When I think of Lent, I remember trying to give up candy, trying to not eat snacks, trying to give up some old habit that wasn’t good for me. You notice I say trying.
And that pretty much sums up the Lents of years past. You try to give something up so that you can become a better person. Then there was also this emphasis on sin. What should I be trying to do or not do to become a better Christian? Jesus gave up everything, so shouldn’t I give up something? And, usually I’d fall back into the exact same habits again, and then I’d feel either like I failed, or that I’d sinned or both.
Repentance is a big deal during Lent. The word Repent means literally, ‘to turn around,’ to change direction, to re-orient yourself. When I’d go to church and hear about repenting for sins, as a child I’d think about arguing, fighting with my brother and sisters, and putting off my homework or chores. These things might be sins. But they are little sins. I don’t think God cares too much about them.
When Jesus is tempted in the desert, he is tempted with big, attitude-adjusting temptations.
- If you’re really who you say you are, turn these stones into bread.
- Worship me, and I will give you this entire kingdom as your own.
- If you’re really who you say, throw yourself down from the temple, and the angels will save you.
These are bigger than they look at first. Jesus hasn’t eaten for days. We don’t know how many, but we can guess that he was famished, exhausted, weak and at his limit. He didn’t have any reserves to draw on. He was very, very vulnerable. And that’s when he is tempted by food. “You don’t have to fast forever, take the short cut. You don’t need to draw this out as long as you planned to, you’re the only one planning it, so change the rules.” Who would know? There’s no one there to check up on him. What difference would it make if he just snuck in a little food? In fact, he would be stronger, and more able to do God’s will.
But, it would make him a little less. He would be short changing who he really is, and what he was about. He wouldn’t be doing what he was sent there to do.
The other thing that could easily have been in the back of his mind was Moses. He had just finished talking with Moses and Elijah before he went into the desert, and Moses was the savior who fed all the Israelites with bread, manna when they were in the desert. If Jesus turned a few stones into bread for himself, think what he could do for all the poor and starving in Nazareth! Or Jerusalem. Or the whole region of Galilee! This wasn’t just an ‘I’m hungry’ temptation, it was also about what you could do, if given the chance. He could do better than God is doing right now!
This is the difference between an action and an attitude. We can act wrongly, but often, in the scheme of things that can be small, and quickly remedied. What is of bigger concern is attitude. And that’s what the temptations were attacking.
“Worship me, and I’ll give you this whole kingdom.” Jesus wasn’t out there to get rich and live comfortably. He never tried to get rich. But he did care about people, and how to help them to live in a way that honored who they were as sons and daughters of God ,and as sisters and brothers to each other. That’s all he cared about. And right then, all these sisters and brothers of his were getting crushed under the heel of Rome. They were treated almost as if they were slaves, and they didn’t necessarily treat others any better. On top of that, ignorance, sickness, and poverty were everywhere he looked. Think what he could do if he controlled the whole kingdom!
The last temptation was doubly weird. At first it looks like, ‘You are so special, so holy, that God would never , under Any circumstances, let anything happen to you. God will send Angels to swoop down and save you.’ And that is an attitude that a lot of people carry. ‘Nothing terrible can ever really happen to me, because awful things only happen to other people.’
But then, the opposite is also unfortunately common as well, and that is that you aren’t worth anything. In America in 2017, we tend to equate our value with our productivity. We can’t remember who we really are. Not workers, not people who have to earn their importance, their identity.
When one of my daughters was in first grade, her teacher called to let me know that she had sent her to the principal’s office for talking too much. She’d had three checks on the board and even though it wasn’t a big deal, that was the rule. I remember after she came home she was mad and crying and saying over and over, ‘But I’m not a Bad Girl, I’m a Good Girl!” She couldn’t understand how she could be in trouble if she was good. That’s how it works. Some person or some event labels you, and it tends to stick. It becomes your identity.
But Jesus wasn’t buying it. He wasn’t Moses, and he wasn’t God. He was Jesus, fasting in the desert.
He wasn’t about to pretend someone or something else was God, or his priority in life. He knew he couldn’t save the world the way he was tempted. He wasn’t in control of world, he could only offer the truth of who he was, and hopefully, people would catch on to a new way of living.
He wasn’t going to pretend he was God by jumping off the temple tower, and he wasn’t going to buy into believing he wasn’t worth what we are all worth.
Jesus stayed true to his principals, and to his identity.
We experience the same temptations today. If I only worked harder, maybe I could save this situation… If I was in control of everyone else’s decisions, I could make it so much better. If I had the power, I could change it. Or, the reverse. I can’t do anything, I’m just a small guy in the big picture, what can I do? I can’t influence Washington, I can’t stop global warming.
I heard an expert on morality talk about the immorality of some of our leaders today. Much of what was unacceptable several years ago is becoming normalized. Lying. Bigotry. Racism. Rude remarks about women or people with disabilities. Putting people down and bullying. He said the way to combat this is to be true to our values. When people say or do something immoral, and no one calls them on it, it makes it acceptable, but when someone stops it, it shows that it is unacceptable, and it stops spreading.
That’s us. We’re the ones who stop it. We’re the ones who not only stop it from spreading, but reinforce the good. We spread the honesty, the care, the tenderness and strength, and the concern for our neighbor, whoever that is. This is what we do. This is what we are called to. This is how we flex our Lenten muscles, and strengthen the world. Happy Lent!