As with the story of the Transfiguration that we hear every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, on the First Sunday in Lent we always hear the story of Christ's temptation in the wilderness. And as with the former story providing us with much on which to ponder, so it is with today's gospel.
There is the symbolic time frame of 40 days in the wilderness. There are the three temptations. And there is the reference to angels coming and waiting on Jesus, among other topics that could be teased out from the reading. Out of all of that, however, I want to focus on the third temptation that Christ faced.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
It's easy for us to imagine being in Jesus' place and telling the devil to shove it. It's easy for us to imagine being confronted by a demon with horns and a pointy tail and saying, “Away with you.” But it's a rare thing to come face to face with such a blatant set up. The truth is that the temptations, and those tempting us, are much less clear in their appearance.
This third temptation isn't really about worshiping the devil, because we know enough to only worship God. This temptation isn't really about the devil's power to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, because all things belong to God and the devil's rule is only temporary. What this temptation is really about is taking the easy way out.
The path of Jesus is that of sacrificial giving. The path of Jesus includes hard choices that involves touching untouchables, welcoming and including outsiders, treating the poor and destitute in the same way we treat the rich and endowed. This path of Jesus is hard and messy. This path of Jesus is a struggle that will involve people who don't get it, people who think they get it, and people who want it stopped. Ultimately this path of Jesus leads to betrayal, rejection, torture, crucifixion and death.
This third temptation of Christ – You can have it all if you just do this one thing – is all about eliminating the process, it's all about cutting out the middleman, it's all about taking a shortcut to get to the prize. This is why lotteries are so popular, because they promise vast amounts of wealth without having to work for it.
This temptation to take the easy way out, to get right to the good stuff, appears in all facets of life. It shows up on the streets when people begging for money turn down the offer of food or resource contacts because that's not the easy fix they are looking for. It's happening now when Publisher's Clearing House is offering $7000 a week for life, all you have to do is enter, no purchase necessary. And you see it in churches that pursue a one-size-fits-all program guaranteed to attract families and children.
But the truth of the matter is that there are no quick fix solutions. Regardless of who or where we are, we need to follow in the steps of Christ, refuse the temptation of a quick fix, and labor through sacrificial love, costly grace, and difficult discipleship. This is Lent.
Lent is our reminder that there is no quick fix. We are reminded that we need to spend time struggling in the wilderness. We need to remember that self-examination and sacrifice are necessary parts to discipleship. We need to remember that we have to go through Good Friday before we can arrive at Easter. And Lent reminds us that we must acknowledge our sins and be willing to say, “I'm sorry.”
As I said, we must go through Good Friday before we can arrive at Easter. I heard an example of this last week at a dinner for organists and clergy. One pastor relayed the time a (now former) organist chose to play, “He's Alive” on Maundy Thursday. That's a humorous story of what I'm getting at.
Discipleship is hard work with no easy answers. We can't simply plug in a ready-made program and magically attract families and younger people. We need to get to know them and invite them and welcome them and include them. Discipleship involves the hard work of stewardship, the long-term, long-range care of this facility. It involves participating in events and committees. And it involves being willing to interact with people who don't look like you, talk like you, live like you, or even smell like you.
As we travel through Lent, let us not be in such a hurry to get to Easter. One way we might accomplish this is to focus on each day of our discipline. Rather than think, “O Lord, I have six more weeks of not eating, not doing, not not not, to go;” focus on today. Today I will not snack, watch game shows, play Candy Crush, worry, swear, treat others badly, or whatever.
I'm reminded of a story an old NFL official told about a first year referee. They were in the locker room before the game and the new guy was anxious and nervous as all get out. He said, “I don't know if I can go out there in front of all those people and work this game.”
The old veteran said, “You've been an official for 20-some years. Is there anybody in those stands better qualified than you to work this game?”
“Do you think you can officiate one play, just one play, correctly?”
“Let me tell you a secret . . . that's the only way they will ever play this game – one play at a time.”
That's Lent – one day at a time.
That's discipleship – one day, one person, one event at a time.
It may be difficult and messy. It may involve things and people you don't like. But it's where our journey takes us, one event at a time.
The devil is tempting us to take the easy way out and head right to Easter. Don't fall for it.