I struggle with the idea of real devils, like the one we hear about in today’s Gospel. I know, though, that evil is real. I see it in the pictures of innocent people killed in wars or acts of terrorism, in greed of people who have power, in oppression of the poor. There’s big capital-E evil, and there are the thousand little evils around us daily, and many of those little evils take the form of temptations.
Temptations come at us all the time, not just out in the wilderness with a devil offering us great things. With the exception of a few mean girls in sixth grade, I can’t really think of anyone in my life who was truly a devil. No one on the list of the ten worst people in my life comes close to the picture of the devil that this story paints for us.
He’s a smooth salesman, this one. He offers what he thinks would be most attractive to Jesus. If you’ve been fasting for 40 days, don’t you want some delicious homemade bread? If you’re divine, don’t you want to enjoy the power and pleasures that being God should bring? Don’t you want to show everyone just how powerful you are? You have angels at your command!
And Jesus refuses to take the bait. He says no. Three times. And the devil slinks away, as the gospel says, “departing from him until an opportune time.”
That’s the truly frightening thing about this devil. He may give up, but he waits for an opportune time to try again. Temptations are there, and they keep coming back.
As I said, I have a hard time thinking of the devil as an actual being – I know St Augustine wrote about the fallen angels who became devils, seduced by the love of their own power and proximity to God – but for me, here today in Leesburg, I think the devil really is the unending list of temptations that draw us away from God.
Temptations are everywhere. They’re big and little. The second piece of pie. Padding the expense account. Telling the boss you were late because you got caught in a traffic jam, not that you wanted to sleep in an extra half hour. The little white lie. The cheat.
Tiger Woods was talking about temptation the other day on television. I’m not sure if he did his little press announcement as part of his treatment for his bad behavior – if he is in a 12-step program, asking for forgiveness of those whom you wronged is part of the process - or as part of his attempt to keep a few endorsements while he is away from the pro tour, but it was clear that the temptations had come to rule his life in a way that caused pain and disaster all around him.
I think it’s a good thing to confess, although I wonder at the motives of this particular confession. If you don’t do the bad thing in the first place, you don’t hurt anyone, and you don’t have to confess. But we keep on falling, tripping over ourselves doing stupid things, taking the bait of those temptations.
Temptations are all around us. The devil of whatever it is that draws us away from the presence of God keeps waiting for an opportune time. Ultimately, God vanquishes evil, but in the meantime, we have these temptations all around us. What do we do?
First, we don’t try to pretend that they don’t exist. They’re real, they’re ever-present, they’re – well – tempting. Jesus’ first temptation was for food – the desire for something that fulfilled a physical need. If I’m trying to follow a particular diet, and I’m hungry, the temptation to eat that chocolate cupcake is there, and it is strong. Just as a good Boy Scout learns the motto “Be Prepared,” we as Christians need to prepare ourselves.
What does preparation look like?
If it is a diet, I try to be sure to have appropriate snacks around the house, and lots of water. If the temptations are of the spiritual kind, preparation starts with prayer, and there is no better time to work on one’s practice of prayer than during Lent. It is a season when we are supposed to take a closer look at ourselves and ask God to help us do better. So perhaps the prayer that has great resonance for us is the final verses of Psalm 139:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
We pray to be able to hold up the mirror and see ourselves clearly, because in doing so, we can ask God to help us be better, to more closely follow what God created us to be.
Second, we do not judge others. It’s another temptation, isn’t it? Maybe my doubt about Tiger Woods is me judging. Maybe I should look into myself and my own sins and temptations instead of worrying about his. Jesus’ second temptation was about power – to have all the glory and authority that would bring the world to his feet. I wonder if some of the difficulties that our star athletes get themselves into have to do with what we offer them. We lay at their feet millions of dollars in salary and endorsement deals, fame, incredible celebrity…and then when they fall prey to the temptations in that life, we judge them. We hear jokes about Plaxico Burruss, we see the tabloid stories about Brad and Angelina and their endlessly growing family, and we wonder whether Amy Winehouse is going to stay out of rehab…they fall prey to the very temptation that the devil presented Jesus. “I will give you the glory of the world if you will worship me.” And they take the bait. They fall. We laugh. We judge. But could any one of us say if we had their athletic or artistic gifts, we wouldn’t fall as well?
Again, the response to the temptation to judge is prayer. The proverb “there but for the grace of God, go I” might be the prayer that immediately springs to our lips, but it might be more appropriate to say the Jesus prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We all sin. How can we possibly judge another? We go back to the Gospel of John: “If any of you are without sin, cast the first stone.” None of us meet that standard, so when we see someone – a friend, a family member, someone famous – has fallen, we pray for God to help them, to give them the grace they need.
Third, have faith that you are a beloved child of God. No more, no less. The third temptation was about a test: if Jesus threw himself off the cliff, would the angels truly come to rescue him, as scripture prophesied? Prove it! Show me you are truly God!
I wonder what we think we need to prove in our own lives. Several years ago, we used to have a cleaning lady who came once a week. Every night before she came, and on the morning of her visit, I’d rush around the house straightening up. I was cleaning up for the cleaning lady. How silly is that? Was I trying to prove to her that I really was a good housekeeper? Heaven knows that’s not really so. What did I need to prove? The temptation was there to be something I was not. It’s a temptation we struggle with all the time – to appear smarter, richer, prettier, more powerful. But can we fall prey to a more foolish temptation? We are beloved children of God. What more do we need to be?
Again, prayer is the answer, the conversation with God that reminds us that this is what is really important.
We hear God’s voice in today’s Psalm:
Because you are bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver you; *
I will protect you, because you know my Name.
You shall call upon me, and I will answer you; *
I am with you in trouble;
I will rescue you and bring you to honor.
With long life will I satisfy you, *
and show you my salvation.
God is there, always. The temptations are there, but they are merely an annoying low-level buzz compared to what God offers to us to help us, as long as we ask.
So in this holy time of Lent, look at the temptations in your own life, whatever they may be. Ask God to help you see them for what they are, things that separate you from God. Pray God to see them as foolish things, and to give you the strength to resist them. Know that God will help, and when you trip over them, he will offer his love to help you back up.