FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Temptation comes in many forms. There is the primal temptation confronting Adam and Eve, that is, the temptation to grasp at godhood rather than to live thankfully, joyfully and obediently within one’s created limits. There are the temptations Jesus faced, first to allow his conduct to be driven by his survival instincts rather than confident trust in his Heavenly Father. Second, the temptation to put God’s promises to the test in a pointless suicide mission and, finally, to grab at the reigns of political power to accomplish his messianic mission. The season of Lent begins with acknowledging the reality of temptation in our lives and renewing our baptismal vow to resist it.
It seems to me that the condition underlying all temptation is impatience. The serpent promises a shortcut around mortality and creaturely limitations to immortality and divine power. Satan’s temptations offer Jesus an end run around the cross. The devil always appeals to our impatient lust for quick and easy solutions to complex and difficult problems. Hungry? Raid the refrigerator. Want to change the world? Conquer it-by military or electoral means. Then you can make whatever changes are necessary and nobody can stand in your way. Want understanding and certainty? No need to trouble yourself with prayer, learning and study. Blind faith is the answer. If the Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it-even if the Bible (or the one I trust to interpret the Bible) tells me to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, shoot up a Mosque or strap on an explosive vest and detonate in the middle of a shopping center.
I can understand the allure of the devil’s empty promises, having been tempted with them time and again throughout my life and ministry. Seldom does temptation come in the form of an inducement to do evil. To the contrary, it usually rears its ugly head when we are intent on doing something good, honorable and worthwhile. When something important needs to be done-such as renovating worship space to make it barrier free, safe and welcoming to all people-the temptation for pastors is always to “push it through.” That involves talking to the “movers and shakers” in the congregation first and getting them on board. With their support, you can often get a proposal approved by the church council, through a congregational vote and on the way to implementation without much push back- until the project us under way and it’s too late for push back. More risky, laborious, frustrating and time consuming is the process of bringing all members together to talk about problems posed by the current sanctuary, making the effort to include people at the margins of congregational life and hearing their ideas, concerns and priorities. At one point during this process, one of my congregational leaders remarked, “Pastor, if we go on this way nothing will ever get done.”
My congregational leader had a valid concern. At some point, a decision would have to be made on a plan that probably would not meet with everyone’s approval. But at the very least, everyone would have had the opportunity to participate in the process and hopefully have a sense of ownership. At the end of the day, we approved and completed a plan with which nobody was entirely happy, but that we could all live with and, most importantly, met the needs for safety and accessibility we wanted to address. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was ours. That was in large part because we resisted the temptation to do it the “quick and easy” way.
Our lessons for this Sunday warn us to beware of those peddling quick, painless and easy solutions, like border walls, to solve the complex challenges posed by global migration and the increasing number of persons seeking refuge from terror and persecution. Beware of those who promise health care for all without discussing the cost all of us must be willing to bear in order to make that happen. Beware of political candidates who promise that systemic racism and patriarchy can be erased in a single election. What my grandfather told me on numerous occasions still rings true: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Disciples of Jesus know that redemptive change, or what we call “sanctification,” is a long, slow and painful process. Transformation, whether individual or systemic, requires tireless effort and a stubborn refusal to take shortcuts. The reign of God happens not through conquest but through reconciliation. That means the final goal is not the defeat of our enemies, but their inclusion in the fabric of the new creation. Few among us have the patience for that long, slow work. Most of us would prefer to take the short and easy path. The devil is only too willing to accommodate us in that regard. He is an expert when it comes to finding short cuts. After all, what is war but a short cut to peace? What is democracy these days other than an effort to amass a large enough majority on our side to impose our will upon everyone else without the necessity of persuading them? What is genocide but a desperate effort to bypass the hard work of being reconciled to our enemies by simply getting rid of them?
Our Lenten disciplines are designed to shine a light exposing the emptiness of the devil’s promises and illuminating the hard but blessed way to which Jesus calls us. Fasting reminds us that our greatest hunger can never truly be satisfied until all our sisters and brothers throughout the world are fed, clothed and nourished. Prayer unites us with “the hopes and dreams of all,” especially those hungering and thirsting for justice. Alms giving reminds us that we have been blessed in order to be a blessing to our neighbors in the same measure God has blessed us. Our journey to the cross with Jesus reminds us that Easter comes at a terrible price our loving, merciful and persistent God was willing to pay. In the end, God’s reign is God’s gift to us. It is not cheap; it is not easy. But it is infinitely better than any lesser vision of the good life we might cobble together for ourselves by cutting corners, taking short cuts and building on the foundation of the devil’s empty promises.
Here is a poem/prayer by Michel Quoist addressing his struggle with temptation-and God’s response.
I’m at the end of my rope, Lord.
I am shattered,
I am broken.
Since this morning I have been struggling to escape temptation,
which, now wary, now persuasive, now tender, now sensuous,
dances before me like a seductive girl at a fair.
I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know where to go.
It spies on me, follows me, engulfs me.
When I leave a room I find it seated and waiting for me in the
When I seize a newspaper, there it is, hidden in the words of
some innocuous article.
I go out, and see it smiling at me on an unknown face.
I turn away and look at the wall, and it leaps at me from a poster.
I return to work, to find it dozing on my files, and when I gather
my papers, it wakes up.
In despair, I take my poor head in my hands, I shut my eyes, to
But I discover that it is more lively than ever, comfortably settled
For it has broken my door open, it has slipped into my body,
to the very tips of my fingers.
It has seeped into the crevices of my memory
And sings into the ear of my imagination.
It plays on my nerves as on the strings of a guitar.
I no longer know whether or not I want this sin that beckons to
I no longer know whether I pursue it or am pursued.
I am dizzy, and the void draws me to the way a chasm draws the rash
Mountaineer who can no longer either advance or retreat.
Lord, Lord, help me.
Son, I am here.
I haven’t left you.
How weak your faith is!
You are too proud.
You still rely on yourself.
If you want to surmount all temptations, without falling or
weakening, came and serene,
You must surrender yourself to me.
You must realize that you are neither big enough nor strong
You must let yourself be guided like a child,
My little child.
Come, give me your hand, and do not fear.
If there is mire, I will carry you in my arms.
But you must be very, very little,
For the Father carries only little children.
Source: Quoist, Michel, Prayers (c. 1963 Sheed & Ward, Inc.) Translated by Agnes M. Forsyth and Anne Marie de Cammaille. Michel Quoist (1921-1997) was ordained a priest in1947. A French Catholic of the working-class, Quoist reveled in presenting Christianity as part of gritty daily reality, rather than in forms of traditional piety. He was for many years pastor to a busy city parish in Le Havre, France serving a working class neighborhood and developing ministries to young people through Catholic Action groups. Prayers, the book from which the above poem was taken, has been translated from the original French into several languages including Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and English.