Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
If you asked me what the first thing was that came into my mind if you said the word “temptation,” I would probably say, “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.” Followed closely by Peanut M&Ms. Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek might make an appearance on that list—I don’t know, I’m just sayin’! A summer house on the Maine coast would certainly make a bid. Temptations appear from any number of angles. And they’re all tantalizing in their own way—they have a seductive power about them.
So along comes Lent—this season when Christians traditionally give something up—and I’m reminded that maybe it’s time to let go of Salma and Penelope, and maybe I shouldn’t put too much stock in a coastal getaway. And, because it’s the only one of those that’s part of my daily life, maybe it’s time to moderate my intake of sweets. So that’s what I tend to do for Lent: I try to cut out desserts.
And usually it goes pretty well. I still crave them. And once in a while I cave. And I wish they didn’t promise me, with their seductive whisper, that my life would be perfect if I just had a succulent chocolate chip cookie. As the season goes on, though, if I stay disciplined, it helps me lose a few unwanted pounds. And it makes my heart healthier. And, all too often, much to my chagrin, I forget why I’m really doing it, why I’m giving something up in the first place.
So Jesus comes along on this first Sunday of Lent each year to remind me what I’m really doing when I try to give something up for the season. I can picture him putting his arm around me, and saying to me, “I’m really glad you’re eating healthier. And it’s good you’re losing a few pounds. But that’s not really what I’m getting at in the story of my temptation.”
And then I remember: the story about Jesus in the wilderness for forty days isn’t so much about being tempted as it is about being tested. And what’s being tested is Jesus’ priorities: what matter most to Jesus?
And mostly what these wilderness challenges show us is that, at the root of everything Jesus is and does, God is at the center. ‘After forty days of fasting, wouldn’t you like to make yourself a loaf of bread?’ asks the devil seductively. ‘Yes,’ says Jesus, ‘I’m hungry. But that’s not as important as God.’ ‘Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if you were in charge, Jesus?’ ‘Probably. But that’s not as important as God.’ ‘Don’t you want to see if God will protect you in a crisis?’ ‘No. It’s not for me to test God.’
The point of those testings is not to see if Jesus has the will-power to resist tasty treats or wine or flirtatious dalliances. The whole point of what Jesus endures in that rocky, arid dessert is to see if he can keep God first in his life. Whenever I resist a turtle ice cream sundae, whenever you discipline yourself to stop complaining or gossiping or drinking soda, are we remembering that the only thing that really matters in our lives is the God who gave us life? Are we saying, “Wow, God, you have made one spectacular world. Thank you for my family, my food, my home, my work, even my challenges.”
The question isn’t so much: will I resist that brownie or give up swearing or limit my social media use? The question is: in everything I am and do, will I put God first? All those various disciplines we take on for the season are off track if they don’t finally point us back to God.
There are all sorts of ways, of course, in which we build a fortress around ourselves and fail to let God in. And what Lent is about is looking those evasions in the eye. One way we wall God out, for example, is by giving up hope. Despair is a not uncommon facet of life. Death by suicide, of course, is entirely too common. In many less shocking ways, though, all-too-many people seem to have relinquished a sense of satisfaction or joy. “Rates of depression and anxiety,” says journalist Derek Thompson, “are ‘substantially higher’ in this country [now] than they were in the 1980s.” Far too many people simply see no bright future. In the absence of debilitating mental illness—which is its own thing and requires its own specific treatment—when discouragement conquers hope, it may well signal that God has been edged out.
Another way we leave God on the sidelines is by rushing through life as though it’s some kind of race: ‘Let’s see how fast I can go and how much I can do.’ Yesterday I heard a neighbor of Mary’s and mine quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” There may well be lots to do, but most of us also need time to rest and to appreciate the fullness of our lives and to be grateful for it all. Even some simple routines can be an antidote to that rushing. The psychiatrist Daniel Amen exhorts us to wake up every day and say, “It’s going to be a great day!” What if we just stopped, and amended that phrase just slightly, and said, every morning as we got out of bed: “Thank you, God! It’s going to be a great day!”
Still another, and not unrelated, way we push God aside is by working ourselves to the bone. This may not be as true for those of you who are retired. But this workaholic culture still shapes us all. In a recent article for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson observes that, in 1930, the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that our society was moving toward a 15-hour workweek. Keynes thought we would have more and more leisure time.
Instead, says Thompson, the opposite has happened. Notably among rich, college-educated people—especially men—work has increased over the intervening decades. And the problem, says Thompson, is that work has evolved “from a means of material production to a means of identity production.” For the college-educated elite, he says, work has “morph[ed] into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.”
