a reflection on Matthew 4:1-11 for the first Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018
Can we talk about the devil? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up in congregations that ever talked about the devil. So as a kid, the only thing I knew about the devil was what I learned from 1970’s Saturday morning cartoons. Maybe you know that devil? The little red guy with a pointy tail who sits on a character’s shoulder, urging him to do something very wrong. Meanwhile, perched on the other shoulder, there was always a miniature angel, urging the character to do the right thing. Of course, there was never any doubt about which shoulder held the voice of good and which held the voice of evil: moral ambiguity is not a hallmark of Saturday morning cartoons.
Things get a bit more complicated when you grow up, of course. As our gospel reading suggests, the devil Jesus wrestles with is a much more subtle creature. In the Hebrew scriptures, this force that tempts Jesus, this force that tempts us, is known as the Hinderer. Which I think is a pretty helpful way to think about the devil: a force that seeks to hinder us from becoming who God is calling us to be; who God made us to be. The hinderer is the force within each human being that Resists the truth of who we really are and seeks to hinder us from living into that truth by doing the thing we were put on earth to do — the particular work God needs us to do, for the healing, and blessing, of the world.
It turns out that all humans seem to have this hindering, resisting force within us. It seems to be the way we are wired. Even Jesus, when we meet him in our gospel reading this morning, is struggling with the Hinderer. Surely, Jesus must know by now that God is calling him, and that God made him to bring a particular gift to a suffering world. Surely by now, Jesus has heard what people are saying about him. Jesus has seen the heavens break open above the river on the day of his baptism and heard the voice of God calling him “beloved.” By the time he comes up out of that river and heads into the wilderness, Jesus, along with everyone else, surely realizes that God has a purpose for him, just as we, too, know that God must have a purpose for us. We know this in the deepest part of our souls! But how many of us know from the get-go what that purpose is? How long does it take us to let go of our own ideas about who we are (not to mention other people’s ideas about who we should be), and finally realize whom God is calling us to be? Is there any greater joy in life than the joy of realizing what you were put on earth to do? Is there any greater pain than barreling through our lives without stopping to listen long enough to find out who we really are?
Jesus seems to know that every one of us–even Jesus himself!–needs a time of listening for God’s call. And so, before Jesus does anything else at all–before he performs a single miracle, before he heals or teaches anybody–Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness of silent communion with God, so that when he does return to community, he will be able to fully embody God’s purpose for him.
And we are called to follow, so that we might do the same. Over these next 40 days, we are called to follow Jesus into the deep silence of self-reflection where, because we are fully human, we too, just like Jesus, are certain to meet the Hinderer in us: the reactive patterns of our conditioned mind. The reactive patterns of mind that keep us from becoming who God intends for us to be.
Turn this stone into bread! says the Hinderer. Talk about a real temptation! This is not a cartoon devil, urging Jesus to do something clearly evil or harmful. Jesus is starving, after all. He’s been out in the wilderness fasting for 40 days! Surely God doesn’t want Jesus to starve. Surely no one would be harmed if Jesus turned a couple of rocks into loaves of bread. And not only for himself! Imagine how much good Jesus could do in the world if he learned this great trick. Poor people are starving in the streets every day. How much suffering might Jesus alleviate if he could feed them all with a wave of his hand?
I don’t know about you, but I think that if I were in Jesus’ sandals, I would have been sorely tempted to take matters into my own hands, not only for my own sake but for the sake of a suffering world. I would have been tempted to use this great party trick — stones into bread! — to end hunger forever. For everyone. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
What our gospel reading suggests, however, is that if Jesus had listened to the Hinderer out there in the wilderness, if he had decided to serve the world by being a magic bread-maker (which is not a bad thing to be; it’s a great thing for someone else to be!)…he never would have become Jesus. Even feeding people–as important as this is–is not Jesus’ sole purpose. Out here in the wilderness, Jesus cultivates, he learns, the very difficult spiritual discipline of waiting and listening for God to reveal Jesus’ true call, which is to teach the world how to find its way back to God.
Clearly, this is not our ordinary cartoon devil, offering Jesus, and us, a clear, easy choice between right and wrong. In fact I don’t believe that our own greatest temptation is to do things that are truly evil. I’m looking out at all of you this morning and I don’t see a single one of you whom I believe could be tempted, even by the devil, to do something truly evil. That’s not what you and I are wrestling with this season. But I am pretty sure that every one of us, maybe every day, is tempted by the Hinderer in us, just like Jesus was. Tempted to do something–possibly something good, something helpful, something noble, even!–that even so, will hinder us from becoming who God is really calling us to be.
Well, since it didn’t work the first time, the Hinderer tries again. Be safe! the Hinderer says to Jesus. Use your magical powers to keep yourself safe and nothing will ever harm you! Which I think might have been a pretty tempting offer for someone like Jesus, who had some dangerous work ahead of him. Aren’t we, also, tempted to play it safe? To follow in others’ footsteps, or to keep doing the safe things we’ve always done, rather than heading into the wilderness this season and asking who God might be calling us to be, and what new thing God might be inviting us to try?
Out there in the vast and lonely silence, Jesus cultivates the discipline it takes to hear God’s difficult call to him: a call to be not a magician, not a superhero with super powers, but a different kind of savior: one who demonstrates, day by day, what it means to rely on God’s power. A savior who walks the dusty roads of his homeland, teaching and healing; a human being who walks into every life and every home carrying, in his body, the very presence of the living God. So that every other body who meets him can fall through the trap door of their own mind and keep falling — into God’s presence, and power, and peace. A savior whose job is to help every body fall back into God’s kingdom on earth.
Jesus out in the wilderness is not willing to trade that purpose, the real purpose of his life, for anything. And that is real discipline in the face of real temptation.
Power. Popularity. Safety. Control. We all crave these. The conditioned human mind is wired to crave these. Even Jesus! If we watch what happens next, when Jesus goes back to town to start his ministry, we see that even Jesus is tripped up at times by his mind’s conditioning: he doesn’t respond with perfect freedom every time. But what Jesus has cultivated out in the wilderness is the spiritual discipline of entering deep silence to witness his his own temptations, his own conditioned desires, and then let them go. What Jesus has cultivated is the ability to sit still as these habitual temptations arise, and to wait for God to call him. Without this discipline, Jesus’ own habits of mind will hinder him, just as they hinder us. And the stakes are pretty high, for all of us. If Jesus allows his conditioned mind to hinder him, then the particular gift he was made to offer — gift that only he can bring–that gift goes ungiven for all time.
And that would please the Hinderer very much. And so it is that if we ourselves allow our own reactive patterns, our conditioned, habitual mind, to run our lives, then the particular gift that God created us to offer also goes ungiven. And the world desperately needs your gift: the particular flavor of God’s healing love that only you can bring.
This season, the Holy Spirit drives us, calls us, to follow Jesus into the wilderness once again: the wilderness of uncertainty and openness; the wilderness of listening for our true call. This week, we head into the sacred, silent wilderness to listen for who in all the world God is calling us to be and what gift God has made us to offer. We were made to offer it. And that is a beautiful and wondrous thing! This week, we head into the wilderness to say a holy yes to offering the gift we were made to bring. Maybe (very probably!) a gift the world has never seen before, and will never see again. A gift the world desperately needs right now: your own particular gift of healing, and blessing…for the sake of this beautiful, broken, always holy world that God so loves.