THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The classical spiritual discipline for this season is to give up something. When we feel the loss of things we value, like cuss words or chocolate, it gives us practice at keeping selfish desires in check, the better to turn our hearts toward God and our neighbors–at least that’s the theory.
Sometimes this spiritual discipline gets lost in translation. A friend of mine posted earlier this week that he was taking on the arduous discipline of giving up kale for Lent. Such travesties lead some of us to repeat the old joke about giving up Lent for Lent.
So what do you think Jesus would give up for Lent? That’s actually not a bad question to bring to this strange account we have just heard of Jesus’ wilderness conversations with the devil.
Spoiler alert: It isn’t a tale with an obviously happy ending.[i] The temptations which the devil places before Jesus all seem like opportunities to use his divine power for good. The first one comes after Jesus has been forty days praying in the wilderness. He is famished, and the Tempter says to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” What would have been the result had Jesus used his divine power in a consistent way to produce food wherever it was most needed? Jesus had it in his power to solve the problem of world hunger and the problem of faith at a single stroke. If he had been willing to turn stones into bread consistently, he could have fed the multitudes of our world’s hungry children, and the whole world would have come flocking to him, giving honor to the one whose divine power provides bread for humankind’s most obvious need. Yet Jesus doesn’t choose that road. He refuses the Tempter’s suggestion, and his choice gives rise to a history in which untold future generations will suffer want. Why?
“If you are the Son of God, says the Devil, throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the Temple.]” Let everyone see in plain sight how the angels will bear you up and spare your life. Jesus’ divine power gives him the ability to remove all obstacles to faith. He is the Son of God. He can produce spectacular miracles whenever he needs to in order to melt away the doubts of even the most hardened skeptics. Think how much blood has been shed across human history as a result of people trying to impose their religious beliefs on others by force. As Presbyterians we celebrate Reformation Day every October. What we never hear about is how a third of Europe’s entire population died in the religious wars, which erupted in the wake of Luther and Calvin’s triumphs. Jesus had divine power at his command which could have prevented all this tragedy and slaughter by clearing away the ambiguity from questions of faith. Yet Jesus refuses this opportunity and leaves future generations facing a history torn apart by religious conflict. Why?
Finally the Devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, “All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me.” You and I long to have wise and just and honorable leaders, don’t we? Think what kind of world this would be if Jesus himself reigned triumphant as the undisputed sovereign over every land and nation and people around the globe. From the dawn of time, human hearts have ached to have skillful and benevolent rulers who could solve the problems and handle the crises and inspire the people and set the world right. Jesus’ divine power could have brought that world into being. Yet Jesus refuses to take that road, and his choice means that human history will continue to be a tragic story of war and suffering and injustice and oppression. Why?
Victory over hunger, religious unity, world peace—these are the things Jesus gives up for Lent. This is the road which the Tempter cannot get him to take. What road does he choose instead?
Jesus chooses that other forty-day path which we reflect on this Lenten season: he chooses the road that leads to Jerusalem. There he will be mocked and rejected, nailed to a cross, and left to die. Jesus could have been universally adored and celebrated, and our world could have been a vastly different place. Instead Jesus sets aside his divine power and walks that other road which leads to a cross of anguish. How on earth do we make sense of his actions?
There has to be a reason for Jesus’ choices. Could it be that he resists the Tempter in order to preserve our ability to choose our own course freely? This is important because genuine love is possible only if we can choose it freely. No one can coerce another person to love them, and if Jesus had used his divine power the way the Devil wanted, maybe it would have undercut our ability to love God truly.
Think about it in terms of a human analogy: Imagine a famous billionaire who is looking for true love. Everybody knows this person is tremendously wealthy, and the result is an endless parade of attractive, desirable people vying for this person’s attention. But hanging like a dark cloud over this situation is the suspicion that deep down, people flocking are flocking to this person’s side for the money. The possibility of genuine love gets crowded out by the promise of all that wealth.
