(These weekly postings are prepared as sermons for Sunday services at North Baptist Church in Port Chester.)
For forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil. Luke 4:2a
Jesus said, “Pray then like this: … lead us not unto temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9, 13)
I love Pre-Raphaelite art.
I hesitate to say that because I was in the Delaware Art Museum once with a self-appointed art critic who asked me what kind of art I liked. Classical? Abstract? Dada? Neo-Dada?
I wanted to answer, “cartoons,” because one of my favorite artists was Curt Swan, who illustrated Superman comic books during their golden age.
But I figured my friend was looking for a more erudite response, and we happened to be standing in front of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s exquisite vision of the beautiful and sensual Lady Lilith, combing her cascading red hair.
“Pre-Raphaelite!” I blurted out with conviction.
My friend looked stunned and his derisive laugh echoed throughout the museum.
“Pre-Raphaelite?” he exclaimed with a high-pitched voice. “Can’t you ever be serious?”
Okay, I was hurt. But I think I can make a case that Pre-Raphaelite art – realistic, sentimental, mawkish, sensual – is a step up from Superman versus Brainiac and the stealing of Kandor.
Some Pre-Raphaelite artists have revealed deep truths through their syrupy and occasionally sappy canvases.
There is a particularly haunting painting by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) that, at first glance, captures the essence of innocence: A lovely child, still a baby, sits with a beautiful woman in a succulent, sun-drenched meadow. The woman, possibly the baby’s mother, is holding an apple. The child is transfixed by the fruit and captivated by its promise of pleasure.
In Bouguereau’s fancy, the scene captures a pivotal moment we have all shared: the singular occasion when our innocence was supplanted by a desire for pleasure.
Bouguereau has titled the painting, “Temptation.”
His point is clear: temptation – the urge to succumb to anything thing that offers pleasure (and we should perhaps seek to avoid) – is a lifelong experience that begins before we can talk. Locked deep in the unconscious of every innocent babe is original sin.
That is surely one reason Jesus said that every time we pray, we should ask God to lead us not unto temptation.
But what a hoot.
We are constantly led into temptation, and most of the time we don’t even put up a fight.
I was reading the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness on Wednesday morning as I sat down to breakfast. Ash Wednesday is a harsh time to face our temptations. For many of us, it is the first day of a long Lenten fast in which we resolve to give up something important to us in recognition of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Hours earlier, following a sumptuous Mardi Gras meal at a local church, I had downed a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and promised myself it would be my last sugar fling until Easter.
I assured myself that a little self-discipline and a lot of prayer should be sufficient to ward off the siren songs of the sugar nymphs.
But as I opened the refrigerator that morning, the bottle of New York maple syrup clinked beguilingly against a bottle of sugar sweetened Coca-Cola from Mexico. Sweet jams and jellies cooed seductively, and sugar-clogged Belgian waffles groaned for attention from the freezer.
“Get behind me, Satan,” I growled tentatively. But as I grabbed the box of oatmeal from the cupboard, it seemed to me the rosy-cheeked Quaker pouted in vicarious resignation. It was going to be a long six weeks.
All of us go through life with the angel of self-control and the devil of surrender circling our heads and whispering in our ears.
“Who’d know if you ate a waffle floating in syrup?” asks my devil, a cartoon version of me with a red nose and bovine horns. “God will know!” shouts my angel, who looks like a tiny me in a rumpled toga. “You’ll know!”
It’s the same for all of us
“You’re tense, you need a cigarette,” says someone else’s little devil, shouting over the angel’s rejoinder: “No! You’ve quit smoking! Don’t give up now!”
“Unwind, have a drink,” your little devil says. “No! You’ve been on the wagon for two years,” pleads the angel.
Food, booze, sex, unprotected merchandise in retail stores, someone’s lost wallet ripe for picking.
We are led into temptation every hour of every day.
How did Jesus resist temptation?
We tend to think Jesus could do anything because he was God’s son, that good behavior was easy for him.
