By: Pastor Krista Ducker
The 2022 Winter Olympics have only been going on for a couple of days, but already the US is making a strong showing. Do you have a favorite winter Olympic sport? I love following the Jamaican bobsled team, cringing every time a luger takes a sharp curve, or appreciating the curlers’ mad sweeping skills. But I have to admit, my favorite sport has always been figure skating. I am just mesmerized by the way these incredible athletes can marry artistry and musicality with amazing feats of athleticism.
We are only a couple of days in, and Nathan Chen from the US team is already dazzling the world with his near-perfect performances. You would think that someone like him would be laser-focused on skating, spending endless hours in the rink at the expense of any sort of normal life. But as the 22-year-old Chen has recently shared in an interview with CNN, that’s actually not the case. In fact, Chen says that, after spending much of his childhood years from the age of three on on the ice, he has found that it is what happens outside the rink that has helped him to succeed over the long haul; specifically, the time he has taken away to rest, to recharge and spend time with his loved ones. Chen says; "A lot of being able to perform well is resulted upon being able to spend time off the rink and recovering, giving yourself the time to be a human and friend and fill the role that's not an athlete all the time.”
At just twenty-two years of age, Chen has learned something that many of us take a lifetime to realize; we need time away. We need time simply to be human; to be; apart from our producing, our doing, and our succeeding.
In our “Drawn In” series this week, we have been thinking together about the practice of being away; taking time to simply rest in God’s loving presence, instead of focusing on our own ambition to get ahead.
Today, we will visit a key moment in the life of Jesus; when he is led away to the wilderness, tempted and challenged. In this powerful account of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, we will discover together a few key truths that can help us to remain faithful and effective followers of Jesus over the long haul. Let’s look at the scripture together:
Henri Nouwen was a renowned Catholic priest and scholar, student of psychology and minister for many years at a home for people with developmental disabilities. As he navigated these vastly different vocational settings, he began over the years to recognize some of the great temptations that befall us as human beings living in a broken world; and the great grace we receive as we live into our true identity as beloved children of God.
In 1989, a few years after he arrived at L’Arche, the community for the disabled where he ministered until his death in 1994, he published a book of reflections on Christian Leadership, called In the Name of Jesus. This book is an extended meditation on the temptations of being human--because after all, that’s what we all are, Christian leaders or not. His story follows Jesus’ wilderness temptations; and the treasure Nouwen’s meditation offers to us is his recognition that with each temptation Jesus faces from the Devil, Jesus offers a way out--a discipline that draws him back to his center in God.
I’d like to spend our time today reflecting on these temptations and disciplines, with Nouwen’s help; and I also want to take the time to let you know that next month, we will begin a lenten study on another book that contains Nouwen’s reflections: Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, along with our Dakotas Conference Cabinet leadership. If something grabs you from our talk today, you will likely get a lot out of our lenten study in a few weeks.
Nouwen’s reflections from In the Name of Jesus
So as we begin, let’s set ourselves in the story of Jesus, at this point in his ministry. The gospel writer tells us that Jesus has begun his earthly ministry, having been announced by John the Baptist his cousin, Baptized and named God’s Beloved in the river Jordan, and then led by the Spirit (who had just called him the Beloved of God) into the wilderness. All three of what we call the synoptic gospels, Mathew Mark and Luke, tell this story, and all three make clear. This was not a gentle time of retreat and quiet reflection. It was a time of trial. For forty days, all three gospels say, Jesus was tried, tested, and tempted by the Accuser; our English translations captialize the Greek word Diabolos almost like a proper name--but the sense of the word is that this figure who tests Jesus is an adversary; an accuser; on who has come to slander or unjustly criticize and malign Jesus; literally one who “casts through”; slinging verbal arrows to wear Jesus down.
For forty days Jesus is subjected to the accusations of this diabolos. And at the end of this forty days, the Accuser unleashes his final salvo--three temptations; when Jesus is starving and at his weakest. Three things Jesus could easily do; three temptations that reach to the very core of our human prides and fears. The first of these comes to us in verses 3-4; the temptation to be relevant:
The first temptation: To Be Relevant (4:3-4)
Like Jacob did with Esau in the early days of Israel, the accuser appeals to Jesus’ hunger; “make yourself useful!” he says; “there are rocks everywhere. Take one and make yourself something to eat, if you are who you claim to be.”
But Jesus resists the temptation to perform; he recognizes that any “doing” in his life of service must first come out of being rooted in God first. The adversary is not in charge. The many demands for useful productivity do not dictate his vocation. And so Jesus responds in a way that leads him back to God; for us, an inspiration to the discipline of contemplative prayer:
The discipline: Contemplative Prayer
We are not required to be “all things to all people” at the expense of our integrity; to chase after productivity and usefulness at the expense of our rootedness in God.
“Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time” Nouwen says, “there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.”
Whatever useful things we may do over the course of our lives, Jesus reminds us in this moment of testing that what will matter eternally is our rootedness in Christ. When we are tempted to chase after the demands of the day, frantically trying to make ourselves productive, Jesus says to us; “stop. Do not be a stranger to God’s heart and your own. Lay down your armor of productivity. Come away and be nourished by God’s word of love to you. This is your daily bread.”
The second temptation: To be Powerful (4:5-7)
The adversary goes on to say; “if you then will worship me, it will all be yours.”
