The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
I guess you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it. And for Jesus, who remember was as much human as he was God, it took him forty days and forty nights. Probably felt like forever.
In that wilderness, Jesus wasn't starving his body. Sure, he was fasting; he was physically famished. But the desert days were not a weight loss plan; this wilderness time was not a spa retreat. Jesus, you see, wasn't prone to obsess over his trim figure in the Gospels – as his opponents will later point out, calling him a glutton and a drunk. Jesus was in that wilderness because you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it. And it had to go. Jesus was out there to starve his ego – that piece of us that longs to be great, to be right, to be in control – that thing in us that longs to be God. Because he understood that the temptations would only intensify beyond the wilderness. Each healing, each adoring crowd, each dedicated disciple would make it easier to buy into the hype, would make it easier to trade God's mission for something a little more glamorous.
The devil came to Jesus as a tempter – just a purveyor of possibility. And if this is what the devil looks like, looks like the character who found Jesus in the wilderness, well, we've all run into this devil. There's no pitchfork, no red pointy tail, no bad language or nasty jokes. This devil just wants to make Jesus great. He just wants Jesus to fulfill his considerable potential. He wants Jesus to realize that maybe God and God's plan is holding him back. This devil's not mean; he just wants Jesus to be successful: rich and famous and powerful. What's so bad about that?
It all starts innocently enough. How 'bout some bread for a hungry guy, a guy who just survived a fast that should have killed him twice over? Certainly Jesus was hungry; there's nothing wrong with a food. And if he has the gift, why not put it to good use?
Undoubtedly, at some point during that excruciating fast, Jesus saw those rocks turn into bread. We know how hunger works; we've all seen cartoons. But making one loaf of bread in the middle of nowhere is nothing special. If a stone turns to bread and no one sees it, did it really happen? I mean Jesus is hungry, but it's more than that. If the temptation was strictly physical, the devil could have packed Jesus a picnic lunch.
But that's not the temptation. This is an appeal not to Jesus' belly but to Jesus' ego. Turning one rock into one loaf of bread in the middle of the wilderness is nothing. But what if Jesus could turn stones into bread? And not just here in the wilderness, but in the towns and the villages and the cities? What if this was a business plan? Now we're talking. Money and power and fame would certainly follow. In a world plagued by food insecurity, in a land of stones aplenty, this little trick would make Jesus great – no, the greatest. He would be like a god.
See, what's so bad about that? The devil just handed Jesus the perfect idea, the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme. Or if Jesus is not into money, he could give the bread away and become the most popular guy in the Empire. And the most popular guy in the Empire doesn't die on a cross.
But Jesus does not take the bait. And so the devil, he can read a room, backs off from the bread plan and pitches Jesus something else; there is more than one way to become great.
Maybe a trick, but not just any trick, a death-defying feat that would amaze and impress the crowds. Maybe it's not about the money. Maybe Jesus needs a title. Maybe he's one of those guys. What better title for a young, Jewish man than Messiah?
This is it. Jesus: the Jewish Messiah. And of course the Jewish Messiah would need to throw his coming out party at the Temple. The Temple was the heart of the Jewish religion, the hub of the community, the house of God. Imagine how the crowds would react if God's angels caught Jesus right before he hit the ground below. Then they would get it; then they would all know who Jesus really was. They would have to believe in him; they would fall at his feet. The angels would remove all doubt – from the crowds, perhaps from even his own mind. He would be loved, adored, accepted. He would be great. The people would watch as the heavenly beings cradled his body. He would be like a god.
What's so bad about that? The devil is working with Jesus. I mean, Jesus is already the Messiah, the Son of God. But the Messianic plan has holes. There is a lot of suffering, and not a lot of glory, in God's plan. The devil's plan is much more attractive. In the devil's plan Jesus' strong, healthy body is held by angels before an adoring crowd. In the other plan, Jesus' dead body is held by his mother as passers-by taunt and insult his corpse. In the devil's plan Jesus is beloved. In the other plan Jesus is berated.
And yet, Jesus continues to hold his ground. The devil apparently thinks Jesus is negotiating, and so he takes one more shot.
This is his final offer – and it is a good one. It's an offer no one, and the devil's been around for a while, so he knows, no one can refuse. It's a feast for the ego. All the money. All the fame. All the power. And it's yours. You will be the greatest. The world will fall at your feet. Can you even imagine?
There was just one condition. And it was pretty simple. All Jesus had to do was fall down and worship the devil. And that sounds like a terrible thing to do to our ears because most of us lived through the Satanism scare of the 1980's – with the bloody pentagrams and the secret messages hidden on vinyl records. But the devil is not asking Jesus to join a new religion or become a member of a cult. For the amazing prize of all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, Jesus just needs to alter his allegiances. Folks have traded in God for much, much less.
And, again, it's not as if the devil is being a bad guy here. He just knows that Jesus will never be great following God's will for his life. And everybody wants to be great, right?
It should have worked, the devil's plan. I mean, it usually does. It has since the very beginning. The very first recorded temptation, the one we heard this morning, coming to us from the Garden of Eden, is the old standard; every temptation throughout history a variation on the same theme: you will be like God. The tempter always aims for the ego. Money, power, and fame. You can be great. You can be adored. You can have it all.
Adam and Eve took the bait. They ate the fruit. Because they were told that that fruit would make them great – great like God. They fed their egos. And so did their children and their children's children – generation after generation after generation. A feeding frenzy. Until Jesus walked into that wilderness and went on a hunger strike. He knew his ego was the one thing that could blow the whole plan – for us and for our salvation. He also knew, you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it.
We always begin the Lenten season in the barren wilderness with Jesus. We start there because our relationship with God depends on it. It is there we learn that God does not care if we are successful – just faithful. Which really just proves once again that God doesn't get it. The devil in today's gospel gets it; this is how the world works: the people who grab the most money and power and fame are the ones who matter. And you don't get those things by taking up your cross and following Jesus.
We're human. And God knows that the temptations are strong. Of course we want to be great; we want people to think we are smart and successful and in control. We need to be affirmed – and we will tweet clever statements until our genius is acknowledged with the appropriate number of hearts and retweets. Our ego longs so desperately for human acceptance that we'll do just about anything to get it. Our ego longs so desperately for human acceptance that it causes us to forget that we are passionately and infinitely and eternally loved by the God of the Universe – even if everyone you know thinks you're a failure.
We are all saddled with these hungry egos – and the world is offering a buffet of choices – choices that are so much more appealing than the cross that Jesus offers us.
Which is why we drag our egos into this season of Lent. Because this season, unlike any other in the Church, drives us into the wilderness – where we learn to live for something, and someone, bigger than ourselves, where we are called to a season of self-examination and repentance, where we are called to a season of prayer, self-denial, and, of course, fasting. Because you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it.