It is tempting to make Jesus’ temptation something that it is not. And, it is tempting to make Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness the only temptation during Lent. In fact, Lent seems to be full of temptations that have very little to do with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness:
The temptation to better ourselves.
The temptation to insist that Lent is all about us.
The temptation to believe that your individual walk matters more than how you can walk with others.
The temptation to say to others that a lack of proper self-sacrifice this Lent could likely lead to a salvific downfall -- and to convince yourself of the same.
Yet, Jesus’ temptation is not license, permission, or justification for an examination of our own ability, or not, to resist temptations. We are all tempted, and frequently, by many things. The message from Matthew is not “resist temptation” but to take a closer look at it, think about it, do a 360, and figure out just what are those things that lead you astray.
At the heart of the temptation of Jesus is not to prove that he is the Son of God. The tempter already knows that, and I suspect Jesus does as well. The temptation is not to show that Jesus is better, stronger, faster than the devil himself. The temptation is not Jesus’ personal test to exhibit to God that he is up to the challenge. Rather, it gives Jesus a glimpse of what lies ahead. It confirms that being the Son of God will be full of circumstances that try to convince you otherwise. It suggests that doing the will of God requires going beyond your own self-interests. It says that the kind of obedience God needs is that which demands extraordinary vigilance.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness reveals that these temptations are a part of what it means to be the beloved of God. And, what are these temptations? To satisfy your own hungers when millions go hungry. To insist that God’s loyalty and promises need to be tested on a regular basis. To choose the power that the world values over obedience to God. It may very well be that Lent’s true temptation is to ignore by what Jesus really was tempted.
Dear Working Preachers, there is much that Lent can be, both for you and for your congregations. But, this is no ordinary Lent.
This past week I participated in a panel organized by our students at Luther Seminary on preaching and pastoral ethics in a political age. Of course, we are always in a political age, but the particularity of this political age has been cause for much fear and trembling when it comes to preaching. At the same time, the story of Lent is the very story that counteracts the story that America is living now. As a result, this Lent needs to be not what you will give up, but what you will live for. Not how you might demonstrate your piety, but how you might live in true obedience to God. Not what you will prove, but what reproves you. We want to prove to ourselves and to others that we can overcome all kinds of things that we should resist, as if that which tempted Jesus can be reduced to passing over a piece of chocolate cake.
In 2006 Marvin McMickle, in his book, Where Have All the Prophets Gone? takes American pastors to task, claiming that we have sold out the God of biblical justice for a lesser god and in doing so, have blunted the prophetic voice of the American pulpit.1 This was his analysis in 2006, 11 years ago. A lot can happen in 11 years. In other words, our current confusion, blaming, and silence when it comes to preaching is, in part, an historical situation. You cannot suddenly preach prophetically if you haven’t been up until now. You cannot suddenly call for a radical obedience to the God of Scripture if you have been preaching the god that the world loves. You cannot suddenly insist on resistances to the world’s temptations when you have given into the very temptations that call us away from our God of mercy and love.
Nora Tisdale in her book Prophetic Preaching, a Pastoral Approach, studied the sermons at historic Riverside Church in NYC, the pulpit of Harry Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, and James Forbes Jr. She writes, “you can literally read the history of our nation and world through them.” I would suggest that this was also true of Jesus’ sermons. Is the same true for ours? Will this Lent reference the historic temptations that we face now and give witness to our obedience in this time and place? Or, will this Lent, like too many others, generalize Lenten disciplines as pious efforts to convince ourselves that we are worthy of God’s love?
Tisdale suggests that we have a spiritual problem when it comes to speaking truth from the pulpit, “we have lost our will to preach prophetically because we have lost the prophetic vision that comes from being intimately connected with God, with God’s world, with God’s people.”2
This is exactly what the temptation of Jesus is all about -- he was shown the alternative to being intimately connected with God, with God’s world, with God’s people and chose the prophetic vision instead. Perhaps this Lent we might choose the same.
1 Marvin McMickle, Where Have All the Prophets Gone?: Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America (Pilgrim Press, 2006).
2 Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).