The adversary is up to his old tricks. Remember Adam and Eve in the garden? They are met with the same temptation; importance. If we eat the fruit, we will be like God! We will have hidden knowledge! We will be spectacular. This is the temptation to idolatry. Here the accuser offers quite a deal; “You can be like God; all you have to do is make me your god.” It is such a human temptation. We are constantly tempted to play God; to put other things in the place of the God who loves us; to take the quick fix, like the one the Tempter offers Jesus.
Idolatry: to fall into the trap of Adam and Eve; to try to be God. In so doing, we chase after any and every juicy enticement that the latest thing or the newest celebrity will make us like God. (cf. Genesis 3:6)
But Jesus’ response is different; Jesus allows the temptation to drive his thoughts back to God; when tempted, he turns to worship and to humility:
The discipline: Theological Reflection
Have you ever wondered at what moment Eve and Adam chose to turn aside from God? What was the first choice to set them on the path toward separation from God? I would submit to you that it was NOT when Eve bit into that fruit. It was NOT when she recognized its enticing power to give her secret knowledge or make her like God. No, it was when she was first tempted and she chose NOT to turn her heart back toward God. It was when she chose to turn away. When she first heard the tempter’s lie-- “God is trying to deceive you because he doesn’t want what’s best for you”--she didn’t immediately recognize the deception and turn her heart and mind back to God. This was the first mistake. Once the path of separation was chosen, all the other effects flowed from it; until finally Adam and Eve found themselves ashamed and hiding from the God who had lovingly formed them from the dust of the earth.
God is still asking us; “where are you?”. When we are tempted, Jesus says in these moments of great temptation, turn to worship. Turn your heart and mind to the things of God, and allow God to re-center your being in God. You do not have to hide from God. You do not have to put your trust in the deceivers around you, hoping falsely that they will make you special. You are already of infinite worth. Through the discipline of careful reflection on God’s word and work in the world, you will recognize the tactics of the deceiver when you see them.
The third temptation: To be Spectacular (4:9-12)
In his book, Nouwen notices the pervasive cultural inertia around celebrity culture; “Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church. There too the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone.”
Yet this is not unique to our time. Jesus encountered the same temptation, even as he neared the beginning of his earthly ministry--he had just been called God’s Beloved in front of everyone. Surely the temptation to be “spectacular” was strong. And the Accuser plays it up even further by taking Jesus to the very pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple, urging him to prove just how special he is; surely if he threw himself from the parapet, the angels would rush in to catch him. It is the temptation of specialness and control. But Jesus realizes the danger in playing God, and instead, he reminds the accuser of God’s ultimate lordship; when tempted to be spectacular, he chooses humility. Here is where we find our third discipline: Confession and forgiveness.
The discipline: Confession and forgiveness
We do not need flashy stunts and theatrics to prove how special we are; we are already of infinite worth. And when we are tempted to make things all about us, our salvation can be found in humble confession. Running to God, pouring out our hearts, our mistakes, our missteps, our sins; and receiving God’s grace, freely given.
There is a pattern in Jesus’s responses to the devil;
It is so striking that it almost seems as if Jesus has practiced this himself; surely since Jesus was human, temptation was a part of his life all the time, as it is a part of ours. Almost as if by habit, when Jesus faces the arrows of the accuser, he comes back with centering scriptures, as one conditioned by hours and hours of prayer, reflection and confession over the course of his life.
This wilderness sojourn was not a retreat; it was not a peaceful getaway. This was a time of trial. And he was prepared.
Let us cultivate habits of prayer, reflection and confession so that when temptation come, and they will, we will be prepared.
To allow our acting to follow from our “being” we must take time away from the noise and busyness--to be re-centered in God.. We must recover the sweet fellowship with God that Adam and Eve once enjoyed. God still asks us today; “where are you?” God still desires our presence. God is always with us; that is the promise of scripture. But how often do we commit to be with God?
And one final thought; we must remember that these practices are not only individual practices. We navigate our lives in a very individualistic culture--and as Nouwen tells us, this individualism often bleeds over even into our thinking about God and our spiritual life; we may think about prayer, reflection and confession as purely private, inward, individual practices. And they are--but they are not ONLY solitary practices; they are also communal.
Like the wise olympian who recognizes the need for community, rest and fellowship along the journey of training and diligent work, we must recognize our need for community in these pursuits. When we join together as a community of believers, whether in twos or threes, or larger groups, around coffee tables or in sanctuaries, we pray together. We learn about God together through scripture. We even practice our confession together, as we are vulnerable with one another in safe, honest conversation.
In his book, Nouwen reminds us of a stark truth; “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” For each of these temptations, God offers us a way of escape, as the Apostle Paul reminded us in 1 Corinthians 13; a way to bear up in the struggle--not by gritting our teeth alone, but by sharing our lives with God and with each other in prayer, reflection, and confession. We are not left to face our struggles alone. God is with us; and we are here for each other, in Jesus’ name.
This morning we have had the opportunity to practice these disciplines together; prayer and reflection. And on this Communion Sunday, we have the chance to share in the third; confession and forgiveness. The Lord’s Supper is one of our sacraments; outward signs of God’s good inward work of grace in us. As Christ’s body in the world, we receive these elements individually, as reminders of God’s forgiveness to us, and corporately as a sign of God’s faithful guiding in this community of believers and a reminder of Christ’s gift of life given for us and for our salvation.
As we receive the sacrament this morning, I invite you to take a moment with each element, confess your burdens to God; your sins, your moments of faltering, and as you take the bread and juice, receive God’s grace and forgiveness, accepting the new start God gives you in Jesus Christ. This is a moment of incarnation; of embodied faith. Let us celebrate it together.