During Lent, our readings, our prayers, and our hymns all are well laden with a focus on self-examination, penitence, self-denial and alms giving. As we shift our focus over the next few weeks to a spiritual wilderness experience, we rediscover the undertones of our struggle with temptation, and the word we often don’t like to speak about; sin. Sin is the ongoing grappling with our human desire to put ourselves in that place, which is to be occupied by God alone.
We often wrestle with a “me first” attitude that can deny the very relationships for which we were created; the love of God and the love of each other. We often miss the mark and thing that temptation has something to do with a legalistic system of do’s and don’t do’s that encourages moral behavior for the sake of piety and holiness. God doesn’t desire our personal righteousness as the means to an end alone, God desires that we remain in loving relationship both with God and with each other. Our spiritual brokenness is about relational failure and not law breaking.
While driving down US-301 in Parrish the other day, it was obvious that there was a lot of law-breaking going on. There were four people stopped on the side of the road for some obvious traffic violations. The law had been broken and some folks were going to pay the fines for their infractions. Many of us think that God’s law and the sin associated with it, is a mere legal transaction similar to the traffic stop. In other words, some folks think that when we break one of God’s laws, there’s some sort of penalty to be paid.
This notion of sin rejects a relational connection, similar to the interaction between police officer and traffic law breaker. When the citation is written for running the red light, or exceeding the speed limit, the officer is merely applying justice and that may at times seem a bit cold and non-relational. We may confuse God’s dealings with human brokenness as a cold and distant transaction as well, but God is personally invested in his creation. God’s love is never-ending, even when we fall short, even when we fail one another, even when we sin.
Consider for a moment that sin is first and foremost the choices we make the creates barriers between us resulting in broken relationships. The sins of coveting, stealing, lying, and that adultery thing is all about the brokenness in relationship among neighbors. “Having other gods before me,” “not using God’s name in vain” and all that is really about a broken relationship with God. The heart of that brokenness raises its ugly head, when we live in such a way that we value our own needs above the love we have for God, or when our own needs stand high above the love we have for others. Placing others, and ourselves above God is like making ourselves into little gods and that is sin.
Jesus was God enfleshed, and he understood this frailty of ours and yet he faced the same human temptations that we do. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus was desperately hungry, having been in the desert for 40 days, and as a result he was tempted to turn stones into bread. This is the temptation of seeing to our own needs over others.
Despite his hunger, Jesus’ personal needs did not get in the way of his ministry to feed the world. Jesus remained faithful to the wilderness experience and it led him later to feed the crowds from a few loaves and fish, and by his cross and suffering, he offers the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. Jesus continued on to the cross so that he might be offered to us in self-giving love. Jesus demonstrated that as brothers and sisters, we are interdependent and as such, we are invited to offer self-giving love to the each other and the world.
The next enticement came when Jesus considered the temptation of throwing himself down from that lofty height. This enticement draws out the attitude of complete and utter self-sufficiency, a “pull-oneself-up from the bootstraps” mentality, or the “I can take care of it all myself mindset.” We forget that we are creatures and that our very lives come from God, every breath we inhale is a gift.
When we succumb to this temptation, it carries with it the misunderstanding of our place in creation, and it influences how we live and how we relate to others. We’ve all heard the old saying, “No one is an island,” and I believe sure enough that it’s true. We struggle when we try to live alone, isolated from others because we all have an inherent need for human connection.
We are utterly dependent on God and an equally important we are dependent on each other. Jesus remained faithful to his wilderness experience and did not succumb to the tempters “throw yourself off the temple,” in order to test your “Go it alone with out God, independent, can do attitude.”
The last temptation in the desert was the idea that Jesus might consider the temptation of “All this is yours if you will bypass the cross.” Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God not because he was a mere miracle-worker, or merely a great teacher, or merely a good man, but because he was the Crucified One. When Jesus told Peter he would be crucified, Peter couldn’t stand the thought. Peter’s squeamishness about Jesus’ death was precisely the appeal of the Accuser’s temptations.
In other words, why bother with the cross when you can go straight for the glory right now? This temptation was one many of us face, “Go ahead and worship something else other than God and forget this self-giving love and obedience thing.” Many times other things get in the way of the One we are called to make the center of our lives, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus remained faithful to the wilderness experience and he did not turn away from human suffering rather; he endured it. Lent is our wilderness experience. It is a time to examine our own responses to the temptations we face in this life. Through a deeper commitment to our relationship with God and with each other, and by recognizing and living into our utter dependence on God, we can endure the temptations of life that would break the bonds of love we are called to share.
There is a very basic equalizer amongst God’s creatures. We all come from the earth and on Ash Wednesday, we received a great reminder of that fact. The great leveler of humanity is our own mortality and thus, we are all in this together. When we recognize that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we realize that we are not little gods and taht there is one God. We are all creatures of the Almighty, and in God’s eyes, we are one family, and yet God individually knows our needs, knows our suffering, and yes God knows our transgressions.
Self-examination over next five weeks is a time for all of us to prepare ourselves to resist temptation and to be strengthened in our relationship with Christ. Through God’s grace we may begin to know our own vulnerabilities to the “me first” mentality. This Lent, we must enter a period of spiritual spring-cleaning and become aware of our own struggles with temptation. This Lent, we must be obedient to our own wilderness experience, by drawing closer to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by restoring and reconciling the broken relationships we have with others, and by releasing our need for power and influence. This Lent we become aware once again, of the presence abundant and unprompted grace of God, if we accept the wilderness experience of self-examination, penitence, self-denial and alms giving.