Those of us of a certain age remember a show in the early days of television called “Queen for a Day.” As near as I can recall the show consisted of various women telling the audience all of their troubles and the most pathetic of the lot was named “queen for the day” and given a washing machine. (How a washing machine made you a queen was never very clear to me.) When we look at the two stories of temptation in today’s liturgy – the Genesis story of the temptation of Adam and Eve and Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus – it seems the devil’s strategy is to tempt with the prospect of being “God for a day.” “The moment you eat the fruit,” says the tempter to Eve, “you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” “If you are the son of God,” says the tempter to Jesus, “command these stones to become bread, throw yourself down from the temple.” What would you do if you were “God for a day”? Put an end to war? Eliminate poverty? Cure diseases? Unite families? Feed the hungry? Rid the world of racism? All wonderful things to do. (Well, probably before the day was over you might give yourself six good numbers, but let’s not go there.) Being God for a day is attractive, is tempting! What could be wrong with wanting to be God for a day, of wanting something good? And yet, as scripture tells it: Adam and Eve blew it because they opted for divine powers and Jesus bested Satan by resisting the temptation to be God (He who had every right to claim such a prerogative) and instead chose to stay limited, stay finite, stay human. It seems that there are some inherent dangers built into the concept of wanting to be God, even for a day.
You probably don’t have to look any farther than September 11 in order to understand why the temptation toward the godly is dangerous. We can sit here today and look back on those events and say: Terrorism is bad, blowing up buildings is evil, killing innocent people is sin. But the devil didn’t tempt the nineteen hijackers to do something bad, evil, sinful. The devil tempted them to do something in the name of God. The trickiness of the temptation to terror was that the perpetrators could ignore the reality of their actions because they had this higher cause, this noble motive. By convincing them they were doing something in the name of God, the devil deceived them into committing evil. Church, that is how the devil works in our lives as well. The devil doesn’t tempt us to commit evil actions. The devil deceives us into imagining we are doing something good. The danger is not that we will desire to sin. The danger is the devil tricks us about what’s really going on.
We meditate on the temptations of Jesus every year on the first Sunday of Lent. The Church wants us to start this journey toward Easter by reflecting on the temptations that can veer us off the road. And perhaps more importantly, to find those defenses which help us resist the deceits of the devil as we strive to live as God intends. When we look at the way St. Matthew reports the temptations of Jesus we can draw some lessons which become an important part of our Lenten practices. First of all, we resist temptation as Jesus resisted it by appreciating our humanity. Human beings are hungry at times, aren’t satisfied, feel incomplete. The devil tempted Jesus to “command these stones become loaves of bread.” Then he wouldn’t have to feel that empty spot inside of him. But Jesus embraced his humanity with all the hunger, all the incompleteness which is part of the story of our species. Trying to fill up every desire, to satisfy every need can put us on the wrong path. By accepting that reality of our existence as having an empty spot and not trying desperately to fill it with whatever food, drink, person, pleasure which comes along, then we don’t give the devil room to move. Maybe that is why the first of the Lenten tasks is fasting. When we fast we deliberately welcome the emptiness of human life and let God provide the satisfaction. Fasting is faith in God’s fullness. The second way Jesus resisted temptation was by accepting the ordinary. The devil tempts Jesus with the jazzy, the spectacular, the wonderful, the exciting. “Throw yourself down” from the parapet of the temple, create a show, do something extraordinary. But Jesus instead chose to live an ordinary life, with all the normal and common place realities which are part and parcel of existence. The need to be entertained or to be thrilled can put us on the wrong path. It’s in the daily acceptance of responsibility, in the faithfulness to the ordinary, in being true to our everyday reality that we don’t give the devil room to move. Maybe that is why the second of the Lenten tasks is prayer. When we pray we bring our lives before God not for entertainment purposes but for fellowship. Prayer is acknowledging God as with us in all things. The third way Jesus resisted temptation was by staying free. The devil tempts Jesus to take control, to run things, to be in charge. Then he could do what he wanted. But Jesus trusted that what God wanted was better than anything he could control. He was free to follow God’s will without any conditions. Insisting that things come out a certain way can put us on the wrong path – I need this degree of comfort, I need to be healthy, I need to be recognized. Those pre-conditions can blind us to God’s plan. By being willing to say “whatever you want, God” we don’t give the devil room to move. Maybe that is why almsgiving is the third Lenten task. By giving alms, by helping others – either with our time, talent or treasure – we are shifting the focus off of ourselves and onto the action of God. Almsgiving is an act of faith in the divine plan.
This Lent, therefore, is primarily a time of God’s grace and love. We don’t need to be God for a day fixing all that is wrong in the world, we have God’s love which assures us that all will be well. We don’t need to satisfy every longing of the human heart, we have God’s love which is the more than we could hope for or imagine. We don’t need things to turn in our favor, we have the love of God which assures us of life, life to the full. Lent is about love, God’s love.