Work, says Thompson, is a kind of “new atheism.” “Some people worship beauty,” he points out, “some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.” Work has become a religion, he says, when it is seen as not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose. Quoting Samuel Huntington, Thompson says Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies.”
And Thompson suggests that perhaps the reason for this increased work “isn’t economic at all. It’s emotional—even spiritual. The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.”
We’d be missing something if we didn’t acknowledge that many people will, of course, rightfully feel deeply fulfilled by their work. The trouble, says Thompson, is that “a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.” And because success at work is so often fickle, “to be a workist is to worship a god with firing power.”
And this is precisely the problem with worshiping work: work unquestionably has lots of benefits, and many of us would be significantly less fulfilled if we didn’t have it, but, as Thompson says, “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith.” And he goes on to say, “One solution . . . would be to make work less awful. But maybe the better prescription is to make work less central”
At heart, this is a spiritual issue: in what basket do we put our eggs? Where do we rest our weary bones and souls? The crux of the matter is that, at crunch time—when the marriage teeters or illness strikes or our children struggle—work cannot deliver when the need is greatest. Nor can anything but the God who is at the heart of the universe.
I have been blessed to find work I love. It matters to me that I do it well, and that I invest myself fully in it. I believe the pastorate is work that makes a difference. When I was at a conference of UCC ministers in January, though, the presenter, Peter Marty, a Lutheran minister in Davenport, Iowa, told us ministers that we needed to be careful about that. Being a good pastor is really important, he said, and your work should certainly be in your top 10 priorities. But, he said, your spiritual life should be #1, and your family should very much be in the mix of what matters most to you. And he concluded by saying, “If being a pastor isn’t #1, you will probably be a better pastor.”
I confess that sounded like sacrilege when he said it. The pressure in so many of our jobs is always on to get all the work done. And the implication is that, if you’re not working ungodly hours—choice of words intentional!—there’s something not quite right, you’re not committed enough to what you’re doing.
And when we’re bowing to that work god, the prodding today is to take a step back from the endless grind, and to put our trust elsewhere, to find our true home in the heart of the only One who can deliver when the need is greatest. Sometimes that means letting those last emails go. Sometimes it means going home to have a date with your spouse or partner. Sometimes it means leaving work to cheer your child at a basketball game or a play or a concert.
I have a colleague who used to answer email at every hour of the day. And I mean every hour. He’d send emails at 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. A part of me was tremendously impressed. And I couldn’t help wondering if I was as committed to my work as he was. “Guess I’d better step up my game!” As time went on, though, I could see that he became flatter and less animated. There was no spark in his ministry anymore. He got everything done, and everyone oohed and aahed at him—“Wow, look how dedicated he is.” But there was no “there there” anymore.
He figured it out, though. He disciplined himself to follow a set schedule: to arrive and depart from work at the same time every day, not to send emails at all hours of the day and night, to make sure he had dinner with his wife every evening, and to spend unstructured time with his children. It wasn’t easy for him, and he paid a price for this new priority of his. But the spark returned. He had life, he had vitality, he had joy.
For my friend, this was a kind of spiritual testing. He could succumb to the prevailing ethos and work himself to the bone. Or he could have a real life and enjoy the simple things and remember that, not only was work not going to save him, but too much of it was going to destroy him. He needed to drink from the gently-flowing waters of God’s meandering brook. He needed to sup at the table of life. He needed to give himself, body and soul, to the only God who could give him the deep peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
The story of Jesus’ testing sometimes comes across as a kind of stern warning: you’d better get your priorities right or else. You can maybe imagine the divine finger wagging at us in warning: fast, pray, do what I want, we can imagine God saying harshly. Resisting temptation comes across as a kind of order to many Christians: you must do this. What we may so easily glide over is the first verse of the story. “Jesus, full of [what?]—the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by [whom?]—the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). Full of the Spirit. Led by the Spirit. As he sets off into the wilderness, two mentions of the Spirit accompanying Jesus on this arduous trek of his. Two reminders that the Spirit is present and alive in the most trying chapters of his life.
And this is how it is with us. The Holy Spirit leads and accompanies and makes possible what we might not have thought we could do. In Rob Bell’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About God, he focuses, in an early chapter, on what it means to be “open” to God, open to the source of life and peace. What would it mean for you and me to be open to God? Maybe it means this: maybe it means spending time in prayer this Lent to remember that we are always being held in holy hands; maybe it means remembering that in all that tries us and gives us fits and makes life a challenge, God is walking with us. And maybe above all, it means living in a light joy, because the Spirit is always animating us and filling us and carrying us on gossamer wings so that we are able to do the work of healing and feeding and doing justice. Thanks be to God.