February 17, 2013
One summer on vacation I heard about a contest sponsored by the makers of M&M’s. If you won the grand prize you won $5,000 dollars every summer for the rest of your life. The way to you entered and potentially won the contest by opening a bag of M&M’s. It was like discovering the golden ticket in Willy Wonka’s chocolate bars. The only way you could find out if you were a winner was to buy a bag.
This was not a great sacrifice for me, because I love M&M’s. Plain, Peanut, Pretzel, I do not care. They are probably my greatest sweet temptation. I try to avoid them most of the time because it’s impossible for me not to eat them. But this was just too sweet of a contest to leave alone. M&M’s and an extra $5,000 every year for life! Let’s just say I ate a lot of M&M’s. The temptation was just too much.
This is how I usually think of temptation. Something that may taste wonderful, but that I know isn’t good for me. Temptation is wanting something that’s really bad. You know it’s bad, but you want it anyway. But I think that maybe I’ve been looking at temptation in the wrong light. I think temptation might be more than just something that isn’t good for you.
It hasn’t been that long since the movie It’s A Wonderful Life would have aired during the Christmas season. I imagine that everyone here has seen this movie more than once, or at least knows enough about it to know the story line.
Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, the ultimate good guy whose life is spent helping others. Yet he also suffers for his goodness. He grows up dreaming of traveling the world, exploring unchartered territory, getting a college education, becoming an engineer, building great buildings. But circumstances keep him in his hometown of Bedford Falls, New York. Bailey is a dutiful son, and he works hard at his family business, The Bailey Building and Loan. It’s a small lending institution that is more concerned about giving people decent homes to live in than it is about making a profit. So if George wants to go to college he’s got to work and scrimp and save to find the money.
Just when he’s set aside enough to go, his father dies suddenly. George gives his college money to his little brother Harry and sends him to school instead. George takes over the running of the family business, because he is a good man, but also because he wants to keep the business out of the hands of Old Man Potter.
Potter is the other major player in this drama. Potter is the meanest, stingiest, greediest, dirtiest dealer in town. He seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The Bailey family owns the Building & Loan and Potter owns everything else. The fact that he can’t own the Building & Loan eats away at him. So he finally decides to do something about it. The only way to get the Building & Loan is to get George Bailey.
So Potter offers George a job. Not just any job – but an unbelievably fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime job. This is the kind of job that George Bailey has dreamed of. It would have paid him a salary considered a fortune at that time. It was a job that would have given him a chance to travel. And it would have allowed George to care for his wife and growing family in ways he could have only imagined before. Potter doesn’t just offer George a job, he reads him like an open book. He tells George his life and his secret desires and his not-so-hidden resentments. He uses all that to tempt George.
And George is sorely tempted. Taking this job with Potter would mean that he would finally be on his way up the ladder of success. Potter knows this and George knows this. And George almost takes it. He almost grabs for the brass ring. But as much as George wanted to give Potter a resounding “Yes” to his offer, instead he says, “No.” He doesn’t just say, “No.” He says, “No! No! No!” Why? Why did he pass up this tempting chance of a lifetime? Because George saw through Potter’s supposed generosity to the scheme underneath. Potter didn’t care about George Bailey. He just wanted the Building & Loan. He wanted what he could not have.
George says, “No.” He resists the temptation Potter uses to try and win him over. He says, “no” and sends temptation packing. I realize this is just a movie, fiction, but fiction can give us insight into truth. I think this movie can give us a better understanding of the truth of the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness.
The temptation in the wilderness is a critical time for Jesus in all of the synoptic gospels, but I think it is even more so in Luke’s. Luke goes into far greater detail about the temptations themselves than either Mark or Matthew. As I said, it is a crucial time for Jesus. He is standing between his baptism and his public ministry. As soon as he is baptized and the power of the Holy Spirit is his, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. For 40 days he fasted and endured temptations from the devil. Now that the 40 days are over, Jesus is famished. He wants a meal. He’s probably also exhausted and dirty. All Jesus wanted was a place to rest and wash and eat. His next step after leaving the wilderness will be to travel towards Galilee and immerse himself into his ministry to the lost sheep of Israel.
