focus on what you don’t have and can’t do, on the God you can’t trust. God doesn’t love you. How could He? Jesus wants us to focus on God: who God is and how God works; not on our needs but on God who provides; to focus on trusting God rather than testing no matter the situation; to focus on God’s will even when we struggle, when we’re imperfect and incomplete rather than on earthly power and wealth and the security they provide. Think not of the world, but of God.
What a great message as we go through these challenging times for our world with a still raging pandemic and struggling economy, for our nation divided by vitriol and hatred, for our pastorate challenged by the need for change and the call to discern God’s will, to see where God is calling us to go, rather than remaining where we feel comfortable, and, perhaps especially for us, so exhausted by a year of lockdown, of being closed in, of Zoom Meetings and social distancing, of seeing too little of some people and too much of others! Yes, thinking of, focusing on, trusting in God and not the world is a great message. It is not easy. Certainly NOT. But not impossible. And that’s where prayer comes in.
People are surprised, or they think I am kidding when I say that prayer is one of the hardest things I do all day. A thousand things seem more urgent, chaos intervenes and disrupts my perfectly planned day, and on top of all that from the outside, there is my own feelings of dryness, of boredom, of anguish and anger: after all, why waste time on something that produces no fruit and offers no return. It is at precisely this moment that I need to remember my primary identity: God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased, pleased not because I am perfect (certainly not) or because I do all the right things and avoid the bad one (certainly I try but I’ve often failed even before I get up, let alone by the time I fall asleep at night. No. God is delighted by me, pleased with me because God created me and sees in me: the Robbie I can be rather than the Robbie I am.
And this is the message I need to know, that the God who seeks to spend time with me is not the finger wagging judge. In fact, God comes not to judge or berate or belittle but to console and comfort and strengthen. It is true, that I may not “get anything out of it right now” that it does not bear fruit immediately, that God does not answer prayers the way I want him to, or in the time frame I give him. But none of that means it’s a waste of my time. It is time given to God, a gift offered to the Beloved, even if imperfectly crafted and incompletely finished. Any parent can tell you that he or she would much prefer the hand-made, if simple, even primitive gift over the sleek store-bought item of the highest quality. It IS about the effort and the love behind the gift, far more than perfection, about the way the gift is offered rather than the perfectly place end result. This is why we pray, why God calls us back to him and it’s why we have Mother Teresa of Calcutta as our special guest star this week.
“If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” (Mother Teresa of Calcutta) I used to watch Mother Teresa and be in awe of the good works she would do, the gentle way that she did them, her unspeakable courage and perseverance in asking for, even demanding what she needed to do God’s work. I used to assume that her ability to do all of this was fed by her prayer, assumed that her service was grounded in prayer, that her prayer seemed to feed her and focus her on serving the other. And keep her going when challenged from within or without.
I was shocked to learn after her death of the spiritual darkness she encountered. Shortly after she arrived in India, about the time she left her religious community, unable she said to step over another person dying in the gutter, called by God to serve the poorest of the poor, at that time, THAT TIME WHEN SHE WAS MOST VULNERABLE, she began to feel the absence of God. Imagine for a moment, not the self-assured octogenarian who did not hesitate to be pushy, (always for God but still very, very pushy) not the later in life Mother Superior but the newly arrived religious sister, called once again to leave everything she knew behind to go where God asked, to do what God wanted and as she takes this leap, God seems to abandon here.
According to her letters and other writings, and according to her spiritual directors and the bishops she served, her prayer becomes dead, dark, filled with despair, a daily struggle becoming a lifetime challenge. All of this only known after she died, the reality and how deep and deeply shocking. Over and over, she would beg her spiritual directors or the bishops for help, for any insight or practical wisdom that would help her weather what John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. Yet, in all of that she was still faithful: every day she would spend at least an hour in quiet meditation before the blessed sacrament, every day went to Mass, every day prayed all of the Liturgy of the Hours. And if there was something joyous like a particular feast, or if she had a question of discernment, or if she or the community were facing a particular challenge she would pray more, more time in quiet prayer, more time with the community. And throughout most of it, this was her most difficult time of the day, the most painful, the most taxing, the most hurtful because God never came, like Jesus on the Cross, God seemed to have abandoned her. Yet still she was faithful, always going to pray, always willing to devote the time to prayer, to offer this gift to her beloved Father. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read the book of her letters regarding this spiritual darkness. I must admit that it is heavy reading and I started and stopped for several years before I could get through it. In fact, it was only in one of my most difficult moments that I could read and appreciate her situation and her willingness to help me.
This is why she spoke of being a saint in darkness, that when we struggle to pray, when are worn out, when we are afraid, alone, discouraged and despairing, she has promised to be with us, to intercede for us. And you know, when she asked, people gave, even if only to get rid of her, so persistent was she. She will use that force to be with you and to interceded with God. Then, even then God can draw you close, even now.
Take some time this week, to reflect on our Gospel. Remember that Jesus was fully human. Although his responses to the Devil are concise, stylized, and immediate in the Gospel these were still temptations for Jesus: to put something else first, to get distracted, to move God to a secondary place, to focus on the immediate challenge and our fear, to demand a certain outcome, to questions God’s presence. All of these were distractions for Jesus even as for us. Take some time this week to try to pray, thinking not of what you need to do or what you will get out of it. Rather, concentrate on offering something to God: the time and space to delight in you. Use what I call the 7/7 rule: Take 7 minutes each day over the next 7 days to pray. Objectively it is not a long time and surely you can find it. Spend the first minute telling God where you are, and the last minute asking God for what you need. But leave the 5 minutes in between for God. Allow God to delight in you, strengthen you. I guarantee you that God will make use of the time you offer if you can focus on your offer rather than the reward. Together, let us pray for one another and for all those who will come to encounter Christ during this Lent. Pray that, through the intercession of Saint Joseph they might be cared for and watched over by the God who loves us and draws us close.