Reflections on the well known story of the Temptation of Jesus.
Have you ever had a wonderful day or week and then the bottom seems to fall out? Maybe you’ve been away on a wonderful vacation full of sun and fun and when you arrived back home and you suddenly felt depressed and overwhelmed. We’ve all experienced those times. People often get married and have a wonderful honeymoon only to return finding a job is no longer available for them. I once was best man in a wedding and the groom died about six months after the wedding.
A few years ago I went on a wonderful retreat at the Mount St. Benedict monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. I had returned to one of my favorite Hermitages where I was alone for several days. I read, I meditated and took wonderful walks through the woods and down to Lake Erie. Finally the day arrived when I had to leave, and driving off the grounds I felt rested and renewed for my work as pastor. In a few minutes I was entering Interstate 90 East to Hamburg. I saw a large tractor-trailer coming from behind in my mirror. It was the only vehicle behind with three open lanes. But as I began to merge onto the expressway, the truck driver would not yield but began to sound his air horn! When I saw how close the truck was coming to me, my recent tranquility and peace suddenly turned to rage and I was tempted to give that angry driver gesture! Suddenly I realized how far I had come from the tranquility of just a few minutes before. And I began to laugh, at myself, at life, and how fickle and frail I still am!
In the story of Jesus’ temptation it says he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was famished. That seems like an ironic understatement; go 40 days without eating and not feel famished! But it was then “the tempter came to him.” And so it happened in the story of Jesus; after being on a spiritual high feeling one with his Creator Father, he suddenly runs into temptations. And so it is in our bipolar world of duality.
In each temptation, the tempter or the devil, as it is translated, makes Jesus doubt his identity. “If you are the Son of God, make stones into bread, throw yourself down, and all these I will give you!” My favorite spiritual reading is from a book called A Course in Miracles and it says that all temptation is but the attempt to substitute another will for that of God’s. God’s will for us according to the Course, is that we remember we are one with God as God’s Sons and Daughters. Any time we are tempted to think otherwise and find other ways to complete our loneliness it is called “magic”. All attempts at magic involve something for our bodies to make them satisfied and comfortable. And I suppose it is hard to remember we are Spirit when we are hungry and famished. I have a little line I often repeat to myself when I sense myself slipping into temptation. I say “Hi! My name is David. But remember, I am not this body; I am God’s Son!” It helps me to remember again who I am as God’s Son and Spirit with God.
And so the first temptation is to feed the ego body by getting more and more by turning stones into bread. It is a temptation to use our power to be love as a way to gain material wealth, more things. I was taught that food is the number one craving in being a human body. It’s even a stronger desire than sex, and we all know that one is quite powerful. And so the first temptation to Jesus and to us is usually to find something tastier to put into our mouths. And in this country we have many selections! And we succumb to those temptations easily. We’ve now become the most overweight nation in the world and sugar diabetes has become epidemic.
I was surprised myself when a few years ago tests showed I could easily become a diabetic. I asked if it was a part of my inheritance and the doctor replied it probably was more part of my eating habits. He told me that I was eating far too many carbohydrates without a proper balance in my diet. He warned me how many of the carbohydrates Americans consume are empty ones with most of the goodness and vitamins cooked and processed out. After I retired, I began to read more about eating balanced meals with more whole foods. Without adding more exercise, I lost over 20 pounds as my blood analyses improved. I also learned when shopping most of the whole foods are found around the outside of the store and most of the processed foods make up the middle sections. The temptation to feed our bodies by constantly responding to slick invitations to eat is a powerful way to lose identities as God Sons and Daughters, as Spirit.
The second temptation is taking risks to titillate us with bodily sensations and thrills to receive the praise of crowds. It also makes our egos very proud feeling so independent and brave! Here the devil takes Jesus to the top of one of the temple parapets or steeples. He urges him to jump off and have a great thrill trusting his Maker would protect him! And Jesus replied saying simply “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Our bodies love to test God having thrills and chills with daring park rides, skydiving jumps and climbing the highest mountains! I confess I’ve dreamed and done some myself enjoying the thrill of accomplishing things very few others could or would do. People say that such chances help us to discern who we really are. I’m not so certain. It’s much more thrilling and less expensive to simply realize that I am one with God as Spirit! I’ve learned over my years that some of the most happy and contented teachers live very simply and do very few “exciting things.” It’s because they are aware of Who they are. They already have Everything because they see themselves as one with Everything!
