Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the 9th chapter of Genesis. Noah, his family, and a pair of every animal on earth have just survived the flood of the entire world. God then promised a covenant with Noah and his descendants. God told Noah that God will never flood the entire world again, and a rainbow after a rainstorm will remind everyone of God’s promise. Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ trip into the wilderness. According to Mark “[T]he Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days and was tempted by Satan.”
Most of us who read these readings have little understanding of what a “fast” means. When I was a child I was told that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we weren’t allowed to eat between meals as some sort of a payback for what Jesus did for us on Good Friday. Additionally we weren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays in Lent (and we were told by our parents that they weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays year round when they were our age). We were told that Jesus spent forty days in the desert not eating anything and I don’t think any of us really thought that he could do this without starving to death.
And in reality we know very little of this time in Jesus’ ministry. Mark places this reading nearly at the beginning of his Gospel (right after Jesus’ baptism) and it begins with a strange opening: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days and was tempted by Satan.”
When we think of temptation we normally think of it as a bad thing. Temptation calls us to want bad things, and it to be avoided at all costs. A truly good person is never tempted, or at least never submits to a temptation.
But what if temptation were something different? What if Jesus went to the desert not to resist temptation but instead to put it in context? After all we read that “the Spirit” drove Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. If we understand the Trinity as Father, Son, and Spirit, why would one member of the Trinity (Spirit) drive another member (Son) into a bad place?
For years I was told that temptations were bad things, that they led us into evil, and we needed to pray not to be “led into temptation” and instead ask that God “deliver us from evil.” Yes, it’s from the Lord’s Prayer.
But what if temptation wasn’t seen as evil, but something we desire, neither good nor bad? Not all of the things we desire are bad, and not all temptations lead us down a bad path. Mark doesn’t tell us what Satan tempted Jesus with but I can’t imagine Jesus was tempted with wealth or power. Instead I suggest that Jesus was tempted with an easy but dishonest way to get a good thing.
Americans of a certain age (like myself) remember Richard Nixon who was President from 1969 to 1974. He certainly lived with his demons, but like most Presidents he surrounded himself with loyal followers. Several of them believed that since President Nixon was good for the country, anything that advanced him was good for the country, and conversely, anything that was bad for Nixon was bad for the country. You can probably see where I’m going with this, but when it became clear that he obstructed justice in covering up the Watergate scandal, his supporters continued to support him because anything they did to continue his Presidency was allowed.
Another example? In the early to mid 2000s we learned that dozens of major league baseball players illegally used steroids to make themselves stronger. Some of them did this simply out of greed, but some did not. As the facts came to light we learned that several “second tiered” players also used steroids but for a different reason. They were not future members of the hall of fame, and they didn’t gain big bonuses for home runs. Instead they were recovering from injuries and feared that a long recovery would cost them their position. They broke the rules for what they decided was a good reason, advancing their careers.
I think that’s true with us most of the time. We don’t want bad things, but in our quest for good things we can sometimes take shortcuts in the hopes that only our result will be known. We apply for a job that we know we can do well, but we fear that our resume won’t carry us to the top of the pile and we….get creative. We hear that we need to present ourselves in the best possible light on a dating website and we figure there’s no harm done in pushing the envelope.
When I think about how Satan tempted Jesus I have to think Satan promised Jesus a Kingdom that goes straight from Palm Sunday to Easter without passing through Good Friday. But our foundation as Christians depend on him coming back from the dead and a Kingdom that bypasses Good Friday is not the Kingdom we are promised. Jesus had to die to be resurrected and only through his death and resurrection can he promise eternal life to us.
Jesus decision to continue on his journey despite the obvious temptation to otherwise made him our Savior. So too with us. Living in what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “rigorous honesty” turns our focus away from what we want and places it on what we do. Sometimes it means that we lose out on a job that we want and sometimes it means we have to reevaluate our goals. But rigorous honesty in all that we do allows us to live cleanly and honestly and may open us to opportunities we hadn’t seen.
Our journey through Lent this year provides an opportunity to look anew not only at our goals but also our decisions. At the end of the day (and at the end of our lives) we can look back and feel good about how we’ve lived, the choices we’ve made, and the goals we achieved.