Two homiletical traps (pun intended) lie in wait when it comes to the story of Jesus’ temptation.
The first preaching slip-up is to view Jesus’ testing in the wilderness as neither necessary nor real. After all, we are talking about Jesus, the Son of God, which both he knows and we know. Did the Son of God really need this dance with the devil to be certain of himself or his mission? Do we? Is this desert detour just Jesus just going through the motions, acting out a handed-down story?
To imagine this incident as just pretense, however, is the first step down the slippery slope to Docetism or Gnosticism. If none of this was real, why bother with the incarnation at all?
The second sermonic misstep is to generalize Jesus’ wilderness test as similar to the kind of temptation we face in our own lives—as if the urge to eat that last piece of chocolate in the Valentine’s Day assortment box is on the same level as a meeting up with Satan when you haven’t eaten for forty days. These are no trumped-up trials for the sake of divine entertainment. Nor are these ordinary tests even on the level of Lenten proportions.
Rather, perhaps the homiletical truth finds traction somewhere in the middle. Yes, Jesus is Immanuel, Matthew tells us. But Jesus is going to need every ounce of trust in God he can muster to be the Messiah we need him to be.
I suspect this is where many with whom we do ministry live and try to do life—that space between the assurance of faith and when trusting God is the hardest thing we have ever done. And I am quite certain that preachers are no different.
But I wonder how many of you have become quite the experts in circumventing that temptation space where people look to you for the confidences of belief and yet you see your own confidence in God falling away. I wonder how many of you are simply exhausted because you think you are in the desert alone, fighting against all of the other gods that angle for our allegiances.
You know what gods I mean:
- Those deities who have convinced us that Scripture doesn’t matter; who insist that if you just tell a few more stories, the Bible will then seem relevant; who conveniently ignore “It is written” time and time again.
- Those deities who utter divine decrees about church decline, who never expect waiting angels whose hands bear us up.
- Those deities who judge church success by grandeur and splendor, by numbers and programs, by newness and innovation, who direct our worship toward things—the golden calves of a society that has forgotten its poor, that has abandoned decency and goodness, that has ignored history in its penchant for denial and relentless rejection of responsibility.
Dear Working Preachers, I feel like this year’s temptation story is talking directly to us—and, for once, let it. We, you, are so intent on tending the Lent of others, how will you tend your own? Because this space I am talking about is exactly where Lent lands us. We could go through the motions, feigning convictions we ourselves question. We could do it all ourselves, setting ourselves up as the Jesuses who survive whatever is thrown at us, all the while ignoring the angels willing to serve. We could give in to the gods, just for these forty days, so as to make it to Easter alive.
Or, instead of trying to be one step ahead of everyone else, as if our pacing and efforts might get us out of the wilderness before anyone else, we could accept that the desert is just where we need to be. We are so busy observing Jesus, monitoring his masterful moves, certain of the outcome, yet nonetheless content to sit on the sidelines in passive observation, that we forget we are in the wilderness as well—and it is where we are supposed to be.
Tending your own Lent does not mean a kind of abandonment of your calling or an abdication of accountability. But it also doesn’t mean we get to sit back and wait for Jesus to do what Jesus will do; to sit idly by and wait for the inevitable; to sit and say, “thank you, Jesus, for doing what I cannot.”
Tending your own Lent means we are all in the wilderness together, in that pendulous state between certitude and suspicion, between truth and distrust, between identity and lostness—and with the good and steadfast company of Jesus and the angels of heaven.