Yes, we love to succumb to temptations to drive faster, run faster, work longer hours, to eat whatever we want, and God will take care of us because we belong to the Presbyterian Church, or we confess we believe in God. We like to be constantly moving getting things done faster and more efficiently so that we can have more time to do something else that will fill up our time and keep us from endless boredom. I often think of the story of the man and his wife who were on vacation before the day of GPS devices in our cars. The man was driving fast as his wife was looking at the map and noticed they were on the right road but going in the wrong direction. So she told her husband, “Honey, we are going the wrong way on this road!” And her husband replied saying, “Don’t bother me with that now because I am making great time!” Sometimes if we stop and think about our lives we see ourselves rushing fast to nowhere. Sitting alone in simple places with nothing to do but watch our breathing can be so enriching. We are the Children of God, always and everywhere.
The last temptation, which can easily erase memory of who we are, is the temptation to own and control as much of the world as possible. Somehow, the more one owns and controls, the more one’s ego feels like an all-powerful God. The church is so vulnerable to this temptation with its ideas of mission, to “win the whole world to Jesus!” We feel the more numbers we can convert to follow our teachings somehow make us more loved by God. Yet, how can God love us anymore than God does right now?
In Seminary I was part of a “Preaching Association” that visited area churches. Even then we felt concern at how many people came to hear us. The more who came the more secure I suppose we felt. When returning to Monday classes, I would be often asked, “How many came to hear you yesterday?” Once I said, “There was between three and four hundred!” Wow! The inquirer responded; “That was great! Good for you!” And then I said, “I think it was closer to three!”
The temptation to control the world played right into the hands of the period of colonization led by the so-called Christian nations of Europe. The temptation of England to be the Empire on which the sun never set was enhanced and supported by Christian thinking and Christian missions to save the world. As countries and areas were “conquered” missionaries were sent right in to “save the lost pagans.” And what a mess we made!
We have the same tempting mentality in our country of being the biggest, the richest, and the most powerful nation in the world. We call our state of New York the “Empire State”. It’s all succumbing to the temptation that the bigger and richer we can become the more secure we will feel. It’s simply a temptation to be something that we are not.
Many of us have lived in this country which thinks of itself as number one in everything; military, wealth, and health. But even if we are still number one, and that’s becoming more questionable in these days, we still have no corner on happiness. Countries which report the highest levels of happiness and contentedness are such small countries as Ireland, Denmark and Holland.
Our country is certainly number one in consuming things but not in happiness. We devour over 25% of the world’s oil supply, but it doesn’t make us any happier. Two or three years ago our country led the world in consuming 20 million barrels of oil each day. The number two nation consuming oil is China, with three times the population yet using only around 8 million barrels a day.
In our country, the top 1% of the population control 42% of the wealth. 400 of the richest Americans have more wealth than over one half of the rest of us! And the trend seems to be only getting worse. We used to have an elder in the church at Wayside who would say, “If greed was a crime, think of how many who would be in jail.”
However one gains control and wealth of this world, happiness, peace and joy, do not come from acquiring more things to control and pleasure us. Happiness, peace and contentment come from a remembrance of who we are, the Son or Daughter of God.
A story goes that once a small Eaglet fell out of its high nest while its mother was hunting for food. A chicken came by and seeing the fledging, hungry eaglet, led him back to her home at the chicken coop. There she taught him to eat chicken food and act like other chickens in clucking and scratching for bugs. Of course, the chickens never flew and so the eaglet, as he grew, never flew but just flapped around his wings like a chicken. One day a large eagle spotted the now grown eaglet in the chicken cook, scratching around for some fodder and clucking. The eagle swooping down and asked the now grown eagle, “What in the world are you doing living in a chicken coop? You are an eagle for crying out loud!” “Well, the “eaglet responded, “I thought I was a chicken because here I have friends, food, and security.”
“Come with me,” the larger eagle called, “and flap your wings wide and long like you are supposed to do!” And soon the eagle, who thought he was just a confined chicken to the coop began to fly and after a couple sweeps over the coop, shouting down to his chicken friends, “Adios! I’m out of here! I have discovered my true identity is not a chicken but a mighty eagle. I’m off to the skies to claim my inheritance and to be free ever more!”
Our identities are not earth bound chickens locked in wire coops and cages. We are might eagles of freedom, of flying through the skies of love as God’s Sons and Daughters, destined for glory beyond. Let us not give in to the tempting temptations of life that stroke our temporary egos and leave us stuck in the coops of life. Be free, go where the wind carries you, beyond the boundaries of the earthbound bodies.
Spoken to the folks at First Presbyterian Church, West Seneca, NY on March 13, 2011