“So there I was, standing in a hotel lobby with a strange woman, a throbbing heartbeat, and a guilty conscience.” That’s how theologian Russell Moore begins his book Tempted and Tried. The situation is not as bad as it sounds, he assures us – “But in lots of ways it was even worse.”
He had been driving through a terrible rainstorm with his wife and four children. They hadn’t gotten nearly as far as he’d hoped, but it was time to stop for the night. They pulled into a chain hotel, and he went in alone to see if there were rooms available.
Behind the desk was a young woman, dimples in her cheeks, and as she tossed her hair back as she checked the room status on the computer, she reminded him of an old college girlfriend. She teased him about his soaking hair, and giggled at his little jokes as they made easy banter. “I felt like I was in college again,” he writes. “I didn’t have to judge between disputes over who had whose toys or explain how predestination and free will work together in the Bible. I didn’t have to pay a mortgage or tell a faculty member he couldn’t have a raise. And I liked it.
“Just then I heard a word I never thought would terrify me, but it did, just that once. I heard ‘Daddy.’” He had completely forgotten about his family waiting outside for him in the van, and they were on their way into the lobby. Suddenly his voice and body language to the clerk became very businesslike.
On the way up to the room, he reassured himself that he’d done nothing wrong. Nothing had happened. But, just for a moment, he’d forgotten who he was. “Husband. Pastor. Son. Christian. Daddy. I was struck by the thought, It starts like this, doesn’t it?”
How does it start for you? Moving through the Christian life, our temptations can change over time. Our situation changes as we move from student to worker, single to married, poor to rich. But fighting temptations becomes like playing that whack-a-mole game that you used to find in arcades: Slamming the mallet down on one mole, another immediately pops up. Master your obsession for money, sexual lusts dominate. Master your own lack of discipline, resentment of the lazy rises up in your heart.
And it all begins so easily: a chance encounter, a glance at the television, an email late in the evening eating away at you through the night, a provocation making you determined to prove yourself right.
How does it start for you? In the event Russell Moore recounts, everything was internal. What was happening in his heart and mind was a loss of identity. “For a moment, just a moment, I’d forgotten who I was, who I am.”
In the temptation of Jesus that we heard about in today’s Gospel, the tempter three times says, “If You are the Son of God…”. This is an assault on the identity of Jesus, designed not to get Him to deny His Sonship, but to question its goodness. “If You are the Son of God…” is another way of saying, “If God is really Your Father…”, implying that He’s not a very good Father, not a very loving Father, not looking out for Jesus and taking care of Him.
One of the startling details of the temptation narrative is how it begins. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The Holy Spirit has driven Jesus into the arena. “God tempts no one,” the Small Catechism says – but that doesn’t apply here. The Spirit has led Jesus to be tempted, and perhaps Jesus has already prayed Ps. 22 numerous times over the forty days: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
“If You are the Son of God, why is Your Father allowing you to starve?” Now it can be done, but forty days without food is an extraordinary feat. Deprivation of food causes the body to panic, while the mind becomes irritable, then euphoric, then irrational. I suspect this prolonged period of fasting could make a man delusional, but certainly very weak, in both body and will.
But with Jesus, although He is not exercising the powers of His divinity, having set them aside and hidden them in order to endure and undergo every pain, suffering, and temptation as a man, an additional temptation must have been that He could turn the stones into bread.
So there is an aspect of a dare to the tempter’s suggestion. “Are You really the Son of God? Show me. Prove it.”
But what is our Lord doing? He is recapitulating, going through all over again the experience of Israel in the wilderness. There in the desert they grumbled and complained, doubting that God would take care of them. He who had led them through the Red Sea without getting their feet wet, they doubted could feed them. And when He gave them manna, bread from heaven, they complained further and demanded meat. All this Jesus goes through, without complaining, without grumbling.
Even more, He is recapitulating, going through all over again the temptation of our first parents. They were tempted with food in the midst of a feast, while Jesus is tempted with food in the midst of a fast. Our first parents interrupted their feast by seizing from God the food He had withheld, but Jesus does not interrupt His fast.
Man, eating bread alone, will not live but die. But the man who feeds on the Word that comes from the mouth of God will live. That is the food of Jesus during His fast, and it is our food as well in the hour of temptation. Jesus never forgets who He is. Jesus does not succumb to the suggestion that God is not His God, the Father is not His Father, a loving Father, one whose will and purpose is not good.
In what ways have you forgotten it? How does it begin with you? Food? Drink? Clothing? Shoes? House? Spouse? What provokes you to set aside the truth that God’s will and purpose for you, right now, is good, and He is working all things, all things for good?
There are two great mistakes we can make with the temptation of Jesus. The preacher can use it as a club: “Jesus overcame temptation, so must you.” There’s no good news in that! Only moralisms, laws that I can never keep, laws that will only drive me to hypocrisy or despair.
The other great mistake, a great evil, is thinking, “Jesus overcame temptation, I don’t have to.” The forgiveness of sins, the central teaching of the Holy Christian Church, does not mean that you can consider your sins as light and insignificant.
Looking at the sufferings, the humiliation, the temptation, the rigor of our Lord’s journey should make us see anew the horrible weight of our sins, the tremendous evil that is in not just what you have done but how you think and feel, how easily you can be led astray and forget who you are, even for the briefest of random encounters with a hotel clerk.
What the fasting of Jesus reveals, and perhaps your own fasting, is the tremendous power that food and drink and the needs and lusts of our body wield over us. Putting God to the test, desiring the kingdoms of the world or just establishing your own little kingdom in your home and work, clinging on to money and refusing to give it away to the glory of God and benefit of your neighbor – all these things reveal a problem in your heart, a fundamental sin against the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” What does this mean? “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”
You have not feared God, loved Him, trusted Him, but feared, loved, and trusted created things, and shadows and illusions.
So what’s the message for us in the temptation of Jesus? Try harder? Verily you should try harder. But that’s not the message. Don’t worry about sin? Truly in Jesus your sins are forgiven. But do not revel in them or count them as trivial.
No, all of this should drive you to Jesus with tears and joy as the One who endured where you have fallen, the One who obeyed where you rebelled, the one who worshipped the Creator while you have spent your life worshipping the created things.
Knowing your heart, how you would grasp for food and the satisfaction of your lusts, how you would make a spectacle and fly through the air, how you would do a quick genuflection if it would make you king of the earth – knowing that, and hating it, leads us to come once again before the Lord’s throne of grace and say with tears, “I am not who You made me to be, I have not lived as Your child; create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
And to you, weak and foolish, with nothing good in you yet hungry for something good, He says, “Take and eat, take and drink, I give you the bread of heaven and the wine of paradise. In Me your sins are absolved, and I will raise you up at the last day.” +INJ+