Sunday, March 05, 2017

1st Sunday of Lent: Facing the Real World

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

"The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”  Thomas Merton

The Hebrew word for “Satan” means “hinderer”.  To hinder someone means to hold them back, to prevent them from doing something.  We might even consider this meaning to help us better understand the nature of the “tempter” whom Jesus is facing in the wilderness, the “devil”, the one whom Jesus finally calls “Satan”.

I’ve often wondered if the very human Jesus really understood the fullness of who He is – and I ask this because we have no biblical record of Mary or Joseph ever having a heart-to-heart talk with Him, to help Him understand where He came from, and learn to grow into that role.  It could be there is nothing written because there is nothing to tell; that conversation never took place.  Or it could be Jesus knew all along who He is and what He is called to do. 

That, for us, is the most comfortable thought, of course, because it lets us off the hook.  We can just accept who Jesus is, that Jesus always knew, and that this confrontation in the wilderness was Jesus’ own personal battle with the one whom we have known as the “fallen one”.

Yet when we look at a parallel passage like Moses’ experience on Mt. Sinai, then maybe we need to look a little closer – especially when we think of what this kind of fasting means and what purpose it serves during Lent.  Exodus 24 ends with, “Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights”.

If the tablets had already been “written” as we are told, why would it have been necessary for Moses to remain on the mountain for forty days?  If Jesus already knew He is the Incarnate God, why was a similar period of fasting and prayer necessary?  There is something with deeper meaning requiring much more attention to detail for us than to ascribe only to Moses and Jesus the forty days of such discipline and not to ourselves.

There is one major difference for us, though.  Jesus was facing the “tempter” in the wilderness, and Moses was with the Creator on the Holy Mountain.  What connects these two experiences, however, is a strong sense of purpose – God’s purpose and not our own.  It is safe to say both knew, at least on some level, whom they were dealing with, and both knew what was at stake could not be completely understood or appreciated “in a minute”. 

There is discovery in these intense moments we give to The Lord, discoveries which cannot be made “on the fly” or in our haste to move from one moment to the next.  And as science has all but proved, “multi-tasking” is a myth.  We cannot do well with one thing while mentally engaged in another.

Part of that discovery is what the Catholic monk and writer, Thomas Merton, observed: “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little”; that state of mind in which we are satisfied with “just enough” – but only as it pertains to The Word.  Surely written with a human understanding of our cultural desire for “more”, whether it be more money, more square footage, more car, or more luxurious or frequent vacations, the gist of what Brother Merton shared is that when we put forth our very best efforts for all this world offers, we cheat ourselves out of all our Lord has in store for us later.  And the reason is as simple as Jesus’ own lesson: there is not enough room in our hearts for both.  We cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).

This is what Jesus had to contend with, and it fits within the Jewish narrative of “Satan” not as a name but as a title … and with a dirty job.  Recall the strange setting in the opening chapter of Job.  The Heavenly Court was seated, and “the heavenly beings came to present themselves before The Lord, and Satan was with them” (1:6).  To make a long story short, Satan’s presence was not challenged.  He was only asked to account for where he had come from.

Then we know what happened.  The Lord was very pleased with His faithful servant, Job.  Satan challenged Job’s faithfulness because Job was virtually immune from the realities of the world – adversity and loss.  Satan maintained that if The Lord’s circle of protection were not around him, Job would curse The Lord to His face.  Job was pushed to his limits and he had many, many questions about what purpose these challenges could serve – but he never cursed The Lord.

Judaism teaches that Satan was only doing his job – the job he had been assigned by the heavenly court, the job for which he was created.  He is the “tempter” in this world, and he will serve as the “accuser” on the Day when we stand before The Lord.  He has charge over everything in this world, and it is his to use – fair and unfair – to “tempt” us, to challenge us.  It is a job which must be done.

And we ask why.  Was Jesus being “tempted” from His birthright?  Or was Jesus being “developed” to fulfill the role He was born to fulfill?  Or is it what Christianity has long held; that Satan was trying only to determine exactly who he was dealing with?   Yes.  All of the above.

It is hard for us to believe this wilderness experience is by design as a deliberate task from the heavenly court.  Even if we are talking about the Son of the Most High God, it seems … mean and unfair.  Yet when we consider the reality of the temptations we face daily, we must also understand the choices we are confronted with do serve a useful purpose – and that Satan is involved with every single incident when we are forced to make choices. 

We must learn to appreciate the reality that what may seem good to us could end up being the hindrance to the best relationship we can have with our Father – such as money we will only share with those we love but would withhold an honest and full tithe or deny a hungry child some food, or excusing ourselves from the quite necessary and soul-building discipline of fasting because we have convinced ourselves “we don’t have to”.

When we are talking about the depth of sanctifying grace by and through which we are continually regenerated and perfected, we should – if we are open to the experience - come to understand that it is only through adversity by which we may develop the strength to grow in faith and in love.  Just as we must not give in to our children’s every single desire but must teach them to do without or learn to deal with “no”, our Father is doing all He can to be sure we do not grow up spoiled and with a misguided sense of entitlement.  Giving us what will ultimately destroy us is not an act of love.

And strangely enough, this is the task understood to be a part of the “tempter’s” role.  We certainly cannot say eating is altogether bad because our bodies need the nourishment, but there is a fine line between eating for sustenance - and gluttony.  Money in itself is not a bad thing, but there is fine line between using it responsibly and using it to our own destruction and to the detriment of the Church and Her witness by withholding our tithe because we have convinced ourselves “we don’t have to”.

So the “hinderer” compelled Jesus to decide between what was useful and what would be wasteful; to decide what would be testing The Lord our God and His patience and what would test our devotion to what we are called to be and to do.

None of it was ever meant to be easy just as Jesus taught that following Him would be the most difficult thing we would ever do – difficult and even sometimes very dangerous.  In this moment in the wilderness, however, Jesus has imparted to us the greatest and most useful gift we will need to navigate the “real world”: the Word of God.  Learning to wield it and use it – to the glory of God and for our edification rather than our carnal satisfaction.

We must be able to discern between that which has value only for a season, and that which has everlasting value – hoarding what can be stolen or rotted, or storing up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20).  The Word is that One Tool we have which will help us to know the difference between what is “real” only in this world and what is “real” in the Everlasting Kingdom.  If we have only the good things and our hearts’ desires fulfilled at every turn, we will not know how to deal with adversity when – not if – it comes.

The Word is not something only for memorization; it must be learned and intimated in such a way that the Word becomes as much a part of our being as our hearts and lungs.  For The Word will not only help us to navigate this dangerous world, it will still be with us when our hearts and lungs fail us.  This is our reality.  This is our “real world”.  It is the Word of God for the people of God for the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

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