Temptation in the Desert

Just for a moment, try to imagine what the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry would be like without the devil.  Yes, I know, this is kind of an odd exercise.  And no, I’m not trying to give the devil credit for anything.  But think about it.  What would we hear about Jesus’s forty days in the desert if we heard nothing about the devil?  It would be a short, serene story: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, went out into the desert and ate nothing for forty days.  When it was over he was hungry.  I’m sorry, our translation says “famished.”  That’s a little more interesting than “hungry,” but not much. 

We could of course say some things about a story like that.  We would note Jesus’s purity and self-control.  We would assume that Jesus prayed during that time, though in fact there isn’t anything specific said about that in Luke’s Gospel.  We would of course reflect on the fact that Jesus spent forty days in the desert just as the Israelites wandered for forty years.  We would reflect on the fact that after his baptism Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit.  But those forty Spirit-filled days pass silently in this story.  I guess they were beyond our comprehension. 

Which is to say that if it weren’t for the devil and his offers of food and power and false security, this story would tell us very little about who Jesus is and who we are. 

It’s an old problem in storytelling, isn’t it?  You can’t tell a great story about serene perfection.  The old legends about the saints who fled to their monasteries—many of them in the desert—they would never have been told if there hadn’t been demons to visit and tempt.  You can’t tell stories about monks who live happily ever after in reverent silence, because nothing happens to them.  The devil needs to pay a call!  Things have to get juicy!

In the great spiritual classic the Life of Saint Antony by Athenasius, the holy monk Antony spends long periods of time alone in his cell in the desert.  At times he is visited by evil spirits that know how to change their shapes, and they seem to break through the walls of his cell and take the form of “lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves.”  It’s vivid.  At another time visitors who are standing outside his cell—he won’t let them in—testify that they hear the sounds of great crowds of people within: “clamoring, dinning, sending forth piteous voices and crying ‘[…T]hou canst not abide our attack!’” 

Now that’s a story.  That tells us something about the holy Antony, just as our Gospel this morning tells us something about Jesus.  When the devil comes around, holy stories get interesting in a hurry.  When there is real temptation, real testing, holy men and holy women start to put some flesh on their holiness.  They start to reveal something about who God is.  I don’t say this because I want the devil to have credit for making us interesting.  On the contrary, I say this because God is so good.  God is so good to us and we don’t even know it.  God is so good to us and we won’t say a word about it because we are afraid to tell the whole story.  We are afraid even to tell the story to ourselves.

Most of us, if asked to talk about who we are and where we’ve been and what God has done in our lives will stammer and give the blandest, most formulaic response.  “I’m a cradle Episcopalian and I like your music,” we will say, or “I’ve been looking for a church and I thought I’d try this one.”  Or “I’ve been a member of this parish for years.” And though it’s sad enough that we can’t tell each other the whole rich story of how God redeemed us, most of us will do our best to forget the story ourselves.  We will forget on a daily basis that we’ve struggled just to make it into adulthood.  We’ll forget that moment of decision that could have ruined our lives, but didn’t.  We’ll forget a million ways that we’ve been saved and protected and set free because we don’t want to remember that we were ever that low.  We want to tell a story of serene perfection because we are afraid that the real dust on our feet from that long desert journey will be too shameful to expose.

And the beautiful actions of God who made us from dust and filled us with the Spirit will be forever buried along with our fear and our shame and our powerlessness.  But this is a season of remembering dust, isn’t it?  We were just here Wednesday, just getting marked with the sign of the cross in ash.  “Remember that you are dust,” we were told, “and to dust you shall return.”

So, in this season of remembering and confessing, let me ask: who are you?  What whispered in your ear on the way to church this morning?  Did you wake up and get yourself here despite the fact that your heart was filled with anxiety and crippling self-doubt?  Are you here hoping that the feelings of loss will subside, that the bad relationship will not define you?  Is today just one day, is this hour just one hour, in a lifelong struggle with addiction?  Have you fought an epic daily battle with racism in order to be here today with your self-respect and generosity intact?  Would anyone understand what your wandering in the desert has been like? How long have you been hungry?  What are you hungry for?  Are you famished?

And what devilish fantasies about being full and safe and powerful have you had to put aside?  Because those fantasies are everywhere in our world, and we need to talk about them.  How did the Spirit guide you to give up the relentless pursuit of wealth or perfection?  How did the Spirit fortify you when you were tempted to make food or fitness into a god?  When you were tempted to dwell on your resentments?  When you were tempted to judge another person with withering scorn?  How did God turn you around when your heart closed up and your feelings went cold?  How did you turn aside from contempt when it rose up in you?  How did you find the grace to admit your mistakes and your laziness and your lack of focus and your habitual boredom?  How did God find you in that desert and fill you with enough love to bring you here to this improbable place?  How did God make you honest and willing and forgiving? 

I mean this in all orthodox piety and belief, I really do, so don’t mistake me when I say “Let the devil show up.”  Let the truth be told.  Name what troubles you.  Out in his desert cell, Saint Antony’s demons were shaped like “lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves.”  Even Jesus, in his desert days, was faced with temptations to power and manipulation and soul-killing illusions of invulnerability.

And if you are willing to admit it, something is eating away at you too.  And in the particular shape of that temptation, there is a whole Gospel full of truth about God.  There is the particular shape of God’s saving grace in your life.  There is a story that no one else can tell.  There is a triumph—I don’t care how bad you feel, if you’re here today God has scored another victory—and we need to know what it is.  For ourselves, for each other, and for the world: name God’s victory.  Let the vivid truth of your salvation be known.

Name it in your heart.  Name it in conversation.  Name it at confession in the Lady Chapel on Saturday morning at 9:30, or by appointment.  Tell it all.  The works of God are infinite.  God’s mercy is abundant and ever-fresh.  And you are the teller of that tale in this world.  Speak the word.

Preached by Mtr. Nora Johnson

The First Sunday in Lent

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 18, 2016 .