Genesis 3:1-8 & Mark 1:9-13
“You came, I was alone / I should have known you were temptation. / You smiled, luring me on. / My heart was gone, you were temptation… I’m just a slave, only a slave / To you, temptation.” From the year 1933. A classic torch song. And temptation has been the subject of so many, many songs…always a touch sad, always a touch tragic.
Maybe it’s a sign of our times…but I don’t hear many songs about temptation these days. If I do, it’s a remake of an old classic. Temptation seems to have been relegated to commercials for perfume…or chocolate.
C.S. Lewis once said about devils, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”
The same could be said about temptation. Either to dismiss it as an archaic religious concept, using it only for advertising…or to become obsessed with temptation, identifying it everywhere you turn and resisting it with every fiber of your being…both can leave a person more than scorched…and spending time with devilish company.
In the two readings today, the tempter’s goal is not simply to get the characters to do something…naughty. Satan is not merely tempting Adam and Eve to sneak in and snitch some fruit. He is not merely tempting Jesus to do a miracle or two. In both cases, the tempter is trying to insert himself between them and their God. In the first case, he succeeds. In the second, he does not.
When the serpent came to Eve he didn’t say, “Aah, go ahead…take a bite. You know you want to!” No, the tempter inserted doubt between the woman and God. “Did God really say?” “Did God really mean?” “He’s holding out on you!” “You can be your own master. You can decide for yourself.” And having separated her from God, turning her eyes from God to herself, the bite came as natural as can be.
It’s the same game plan with Jesus. Why change something that has worked for millennia? Sts. Matthew & Luke record the details. “Did God really say?” “Did God really mean?” “He’s holding out on You!” But Jesus does not bite. “God has said. It is written.” St. Mark captures all of that with his descriptive scene of the wilderness and the wild animals.
The difference between these two scenes is not that one succeeded and the other didn’t. The difference is not the setting—a paradise garden and a beastly wilderness. The difference is that in the one story it’s a man and a woman. In the other it’s The Man, Jesus. The man and the woman wouldn’t recognize a temptation if it slithered up and bit them. Jesus knows it immediately.
Consequently, like Shakespeare’s coward in Julius Caesar, we men and women die many times before our death, thousands of little deaths by temptations we don’t even recognize. Jesus, the Valiant, tastes of death but once.
All of which says a lot about the subject of temptation. So often we religious folk deceive ourselves into thinking that armed with a few Bible verses and some faith we too can successfully face the tempter. Yeah, right!
Many a preacher (and, mea culpa, I have been among them), striving for a good rather than the good, we preachers have often become, unwittingly, the tempter’s best agent by turning our hearers from the Christ to themselves. “You can do it!” “Try harder to resist those temptations!” “Memorize some more Bible verses.” “Get more spiritual.” “Resist. Fight. Overcome.” And we doom our listeners to a thousand little deaths.
When the subject is temptation, the only thing a Christian can do is look to the Christ–the Jesus who does the fighting by our side, the Jesus who does the dying for us, us tempted, cowardly sinners. The Jesus in whom we learn what temptation is…most often because we fall into it…turning from God to self, to what I believe, what I can do, what I want, I, I, I. And trapped there in the wilderness of “I” the wolves of sin tear us apart.
The question of why temptations come is not really a theological question. That would assume we could get behind and around the troubles forced upon us as sinners. If we could solve the question of temptation then we would not be sinners. We could make something or someone else responsible.
No, when it comes to temptation, the answer, the real overcoming of it is on the Cross. Not in us, Him. Not by us, Him.
So where cross the crowded ways of life—teaming with temptations—we hear Thy voice, O Son of Man…Thy voice saying, “Father forgive them…”; Thy voice lifting up our much-tempted, much-fallen race.