But as Jesus prayed and fasted for days in the Judean desert, I doubt it was any easier for Jesus to turn down a load of bread than it would be for me.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Luke 4:3-4.
One is also tempted (so to speak) to think that if one is starving in the wilderness for 40 days, one is likely to be dead as a stone.
Maybe Jesus had a remarkable physiology, but the preponderance of biblical evidence is that his body was as vulnerable as ours. Most scholars doubt he stayed in the desert long enough to starve to death. The late Robert C. Campbell, a professor of New Testament who was general secretary of American Baptist Churches from 1972 to 1987, put it this way: “When the bible says 40, it means umpteen.” We know that Jesus fasted in the wilderness for a long while, just as it rained a very long time on Noah, and the Israelites wandered a very long time before they found the Promised Land. In each instance, no one knows how long.
However long Jesus fasted, it’s certain he was very hungry when the devil appeared to remind Jesus he had the unique power to create manna out of rocks. It was one of his more useful splinter skills.
If it had been me, I would have welcomed Satan’s helpful suggestion. “Hey, thanks, Dude, don’t mind if I do.” I’m pretty sure of this because of the number of times one of the kids persuaded me to do a drive-through at McDonald’s rather than go home and prepare a healthy meal. Generally, I didn’t blame the kids for having such a high calorie notion, and I’m sure I would not have blamed Satan for suggesting I turn a rock into sweet challah. What, I would have asked myself, could be the harm in that?
But Jesus knew very well that the first time you take Satan’s advice, he becomes your full-time consultant. Soon, he’s your chief of staff.
And Beelzebub had some ideas for Jesus that were more destructive that a harmless loaf of bread.
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
A cursory glance at world history suggests the devil has made this offer to hundreds of potential monarchs, dictators, popes, and presidents, and most of then accepted immediately.
Jesus spurned the proposition.
Even without the devil’s caveat – “if you, then, will worship me” – this is a shrewdly devious offer. God did not send Jesus into the world as a political leader, and the devil offered Jesus unconditional power as a scheme to derail God’s plan to save the world.
It comes as no surprise that Satan is the broker of all political power in the world. Most rulers and politicians, I suspect, come to power with the best intentions. Recent U.S. presidential candidates clearly believed they could use their power for good. This may even have been true of the oligarchs of Jesus’ day, including King Herod, the Emperor Tiberius and his mad successor, Caligula.
Herod may have convinced himself that his people were well off under his rule and it would be a righteous act to protect his power for the common good. If his reign appeared threatened by the rumored birth of a usurper, he might reason that the unpleasantness of massacring a generation of baby boys was balanced by the benefit of keeping a wise and experienced king in power.
Tiberius also tortured and executed his opponents for the good of the empire, and some historians believe Caligula smothered Tiberius with the aim of saving the empire from a sadistic tyrant.
As Lord Acton said in an 1887 letter to a bishop, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” And that was part of the devil’s design when he tried to convince Jesus to seek power. If Satan had succeeded in corrupting God’s son, all would have been lost forever.
And the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:9-13)
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness ends happily for us poor sinners, especially those of us who would have eagerly grasped the Faustian offers of food, power, and fame in exchange for worshipping Satan.
And we know we would have done it, too, because that’s the kind of guys we are. Bouguereau’s heartwarming painting of the innocent baby tempted by a wholesome apple is convincing evidence of that. When we behold the baby’s lovely but calculating countenance, we see ourselves.
Satan came to Jesus in the wilderness with a cunning plan to divert Jesus from a ministry that offered few benefits for Jesus. Jesus’ Godly power was manifest in powerlessness, homelessness, and sacrificial servitude. In order to fulfill his mission, he had to willingly submit his body to humiliation, pain, tortuous crucifixion, and death.
If any of us had been offered a way out of that mess, we’d have jumped at the chance.
Because that’s the kind of guys we are: weak, sinful, and susceptible to temptation.
Happily for us, Jesus demonstrated in his encounter with Satan that he alone was capable of resisting temptation.
And because Jesus stayed true to his calling, we are rescued from our own bondage to temptation despite our most strenuous efforts to succumb.