Lent 1, March 1, 2020
I have been cold and hungry. I have come to the evening not knowing where I will spend the night. I have been in situations where I am powerless to change things. But I have never been homeless. Last night, a group of people committed to sleeping away from their comfortable beds to gain a little more understanding of the experience of people who have no secure home.
From the 2017 Homeless Count on the North Shore, over 700 individuals self-identified as homeless. We know there are many more who are hidden from our eyes. There are those who are staying with a relative or a friend “for a while”, those who move from couch to couch as circumstances fail their needs. There are those who sleep in their cars or rv’s and are moved on from place to place. And there are those who sleep rough in the margins, whose temporary shelters we may glimpse from a trail or a roadway. The Lookout shelter provides 43 transitional beds and another 25 mats in its cold weather response program. It is not anywhere near enough to address the need. These are our friends and neighbours: the senior who is reno-victed, the spouse who has had to leave because of domestic abuse, the wage-earner who has lost their job, ordinary people struggling with trauma and mental wellness and self-medicating to cope with it all. One fairly sleepless night on a floor doesn’t equal the anxiety and chronic problems that they face, but it did give me an opportunity to bring attention and prayer to this issue.
It is tempting to give in to despair. It is tempting to think we cannot make a difference. It is tempting to turn a blind eye. But that is not who we are. It is not what we are made of. There are many ways that people can be beaten down by the world. But added to that is the subtle serpent’s voice inside us that whispers “you are not good enough”, “what’s the point?”, “you can’t trust anyone to help”. So much easier to retreat to a dark place of depression, to insulate from further hurts in caring. Or to surround ourselves with wealth and the trappings of power, fearful of those who might strip away our safety and our prestige. It is so much more difficult not to think of oneself either less or more than we ought. To do that, we have to face the truth about who we are.
This is what the story of the temptation in the wilderness is about. Jesus is put to the test: to acknowledge who he really is. In a way, it’s the precursor to the Transfiguration- when he shines out with the glory of God, his inner self, to his closest followers. But first, Jesus has to face up to the question himself. Who am I? We are told in scripture that the Tempter came to him after a period of fasting and prayer in a lonely place. Later, Jesus calls him “ha-Satan”: the Accuser. And the testing begins: “If you are the Son of God…”. Three times Jesus has to wrestle with his understanding of his ministry and his power. Satan doesn’t come with a picnic to share. He tells Jesus that he is capable of producing his own sustenance. Satan doesn’t push Jesus off the top of the temple and then catch him to show him how powerful the devil is. No, he encourages Jesus to test the limits of God’s safety net. And when all the kingdoms of the world are promised to Jesus if he would only worship Satan, it’s a hostile takeover bid. The irony is that the temptation is “If you are the Son of God…”, you will do these things. And yet, it is precisely because Jesus is the Son of God, he does not.
The testing proves what Jesus is really made of at the core. He is elementally God. The power within him belongs to God, and it cannot be misused because he has a true sense of what his purpose is. It’s like testing a metal. Scientists know through experimentation that each element has certain properties that define its usefulness. You wouldn’t use a soft metal like lead to reinforce a building. You wouldn’t use an inert metal to build a magnet. Once you recognize the periodic properties of gold, you are not going to mistake it for something else. Jesus is tried like an element and comes out certain of his own identity. He doesn’t have to prove it to himself or to God.
The Tempter’s strategy is always to try and cut us away from our connection to God. To insinuate that there are other things that can fill that need for love in our life. It didn’t work with Jesus because he really is the Son of God. He and the Father are one, and they cannot be divided, even when God comes to earth and is born as Jesus of Nazareth. As a human being, Jesus is able to withstand temptation by putting his full trust in God’s power, not his own. And we can too!
Jesus teaches his followers to pray with the following words: “Lead us not into temptation”. In another version it is “save us from the time of trial”. This doesn’t mean that we are not ever going to be exposed to temptation in our lives. Those come to us on a regular basis. But his prayer for us, and our prayer for each other, is that we will not be tested beyond our limits. How can this be? We are saved simply because as we recognize who we are, we are able to withstand any attempt to overthrow our conscience. We are children of the Most High God. We are made in love and we are made for love. We are redeemed by love. And with God’s help, we can resist the temptation that it is up to us to get what we want or need in this life. Instead, our belief in God’s power to change the world sustains us.
The only thing that can keep us from accessing this power is thinking that the Holy Spirit is not able to work through us. If we do not believe in the power of forgiveness or grace, we block God out. Temptation, after all, is an attempt (same root) to overthrow our conscience. There is in each of us an inner voice that corrects what we want with what is right. It is up to us whether we are able to listen to the truth of who we are, or to the much louder overlay of conflicting needs that can pull us away from our identity as a beloved child of God.
In the Christian tradition, we have a discipline called “self-examination”. It sounds rather dire, like you are supposed to kneel penitentially in your room and pick apart everything you have done wrong during your day. I suppose you could do that, if you feel called to repent in that way. But there is another deeper meaning. An examination is another kind of test, to assess what level of understanding you have reached. How about taking a test to learn more what God is doing in your life right now? What if you were to take an honest look at yourself and to take note of all the goodness within? To find your true mettle/metal?
That is really what Jesus did in the wilderness, checking what he understood of what God was asking him to do against the resources that God would provide. He found out that hunger for God’s word is rewarded. He recognized that rather than longing for safety he could go forward feeling surrounded by protection as he fulfilled his purpose. And he rejected seeing the world as a possession to be owned, but rather as a kingdom of God’s love. This Lent, I invite you to examine yourself in the light of God’s mercy. Deep inside, may you find the power of the holy to resist temptation to be who you are not, and to claim who you are as a beloved child. Amen.