There’s a game I used to play when I was in elementary school - children make a circle and start to sing this song: “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” And a child would be accused by the others “You stole the cookie from the cookie Jar!” To which the accused replied “Who, me?”. And the circle cried back “Yes, you!”. “But it wasn’t me!” “Then who?”And each person accused during the song would present another child’s name as the one who stole the cookie.
I never liked that game. I didn’t like the idea of being accused of giving into temptation. Facing the reality that even though I didn’t steal the metaphorical cookie in the song, that I had done something wrong, somewhere through the day or week or month, that I just didn’t want to face.
The reality is that we all give into temptation. We all sin. But it has become taboo, even in church, to talk about being tempted by Satan. We would like to pretend that we have the power to control ourselves. That no outside force could ever make us go astray, when this simply is not true. We need to look no further than this mornings scripture lesson about Jesus being tempted.
This story is often told as the three temptations of Christ, but in a very real way they are actually three versions of just one temptation - the temptation for power. During the first version, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. Remember that Jesus has now been alone, fasting for 40 days. He would be hungry. And Satan presents him with the opportunity to eat. To be filled. And not to even need to go searching for bread, for the very stones could become his sustenance.
At first glance, this seems like a simple temptation about eating, but really it speaks to power - the power to overthrow God’s created order. Bread is food. Stones are not. And one should not be able to be made into the other. By changing stones into bread, Jesus would be creating a new order in nature, displacing the one that God created in Genesis and said was “very good”.
We are disciples and the Church universal face this same temptation today, only sometimes we don’t fare as well as Christ in overcoming it. We try to create our own version of the gospel story, by focusing solely on the message of Good Friday (the death of sin) without the glory of Easter (so that we can be raised to new life) or vise versa. Some disciples want the promise of the Kingdom of God without the cross, and others want just the cross and no hope in Earth and Heaven. Or we focus on the afterlife in Heaven without talking about the courageous life of faith Jesus modeled for us to live. When we cherry pick what we want the gospel to be about, we have given into the temptation of placing our own order, our own control, our own understanding, over God’s message.
The second version of the temptation involved Satan commanding that Jesus throw himself off the highest point, telling him that if he did so angels would rescue him, for he could not die. In other words Satan was tempting him to create a spectacle of himself as the Son of God.
The Church has stumbled here as well. Even though Jesus resisted the temptation to make himself into a spectacle, we went right ahead and did that for him. Through bobble-head Jesus toys and t-shirts that proclaim “Jesus is my homeboy”. We’ve made the face of Jesus recognizable and acceptable in society, making him into a hero of sorts, without actually telling anyone about the message of the gospel. And we’ve put Jesus on par with Superman or the Hulk, without proclaiming that the power of the Cross and Resurrection is so much more. We’ve reduced Christ to a celebrity, so we can be accepted as well as his followers.
The third version of the temptation had Satan showing Jesus the vastness of the land and telling him that he could rule it all, if only he would worship Satan. He tried to give him political power. The same power that we crave, and have to fight daily as disciples by remembering that Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the government, but to teach a new way of being.
The first time I remember hearing about the temptations of Christ I was no older than Kindergarten or First Grade. For Sunday School we had a small booklet for each Sunday that told the story through pictures and words. I remember looking at the booklet and being confused. I recognized Jesus in the pictures, but I didn’t understand why Satan was drawn as a tall man with blonde hair and a purple and black robe. That wasn’t the image I had in my mind of Satan. Why did he look so normal?
The image of the “normal” looking Satan has come to my mind again and again this week. All too often we expect Satan to tempt us in grand ways, ways that we can easily identify and overcome, like he did with Jesus. But Satan isn’t tempting us to turn stones into bread, or jump off of a tower, or telling us we could be ruler of all. But he is still tempting us. Tempting us into believing that we deserve to have our own needs met first - selfishness. Or tempting us into thinking that we aren’t good enough to be a child of God - insecurity. Tempting us to think that we are the best - pride. Or that we could lose what little power we have - fear. Or tempting us to try to be the master of the world and people around us - control. Its these every day temptations that trip us up. Because we think they aren’t a big day. Think that they are just a normal part of ourselves or our lives. So we don’t repent of them. Don’t address them.
This past Wednesday we entered into the Lenten Season. Traditionally this is a season to repent. So I ask you this morning, what do you need to repent of? What temptations do you need to ask Christ to give you freedom from? Christ was in the desert for 40 days, Noah was in the ark for 40 nights, Moses was on Mt Sani for 40 days before receiving the 10 commandments. Lent is 40 days. 40 is a biblical number that symbolizes being on the precipice of something. Being on the edge of something life changing, something faith changing.
Maybe, just maybe, these next 40 days are preparing your heart to recognize that the little temptations that you face each and every day aren’t so little. Maybe you are being prepared for spiritual battle. Maybe Christ is empowering you to face this Satan, who looks so normal that you barely recognize him anymore and have given him a huge foothold in your life. Maybe Christ is helping you shed your old habits for new ones. Whatever is coming at the end of these 40 days, how are you being prepared?
For Christ such preparation came in knowing the scriptures. Satan quoted scriptures to him out of context, to try to make his own point, and Jesus replied with scriptures quoted in context, making God’s point. This temptation sequence came between Jesus baptism and ministry. It wasn’t just a blip in his life. Temptations never are.
A story was once told about a young boy who was getting ready for his birthday party. His mom had made his absolute favorite cookies and left them sitting on the counter to cool with instructions that he should not eat them. The little boy kept hanging around the kitchen counter, the smell luring him in. Finally, when his mom left the kitchen for a few minutes, he took one cookie, then two, then three. The time came for the party and everyone in attendance at the party got three cookies. Except the little boy. When it came to be his turn his mother simply told him that 3 cookies were missing so there were not enough for him. It was a seemingly small incident, but the little boy remembered it for years to come, every time he was tempted by other cookies.
Temptations. The thing that we don’t want to talk about, because all too often we cave into our desires. The thing we don’t want to talk about because it brings back memories of shame. Or perhaps the thing that we don’t want to talk about because we really don’t want to change. But simply avoiding to talk about temptation does not make it go away. We will constantly be tempted. And how we respond to Satan testing us defines who we are as children of God who are called to minister to the world. So I ask you, how will you respond next time you are tempted? And how will you prepare yourself to face future temptations during the next 40 days? Amen.