One day when Jesus was relaxing in Heaven, He happened to notice a familiar-looking old man. Wondering if the old man was His earthly father Joseph, Jesus asked him, “Did you, by any chance, ever have a son?”
“Yes,” said the old man, “but he wasn’t my biological son. He was born by a miracle, through the intervention of a magical being from the heavens.”
“Very interesting,” said Jesus. “Did this boy ever have to fight temptation?”
“Oh, yes, many times,” answered the old man. “But he eventually won. Sadly, he died heroically at one point, but he came back to life shortly afterwards.”
Jesus couldn’t believe it. Could this actually be HIS father? “One last question,” He said. “Were you a carpenter?”
“Why yes,” replied the old man. “Yes I was!”
Jesus rubbed His eyes and said, “Dad?”
The old man rubbed tears from his eyes and said, “Pinocchio?”
I do apologise for making such a jokey start to our sermon this week, but I just could not resist the temptation!
It’s not very often that our lectionary provides us with such richness in scripture on the same day. Two of the most powerful and evocative stories in the Bible all about temptation.
And when it comes to stories about temptation, the readings we’ve heard cover just about everything.
Firstly, we have the wonderful account of Adam and Eve and their problems in the garden. There they are, in paradise; everything’s going just great, and along comes this snake with a smooth tongue and some new ideas. The next thing you know, temptation triumphs, paradise is history, all is lost and the man and the woman are left with shame, regret and a couple of fig leaves!
Then, in a powerful contrast, our gospel reading describes Jesus being driven from his baptism into the wilderness – which is just about as far from paradise as you can get. There, unlike Adam and Eve who were surrounded by ease and plenty, Jesus becomes exhausted – starving and alone as he struggles with his time of temptation and challenge.
The two stories form such an obvious contrast that it’s impossible not to compare them and to look for what emerges when they are taken together.
On one level, it looks simple enough – Jesus is the winner and Adam and Eve are the losers; they are weak and he is strong. So, we learn that it’s better to be like Jesus than like Adam and Eve.
What’s more, since today is the First Sunday in Lent, there is the added point that Lent is supposed to make us stronger so that we will be more like Jesus than like Adam and Eve, at least as far as such things as temptations are concerned.
And all of this is almost right.
Now some of you might remember the Green Goddess or perhaps Mr Motivator – two television fitness fanatics that tried to encourage us up from our armchairs and help us get in shape.
Well, as well as being physically in shape, there really is such a thing as being more or less ‘in shape’ spiritually – as being more or less prepared to handle the demands of a serious Christian life.
This has to do with our Christian character and with the development of particular virtues or habits. Getting into shape spiritually has some clear parallels with getting into shape physically or intellectually. There is no doubt that the disciplined rigour of a holy Lent can take us several important steps in the right direction, and the spiritual muscles or habits we develop with disciplines like a Lenten rule are exactly the same ones we use in real life – when the decisions we make can have vastly more important and immediate consequences.
Over the years many learned scholars and worthy theologians have debated whether or not the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is true. But what makes the story of Adam and Eve a true story for me is not that it describes accurately something that happened somewhere else a long time ago, but that it describes exactly what life is like here and now – it tells the truth, not just about them, but about us.
Over and over again, we find ourselves just like them – forced to decide what to do with something which, on the one hand, looks really good, seems useful and popular, and that just might teach us a thing or two – but which, on the other hand, we strongly suspect is not what God thinks best for us.
And we have to choose. When that happens, it’s better to be stronger and to have developed some of our spiritual habits. So, there is a real value to the notion that we need to ‘buff up a bit’, and that Lent is a good opportunity to do a bit more of this – or at least to begin doing it.
But how exactly do we go about getting in shape? Well let’s just take a closer look at what was happening with Jesus in the wilderness.
He has fasted and prayed for a long time – for as long as it takes – that’s what “40 days” means – and he’s famished. He’s absolutely exhausted and just think of the loneliness and the effort it takes to sustain something like this. He’s not at his best. He’s not bursting with physical or spiritual or any other sort of strength. He’s used all that up in just making it to where he is – in just being faithful to the fast.
This is when the temptations hit Jesus.
Now, I suspect that if the tempter had caught him on a good day, Jesus would have had all sorts of answers of his own to the questions – to the temptations – he was given. He might have told wonderful parables or asked clever and insightful questions right back at him and put the devil on the spot.
But strength and energy and cleverness were all gone – there wasn’t anything left. And we know about this, too – this is a different sort of temptation from the one Adam and Eve faced.
This is when we face strong, or compelling, or addicting, or beautiful, or just plain hard temptations and we have run out of resources. No matter how strong we were to start with, we simply can’t any longer move in the direction we have chosen to move, and we are pulled instead along lines that are against our will but defined by our appetites and our ego.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of not being strong enough, it’s a matter of being empty. That’s where Jesus was – he was out of energy, out of fuel and he was tempted, really tempted.
But just look at what happens. Jesus does not say one word of his own. Instead, he quotes scripture in a simple and straightforward way that is unlike how he uses scripture virtually anywhere else in the Gospels. Jesus has no words, no resistance, no strength of his own – he’s simply holding on to the Father, and letting the Father’s words and the Father’s mind come through him. Jesus’ response to the tempter is not a victory of personal, spiritual strength in some sort of holy temptation-lifting Olympics. Instead, his victory is the gift that comes from surrender.
There is no doubt that his time in the wilderness gave Jesus a stronger and more disciplined relationship with the Father; and as a fully-human being, he had to pay attention to such matters, just like we do. But it also gave him something else, something more, something we see in his story of temptations. His time in the wilderness gave Jesus the insight and the courage to surrender, and so to depend, not on his own best efforts, but on an emptiness that can only be filled by the Father, and that can only be filled by a gift of grace.
Several months after this all happened, Jesus said to his disciples: when you are handed over to your enemies, “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.” Imagine that Jesus could taste the dust of the desert and hear again the voice of the tempter and remember that hunger that reached out even to the stones around him. He knew what he was talking about. At the end of the day, the spiritual life is never about us, about what we can and cannot do. At the end of the day, it is always about God and about God’s gifts – gifts of grace, gifts that do not fail.