Lent 1A; Matt.: 4:1-11
After he was baptized by John in the Jordan, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Have you ever driven by something for, oh . . . I don't know . . . like for ever – a building, monument, business, large tree, something really obvious – only to notice it for the first time? Whatever it is has always been there, or has always been that color. Or am I the only one this happens to? But if you've had that experience, you might begin to wonder what else you've missed. I feel that way about today's gospel.
Jesus is baptized. He is led into the wilderness. He fasts for forty days and nights. Afterwards he's famished. The devil senses an opening and says, “Turn these stones into bread.” My eyes and ears tell me that the devil was trying to weasel his way into Jesus' life by preying on his hunger. My eyes and ears and stomach tell me I can't drive past Burger King without being tempted to stop to eat after only ten hours of fasting, let alone forty days and nights. So of course this first temptation was about getting Jesus to eat some forbidden fruit, so to speak.
But on re-reading this passage for the umpteenth time, I realized that Jesus' hunger never comes into play. And maybe I've noticed that before, but had just forgotten. But this point struck me as important.
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” This temptation could have been made at any time during Jesus' lifetime. It could have been made when 5000 people gathered around him and had nothing to eat. It could have been made when he saw the fig tree that had no fruit. It could have been made any number of times because it had nothing to do with hunger and everything to do with power. The devil is doing all in his power to get Jesus to use his power inappropriately.
What the devil does here in the beginning of the gospel – “Perform a miracle” – bookends with the end of the gospel when Pharisees, soldiers, Pilate, Herod, criminals, and people in general demand Jesus show them a sign – “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
If Jesus had performed this stone-to-bread miracle at the devils' bequest, or if he had performed a miraculous sign during his Passion and crucifixion, then he would simply have become a puppet, a carnival side-show, a man who performed miracles for the entertainment of others. He would have exploited his power for personal gain or recognition instead of waiting for God to work through him.
This is something we face today, both as Christians and in endeavors outside the Church and our faith, and that is the temptation to be great and/or the temptation to try and silence people by performing to their level of expectations.
There is nothing wrong in and of itself in doing great things, or achieving greatness; but as I said on Ash Wednesday, we need to be careful of falling into the Instagram social media look-at-me culture. In writing on this passage, Cyril of Alexander said, “Let this be an unfailing rule for the saints, not to show off before unbelievers.”
As always, but especially now in Lent, we take our cue from Jesus. We are in the season of self-examination (among other things). In this Lenten season, a question to consider is, “Why?” Why do we want to achieve great things? Why do we want to be known?
If we want to be in a position of achieving greatness to make a name for ourselves, we are missing the point – much like the citizens of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves. If we want to make a name for ourselves, then we have fallen prey to the devils' first temptation. But if our motives come from following the will of God, then we have a good chance of defeating this temptation that is based in vainglory.
The temptation to be great is strong. Whether that's a need to achieve some ridiculously high number of social media followers (think about those people we have labeled “influencers”), or whether it's to be known as the most important person in your field, or even it it's to be known as the largest church in Hagerstown, it's all based on being able to show off. And when that happens, we begin attributing our success and our power to ourselves.
But in this season of fasting and self-examination we are called to rend our hearts, not our garments. In this season we are called to return to the Lord. We are asked to remember why we do what we do and whom we serve.
Our greatness comes from the Lord. Following Christ means that we work on his time, not ours. As Paul pointed out, we may never see the fruit of our labors, it is enough to know that we labored for God. As we labor for God in this different time scale, may we not fall victim to the temptation of right now. May we never use our position for selfish glory. And may we always remember it's not “my will be done,” but, “your will be done.”
Lent is a time of reflection. It is a time of calling us back into a right relationship with God through prayer, fasting, and self-denial. It is a time we move from self-centered living to God-centered living. It's a time we notice once again what has always been there – the ever-present call of Christ to follow him.