Temptation and True Power for Dark Days

“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Luke 4:5-8 NRSV

Immediately after his baptism Luke and Matthew give us the account of Jesus 40-day temptation by the devil. After trying and failing to tempt the famished Jesus with food Satan turns to the almost sure fire way to corrupt the best of us in the verses above—worldly power.

The devil must have known the famous line from British historian Lord Acton who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So Satan offers Jesus absolute power/authority over “all the kingdoms of the world.” We know, and Jesus certainly, did that this offer is a boldface lie. The prince of evil is offering a deal that is too good to be true because it is, and Jesus sees right through the clever marketing scheme.

But how often do we mortals fall for snake oil salespersons or ads promising everything from sparkling white teeth to age-defying beauty and sexual prowess? This year the marketing geniuses are hard at work earlier than usual as we approach the holiest of all shopping seasons. This is true for at least two reasons I’m aware of: 1) Because Thanksgiving is as late in November as it can be there are the fewest shopping days between then and Christmas possible; therefore we don’t just have Black Friday, we have had Black November. 2) Retailers are in trouble financially and desperately need to rake in as much loot as possible during this annual spending frenzy.

If you have never spent more on an item than intended or bought something you’d weren’t even shopping for my hat is off to you. I’m embarrassed to admit that my wife and I were suckers for a time share hard sell presentation 15 years ago. We have never used said vacation spot in paradise and only rarely used any of the other perks that we paid for and continue to pay dearly for in maintenance fees.

And just recently I was flattered by an invitation to join a company as a freelance writer. The prestige of that plus a chance to earn some extra income was very tempting. But this time I was smart enough to do a quick Google search and read some very negative reviews of this company which were a good reality check. Modern technology provides us with such tools to research things and do comparison shopping, and that’s good. But all of those tools are also available to all the marketing folks, and they are far better at using those tools for their purposes than I am.

So I personally love this story about Jesus shutting Satan down with one great comeback by quoting Scripture. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” The next time I am tempted to bow down to the idols of materialism or self-aggrandizement I hope I can remember that line.

But lets dig a bit deeper into the carrot Satan is dangling in front of Jesus. It’s the same one offered to Adam and Eve–to be like God. And from the earliest days of human kind even when it’s a lie the offer of power can turn the heads of even the strongest among us. And one of the reasons that particular temptation is so effective is that it can shape shift into hundreds of different disguises. It can turn us into workaholics; it can certainly drown us in consumer debt (as a nation or as individuals); it can override basic human decency for the unquenchable thirst for more stuff and more prestige or security. Power hunger can turn simple and just economic systems into stacked decks that result in untenable income equality. The pursuit of power can turn a basic human right like health care into a corrupt billion dollar industry.

The desire to acquire or retain power produces the kind of corruption that makes good people lose their moral and political courage to speak the truth. And the flip side, the fear of losing power is so insidious it can justify genocide or slavery even in the name of the gods of false religion. The Hebrew prophet Amos famously said it can result in selling the poor for a pair of Nikes (my paraphrase, he just said “shoes” which should probably be translated “sandals”. Fear of losing power can even justify putting children in cages! Or if we don’t justify it we can be so easily distracted by other power play drama in our own lives or in politics that we put those kids out of our awareness.

But here’s the rest of Jesus’ temptation story: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” Luke 4:13-15

Two things of note in those last 3 verses: 1). The forces of evil are never done with us. Temptation to betray our best values doesn’t ever cease. There is no war to end all wars over the power of temptation. Luke tells us the devil left Jesus “until an opportune time.” We all know Jesus would pass each and every one of those tests, unlike you and me. But my point is that we must not ever grow complacent and think we have arrived at a point where we are stronger than evil. If anyone tries to sell us that one, it’s a big, fat lie! There is no vaccination for temptation in all it’s many forms, and when we think we are immune that is when evil sees the most opportune time.

And finally notice how and why Jesus is able to walk away from temptation and carry on his one true purpose. “Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” he returned to Galilee just as he will later leave the serenity of the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9) and go down to face the most humbling and powerless humiliation awaiting him in Jerusalem. But we also know how that turned out!

The take away for is that Jesus was able to withstand evil’s best offers of comfort, fame and power because he was filled with the only power stronger than any and all temptations. That Comforter, that Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it’s better than any Black Friday promise or back room political deal. It’s free for the asking, but here’s the deal — we have to be willing to admit we are powerless without the Holy Spirit.

I’m praying for that kind of humility for myself and for everyone who is tempted to drink the poison kool aid when promised absolute power if we just worship a false god.

Roll Call

HolyLentThe Sunday before Ash Wednesday is one of my favorites of the church year. It’s called Transfiguration Sunday because it marks a critical turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospel lesson that day is the story of Jesus taking 3 of his closest disciples with him up a mountain where they have a vision of Jesus transfigured before them talking to Moses and Elijah. It’s such a beautiful mountain top moment that Peter suggests they should build 3 booths there to commemorate the occasion.

Just then God breaks into the silence and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” This moment is so central to the Christian story that all three Synoptic Gospels tell it almost verbatim. (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) In other words the church knew this was important stuff and we too need to listen to what Jesus says.

And what he must have said to them, although we aren’t told, is that it’s time to go back down the mountain and be about the work of the Kingdom of God. The story always reminds me of another mountain top encounter that Elijah had in I Kings 19:9. In that story Elijah has fled to Mt. Horeb for fear of his life. Queen Jezebel has threatened him, and her threats could not be taken lightly. God sustains Elijah on the journey and gives him some needed alone time, but then, just as on the Mt. of Transfiguration, God says, “Yes, you need time to refresh, but you can’t homestead in a state of perpetual retreat.” Actually what I Kings says is that God says to Elijah straight out and to the point, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Not once but twice.

As we begin the season of Lent again this year God is asking us the same question? Lent is a time for reflection and prayer and meditation. It is a time to recharge our spiritual batteries. But that is a means to an end. It is a time for spiritual discipline to ask ourselves again, “What are we doing here?” What is our purpose for being? What is God calling us to do? What does it mean for you and me in 2017 to listen to Jesus? I mean really listen. It may be some tough love we hear, and if we really listen we will be transfigured.

Here’s how one author who wrestled with those hard questions all his life described what that experience was like for him:
“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.
My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

What are you doing here? What’s your plan to serve Jesus today?