February 14, 2016
For Superman it was kryptonite. Superman was impervious to anything that might take out you or me. Bullets bounced off his chest. His strength was so great he could stop speeding trains. He could fly higher than planes. He only needed a telephone booth to make the quick change into his hero’s tights. He even made people believe that simply putting on glasses and ordinary clothes was an adequate disguise. Certainly there was no way anyone could place him as Superman when he was dressed as mild mannered Clark Kent. But one thing could take out Superman and one thing only – kryptonite. Even a small amount of the matter and minerals from his home planet could render him weak and powerless. His super hero, superhuman, super powers were unbeatable; he was indestructible unless a small piece of kryptonite got too close. Then he was as mortal and as weak as any of us. For Superman it was kryptonite. That was his vulnerability. Kryptonite made him human.
For Jesus it was hunger. No matter what year we are following in the lectionary cycle, no matter what the gospel, we always begin the first Sunday of Lent with the telling of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. After all, Lent is patterned after that time. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and being tempted by the devil. Luke’s gospel tells us that after those 40 days of no food, Jesus was hungry. Of course he was! Who wouldn’t be?! That’s a long time to go without food. He wasn’t just hungry, he was famished. Anyone would be. The devil, being the great opportunist that he was, saw Jesus’ hunger as his chance. Although we read that the devil tempted Jesus during the 40 days, we don’t know what those temptations were. But at the end of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when he was starving, Luke reveals three specific temptations.
First the devil told Jesus that if he was really the Son of God, then he should command the stones to become bread. Jesus answered him with scripture. “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Second, the devil took Jesus up so that Jesus could see all the kingdoms of the world. The devil informed Jesus that he, the devil, had been given all authority over these kingdoms. He can give that authority and power to anyone he wishes. He would give it all to Jesus on one condition, “worship me.” Jesus didn’t buy it and again he responded with words of scripture. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’
Lastly, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem. He placed Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple. Then the devil dared him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
The devil knew scripture too, and he knew how to prooftext and manipulate it to say what he wanted it to say. But Jesus still didn’t give in. He responded to scripture with more scripture. “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the text.’”
The devil knew he had lost this round, so he left Jesus; not for good but to wait for another opportune time. When the devil retreated, Jesus left as well. He left the wilderness and began his public ministry in Galilee.
Jesus went into the wilderness “full of the Holy Spirit.” Although he ate nothing and was famished, he still did not give into temptation. The devil could not get the best of him. Whenever I read any of the temptation accounts, my first thought is, “Well of course, Jesus wasn’t tempted. He was Jesus. He was human just like us but he did not sin.” That is the accepted belief of our faith, isn’t it? Jesus was fully human just like all of us, but he did not sin. He was Jesus, God’s Son. Sinning was just not going to happen no matter how hungry he was. End of story.
Usually when I read Luke’s account, I focus solely on the temptations themselves. I read the sentence, “he was famished,” but it’s just a blip in the story. But I wonder if those three words – he was famished – are actually the point. Jesus was famished. He went without food for 40 days and he was as hungry as anyone of us would have been. If he was as hungry as the rest of us, it is a good chance that hunger had the same effect on him it has on us. When I’m really hungry, really, really hungry, I get cranky. Sometimes my head hurts. I feel weak and lightheaded and agitated. If I don’t get to bite into some food soon, I might just bite your head off. Jesus was famished.
But because he’s Jesus, I think we tend to diminish his hunger and how it might have affected him. He was hungry and he was fully human, but he was also fully divine. Well, what does that mean exactly? What does that look like? When it comes to his temptation, I think we see Jesus more like a superhero that has been exposed to the one thing that makes him vulnerable. He is like Clark Kent opening his shirt to reveal the large S underneath. Jesus is fully human, but when it comes to temptation there is a shirt with a large D for divine underneath his robe.
As one commentator put it, Jesus’ divinity acted as a fail safe. If temptation went too far and he got too close to the edge of sin, then divinity jumped in to save him. But if that’s true, then what’s the point of his humanity? What’s the point of telling the story of his being tempted, because in the end they would not have been real temptations? It seems to me that temptation has to have the possibility of snaring you in order to actually be temptation. If Jesus wasn’t really tempted, if it were impossible for him to actually give in, then this story is no more than a morality play. We watch in order to get an example of how we should be, but we are actually human so we might fail. This is nice of Jesus to show us this, but if he couldn’t actually give into temptation, then he really isn’t like us.
But Jesus was like us. That is the substance of the incarnation. Jesus was like us, fully human, vulnerable, tempted, famished. He was human, just like us.
One of the most powerful depictions of Jesus’ humanity that I have ever seen was in a movie that was so controversial, people from all denominations worked to ban it from theaters. The move was The Last Temptation of Christ. I did not see it when it came to theaters. I watched it when I was in seminary. The main reason this movie was controversial was because it showed Jesus in a physical relationship with Mary Magdalene. People were up in arms at even the thought of that. But if you did not see the movie, let me give you the larger context. The story was about Jesus and his ministry and his walk to the cross. It was while he was on the cross that the last temptation occurred. Temptation came to him in the form of a little child, haloed in beautiful light. The child told him that he could get down from the cross. He didn’t have to stay there. So Jesus does. He gets down off the cross. He falls in love. He lives.
No matter what the protesters said about this movie, the true temptation for Jesus was not lust, it was life. His last temptation was that he got to live just like us. He got to love just like us. He had the chance to have a family and a home and the ordinary everyday realities we take for granted – just like us. If we mean what we say, then Jesus was fully human, and being human is messy. It is filled with temptation. It is filled with wrong turns. As humans we have enormous capacity for love and we have an equally enormous capacity for evil. Jesus was fully human, so those temptations must have pulled at him as much as they would have us.
But I think that what makes Jesus different, what makes him able to resist temptation was not some superhuman ability that we do not have. I think that what he had was full knowledge, full understanding, full comprehension of love; God’s love, sacrificial love, agape love. Jesus was fully human, as fully human as we are meant to be, as we are created and called to be. He knew and lived and breathed Love. Jesus was not a superhero savior. He didn’t have some secret ability that we don’t have access to. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, he was filled with God, he was filled with Love.
The good news, the great and glorious news, is that we can be too. We were created out of Love, because of Love, for Love. Jesus was fully human just like us. He was tempted just like us. He was weak and vulnerable just like us. But Jesus knew completely how to love and lived and died trying to teach us to do the same. Sisters and brothers, during this season of Lent and always, let us love like Jesus did so that we can be fully human as well.
Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”