"I generally avoid temptation . . . unless I simply can't resist it" ~ Mae West
As the collective soot of ashen fronds from a Palm Sunday gone by gently recedes from the crucifix-brushed foreheads of the faithful and Filet O' Fish Sandwiches are hurriedly swallowed down amidst the barrage of meetings, conference calls and other white-collared hindrances to genuine accomplishments, so too does Ash Wednesday give way to the First Sunday of Lent. It is here where we suddenly find ourselves in the Desert with Jesus. Satan has paid Him a visit, armed with a pocketful of empty promises spawned from a tongue of tupelo-honeyed silk and sheer cunning.
As is the case in our daily lives, the Prince of Darkness possesses an uncanny ability to making himself extremely available to us in our most challenging moments of doubt and weakness. Like a washed-up Reality TV Star desperately seeking out a Hostess or DJ Gig in a garish Las Vegas Nightclub, Satan will gladly take on any job, but his motivation stems from unadulterated evil as opposed to an unquenchable need for attention across the wrecked, tabloid-soaked landscape.
And to make matters worse, he has some inherent advantages at his crafty disposal.
As C.S. Lewis points out in his poignant and blunt backstage view of the underworld puppet show that is The Screwtape Letters, the safest path to eternal damnation as outlined by Screwtape, a member of the "Lowerarchy" of Hell, is the gradual one. He considers it a demon's primary goal to befuddle, confuse, and eventually corrupt a person, essentially rendering dramatic attempts at temptation unnecessary.
But Temptation 101 is the order of the day in our Gospel (Luke 4-1:13) where Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit (that's important to note by the way), is in the Desert on the back-end of a 40 day fast. Tired, hungry, and undoubtedly inconvenienced by more than just a few scorching grains of sand in his sandals, the "gradual" path has been gradually traversed over the course of these 40 days and 40 nights.
It's now time for Satan to close the sale.
He first taunts Jesus, daring Him as the alleged Son of Man to turn a few nearby stones into bread, an offer even the staunchest of Atkins Dieters would have a hard time turning down after a fast of nearly 6 weeks.
Turn these stones to bread.
For Jesus, who had already revealed Himself as having the power via the Holy Spirit to heal the sick, turn water into wine and convert a barren sea into a net-bursting halibut and tilapia extravaganza, this would have been nothing more than a mere parlor trick. Famed street magician David Blaine could probably turn stone to bread while blindfolded atop a tiny platform 45 feet above Bryant Park.....in a hail storm. But I digress.
Jesus instead simply responds "Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." Lent is a great time to reflect upon the "bread" in our lives that distracts us from focusing on that which is truly sustaining, or even tricks us into thinking that we can travel life's journey on our own. To walk the path that leads us to a life centered on service to God and our neighbors, we need the example of Jesus to serve as our compass. But more on that in a moment.
The next temptation was of course meant to play on humanity's never-ending thirst for Power. History has shown us that man's "logical" progression, should he first be skilled and fortunate enough to accumulate the type of material wealth that allows him to water-ski behind a different yacht every day of the week, is to pursue power and influence, typically in the form of an elected political office of some sort. We have certainly seen this phenomenon here in the United Sates of America, where entrepreneurs and former banking executives now pass legislation into law that determines who we go to war with, who we choose to import and export goods with, the extent to which the rights of the unborn are protected (if they are to have any rights at all) and who is granted the privilege of living in this country among other things.
Power can be intoxicating, and as the addiction of wealth slowly wanes and eventually morphs into an arid form of desensitized and vapid self-entitlement, the desire to rule and exert one's influence is next up on the docket. Satan of course knows this all too well, which is why he shrewdly flexes to this alluring counter-offer:
"I shall give you all the the power and glory of all the kingdoms of the world, for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this shall be yours if you worship me.".
It's interesting to note that Jesus placates the devil's delusions of grandeur (although many observant witnesses of the world's current state of affairs could effectively argue that Satan may very well in fact occupy the corner office here on Planet Earth). Why would Jesus even dignify such a preposterous offer with as much as a response?
Jesus isn't speaking only to Satan here just as he certainly didn't endure the trials and tribulations of the desert to prove to Himself that He could endure a Spiritual Iron Man Triathalon.
He spoke to us then and He speaks to us now when He warns us of the lure of power, in whatever form it may take in our own lives. Is there anyone that we are exploiting or engaging in a power play of some sort? I suspect this question is worth examining in the lives of those who occupy the uppermost box on the Org Chart as well as those who are responsible for typing it up.
The last temptation revolves around the notion of faith and the subtle act of manipulating God so that His laws and precepts cater to our individual agenda and needs. When Satan chides Jesus to plunge from the lofty cliff, surely knowing that a band of Angels will be at the ready to save Him, Jesus quickly warns him not to put the Lord your God to the test.
On the topic of being put to the test, Jesus endured his time in the Desert so as to foreshadow our own lives on Earth for we will surely face many tough challenges along the journey. Unemployment, shattered relationships, illness, losing in triple overtime in the field hockey state championship game, visiting an elderly parent who suddenly no longer recognizes you, and of course the death of our loved ones are just a few examples. God's Kingdom is ours to attain but with it never came the promise that it would be an easy road,
As we embark on our own Lenten Journey, we should look to Jesus and the time he spent in the Desert as our role model in faith, discipline, courage and discipleship. He did after all do it for us, an act that we should not allow to waste away in vain as we seek to negotiate the deserts of our own lives in a way that respects and pays homage to Jesus, who will come again in glory this Easter Sunday.
May we all experience a meaningful Easter Season together, precisely as God intended us to.