What are the temptations in the story today?
The obvious temptations are:
- The evil one encourages Jesus to keep Jesus’ mission small.
“Just feed yourself,” the evil one says, “and forget everyone else.” [i]
- The devil encourages Jesus not to worry about the welfare of others and instead be consumed with his own sense of self-importance by jumping off the temple
- Lastly, the evil one says give up your values, bow down to me, the one of violence and revenge, and you can receive the taste of power.
These are the three initial temptations in the story today.
Yet, I wonder if perhaps there is another temptation and that is the temptation not to tell the story at all, not to be honest about our wanderings in the wilderness, not to name the ways we have encountered these temptations first hand.
I mean it’s easy to talk about sin as something “out there”. It’s easy to talk about sin as this thing that this person over there did, but it’s much harder to talk about it when we are telling our own personal stories.
How do we talk about our own personal messiness?
I know in my life that sin is – at times – a word that makes me uncomfortable. I wonder, “Do we really need to harp on our sinfulness and continually remind ourselves of all the ways that we have messed up?”
After all, who wants to dwell on that? Isn’t better to skip over that part of the story and get to the good parts … the parts where people finally have their lives together?
Yet, perhaps what Jesus and the author of Matthew is teaching us here is that there is real value in telling the whole stories of our lives and not just cherry picking the parts that make us look good. I find it striking that this is a story about the devil and the root word of diabolical means “separated” or “compartmentalized”.[ii] I wonder if there is a temptation to compartmentalize our lives, to only show our best side, but then live differently when we are by ourselves. I find it interesting that the devil comes to Jesus when Jesus is alone in the desert in one of Jesus’ hungriest, messiest moments. The devil is asking Jesus: are you going to act the same way now as you will later? The devil is asking: Are you going to live a life of integrity?
Integrity means wholeness.[iii] It means that we have integrated all parts of ourselves, that we are honest about our shadows as well as our light.
Are we going to live lives of integrity?
Jesus’ honest sharing about his confrontation with the evil one points to the necessity of confession. Even though the word “sin” might make some of us uncomfortable, truthfully telling the struggles of our lives is how we let the light into those spaces; it is how we become an integrated people.
Psychologist Carl Jung said that we all have a shadow side. Every single one of us. Jung said that if we are conscious about our shadow, we can correct it. If we try to shove it under the rug, it never gets corrected.
To correct, to improve, to make our lives better, we must be honest with God, ourselves and others. When we confess, whether to God, a small group or a confidante, we discover that we can indeed experience love in the midst of our shortcomings and that those shortcomings are not the end of the story. Frailty, fragility, mess ups and mistakes may seem like the worst thing but they are not the last thing.
The last thing is forgiveness.
This is why we tell our stories. This is why we share the ways we fall down and get back up again – because it reminds us that what we have done or left undone is not the end of the story:
The Reverend Baskette says the gift of religious community and the gift of confession is the gift of being able to be a whole person again— a person whose parts are all in the same place at the same time, integrated.[iv]
How do we create spaces where we can be whole people?
How do we create spaces of authenticity and honesty and growth?
How do we create spaces where we wrestle together with hard things?
I wonder if the reason Jesus shared this story was to show us that God enters into messy places. After all, Jesus was alone; Jesus did not have to relate what happened in the wilderness with the devil. Yet, Jesus did, so that we would see that even Jesus doesn’t experience life as this easy, tidy thing. No, Jesus is in the wilderness after his baptism, trying to get his life together, soaking in the message that he is God’s beloved, focusing on God through fasting. It’s hard; Jesus doesn’t know what the crowds will be like or if he has what it takes to be the “Begotten One”. Hungry, dirty, uncertain, Jesus is not having this shining moment here. This is a moment of struggle and maybe it’s a moment that Jesus was tempted not to tell us about. Maybe Jesus was tempted just to share the stories where Jesus is shining on a mountain top and seems to have his life together. If Jesus hadn’t shared this story, no one would know how Jesus had struggled or experienced the unglamorous parts of life. Yet Jesus chose to tell the story because Jesus wanted to have integrity; Jesus wanted to be honest about hard things.
Jesus knows how tough this life is and he said, “I’m willing to share this story because I don’t want you to think you are alone. I don’t want you to think you are the only one who has spent years worshipping God, trying to do the right thing, practicing this whole faith thing and worrying about failing.”
As we stand there making a laundry list of the reasons we can’t be loved – the way we yelled at our family members or gave into our addictions or failed at our relationships – Jesus is there right beside us, caring for us. From the cross, Jesus saw the worst of humanity. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them they know not what they do.”
The worst thing is not the last thing.
The last thing is forgiveness.
Jesus’ story today reminds us that faith requires courage, courage to speak truth, courage to be imperfect, because that it is how the light gets in, that is how we discover forgiveness. Our acts of bravery in turn inspire others to be vulnerable and the bravery spreads, until all of us can live integrated lives, seeing that no one is all good or all bad, but we are a mixture of both, a mixture of saint and sinner, a mixture of people who fall down and people who get back up again and it’s not our perfection but our willingness to rise that makes us Jesus followers.
A life of integrity is not about perfection; a life of integrity is about truth-telling. It’s about the reality that faith is not a weekend hobby but a daily adventure. Confessing may require exertion but it gives us the soul-deep experience of peace. It reminds us that no matter who we are or how messed up we are, we are loved. We have to climb the mountain of confession over and over again to remember that truth. The climb up is hard, but the climb down is freeing, as if our feet can fly, because we have recovered the truth:
We are loved, in all our messiness.
We are loved, all of us, all parts of us, as whole people.
Thanks be to God.
[i] This interpretation of the first temptation is from Sermon Seeds, March 5th, found here: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march-5-2017
[ii] Baskette, M. F. Standing Naked: The Art of Public Confession before God. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2015.