But in this moment Jesus needs his immediate needs met. Food. Rest. Bath. Renewal. However because he needs his immediate needs met, he’s also vulnerable. If I had just finished 40 days in the middle of nowhere, if I were hungry and tired and needed a shower, I would be vulnerable. My defenses would be weakened. This would be an ideal time to get me off track, off course. So it is significant, then, that the devil appears at this precise moment. And the devil is ready with three temptations.
Jesus is hungry, and the devil urges him to prove he is the Son of God by turning stone into bread.
Jesus is the bearer of God’s kingdom on earth; the devil entices him with all of the kingdoms of the world, only worship him and they will all belong to Jesus.
Jesus’ ultimate destination is Jerusalem. Jerusalem – where he will be betrayed by one of his own, abandoned by his people, and sentenced to death on a cross. And there, on the pinnacle of the temple the devil coaxes Jesus to jump off, calling on God to save him just as the scripture claims. This supernatural publicity stunt would prove his identity as God’s Son to those hard-hearted people once and for all.
Jesus is faced with a moment of decision; a moment when the shape and form of his ministry could be irrevocably altered. This is a moment of choice between the way of the devil or the way of the cross. Of course the choice seems obvious to us, doesn’t it? The way of the devil – when we are able to recognize it – is never the way to take. Certainly if we can know that, then Jesus is that much ahead of us. This is Jesus, after all, fully human but also fully divine. He knew what he had to do. He said, “No.”
But consider the temptations Jesus was facing. To confess that Jesus was fully human is to say that these temptations were as real to him as the temptations in our lives are to us. At this particular moment, the flesh and blood Jesus was hungry and tired and weak. He was about to embark on a ministry that would be painful, that would be filled with rejection; a ministry that would result in his suffering. Ultimately this ministry would lead him to the cross. Fully human Jesus would have been as susceptible to giving into the temptation offered by the devil as any one of us. So maybe we can imagine that the way of the devil – food, power, credibility – must have looked very tempting indeed.
That is the true nature of temptation. The greatest temptation looks to be the most attractive offer. And what makes temptation like this even more dangerous and more seductive is that it offers good – not just for the one who’s being tempted, but for others as well.
A job with Old Man Potter would have afforded George Bailey and his family a better life; a life that George had only dreamed of until that point.
And if Jesus turned stone into bread for himself, surely he could do the same for so many others who suffered from hunger and poverty. If Jesus had taken the devil up on his offer, he could have gained all the kingdoms of the world in one fell swoop; a far quicker and more efficient means of bringing the people to God. When the devil tempts him to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus could have called on God to save him, instantly proving his identity as God’s Son. That would have saved him three years of trying to open the hearts of those who refused to believe what their own eyes told them.
In the words of one commentator, “Temptation is deceptively attractive…temptation is an offer not to fail but to rise.” A former supervisor of mine told me once that the tempter doesn’t present himself as darkness, no the tempter comes as light. Darkness disguises itself as light, which is why it’s so hard to recognize it as temptation. But Jesus sees through the false light surrounding the devil and his offers.
The devil offered Jesus a chance to rise. Jesus said, “No.” But in that, “no” Jesus also gave a resounding “yes.” Yes to unwavering obedience to God. Yes to servanthood. Yes to suffering. Yes to the cross. And in that moment of decision, of saying, “yes,” the course of Jesus’ life and ours was changed forever.
The older I get the more I realize how tempted Jesus truly was. He was as tempted as you and I would have been to choose the path that would have allowed him to rise. But Jesus said no to every test, using scripture for guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit as his refuge and source of strength.
The temptation to take the easier way is always before us, but it may seem especially appealing as we stand at the beginning of Lent. Because during this season, perhaps more than any other, we are acutely aware of the path Jesus did choose. The path we are also called to follow. We too now have to make up our minds and set our faces toward Jerusalem. We know that every test Jesus faced will be ours to face as well. And we also know that we are not Jesus. We’re not called to be. We’re called to listen and to follow and to trust. We trust that in every test we face, every temptation we stare down and even in the ones that momentarily do us in, we are surrounded and supported by grace. Let us go to Jerusalem. Let us face together every test. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”