The happy, contented road not taken, which Jesus leaves behind, is similar to the billionaire’s dilemma. If Jesus had come bearing bread and miracles and universal political authority, the whole world would have flocked to him out of simple self-interest. We would all cling to him for the sake of the benefits he could provide. Genuine love for Jesus would be overshadowed by our desire for the worldly goodies we could get from him. And in that the devil would have his victory.
Let that sink into your hearts and minds, good Christians. God doesn’t want us to be puppets, or well-trained pets, or sycophants looking for a handout. God doesn’t want to bribe you. So much does God value your personal dignity and freedom, so much does Jesus want genuine love to be the bond that connects you to him, that he gives up his heavenly glory, he sets aside his divine prerogatives, he forfeits every form of power or coercion or enticement that would crowd out the possibility of genuine love. Jesus sets aside his divine power to ensure a world of abundance and certainty and peace, and he turns his face instead toward the cross of agony, all for the sake of his relationship with you. That is how much God in Christ loves… you! That is how valuable your love and your freedom and your dignity are to the Creator and Ruler of the whole universe.
Jesus turns away from the tempter, and with that choice he upholds our ability to choose genuine love for God and neighbor in the integrity of our own freedom. But Jesus does this, knowing that this freedom to love comes at a terrible cost. Because inevitably our freedom to choose genuine love also bears within itself the freedom to choose horrific evil. The ongoing heartbreak and tragedy of our fallen human history bears testimony to how often we human beings have used God’s gift of freedom to choose darkness instead of light.
This, too, is why Jesus chooses that road which leads to the cross. Freedom to love brings with it the freedom to also hate, and the cross is God’s answer to this terrible possibility of corrupted freedom. On the cross, Jesus bears in his broken body all the twisted, blood-soaked consequences of our misused freedom; he takes upon himself the darkness and horror of our corrupted humanity, drawing it into his divine nature where it can be healed and overcome in the unfathomable depths of an even greater divine love and grace and forgiveness. And the result of Jesus’ sacrifice is a shining restoration of our dignity and humanity and the renewal of our freedom to once again choose love. This is the unspeakably costly choice which Jesus has made for our sakes, over against all the Devil’s enticements.
Now I realize that all this talk of disarming the darkness and healing our brokenness and renewing our ability to love can sound like a distant fairy-tale, especially in the context of our daily life-struggles, to say nothing of what we hear from the news each day. But the victory which Jesus has won is not confined to ancient history, nor is it some abstract legal transaction taking place in some far-off heavenly record-books. The new life Jesus has won can become a clear and present reality in your life and mine. And this is true no matter how badly we have messed up in the past, no matter how hopeless or tarnished our present situation feels. Jesus has disarmed the temptations and failings and corruptions to which we once surrendered ourselves, he has nullified their power to condemn and control us, he has restored to us the freedom to choose the way of love. And do you know how we can experience this joyful reality in our lives here and now? “Ask, and it will be given you;” says Jesus, “seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you”.[ii] This asking, seeking, and knocking is what Lent is for.
You see, I’m not sure any of us will grow much in our ability to love simply by trying harder. It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ words say nothing about ramping up our own efforts. But what we can do is ask God to draw our lives closer to Jesus. We can seek the Holy Spirit’s presence, praying for the Spirit to unite us with Jesus so that more and more we may find ourselves living joyfully in Christ and he in us; we can humble ourselves, knocking at the door of God’s grace and forgiveness, waiting for God to open the door through which Christ’s own love will come welling up in our own hearts, leaving us surprised and amazed at the new ways that grace and tenderness and compassion are weaving themselves into the fabric of our lives.
And the strange and wonderful thing about having Jesus’ own love infusing our hearts, is that Christ’s love is not the sort that shuts down when it is directed towards people who are unworthy or undeserving. We have seen in Jesus’ conversation with the Devil how his love makes room for the humanity and dignity and freedom of the human race, even when he knows what terrible, misguided choices we are going to be making with the freedom we have been given.
For this reason, a very powerful way we could open our hearts to Jesus’ special kind of love would be to ask God to help us give up contempt for Lent. And I don’t just mean contempt in general. What if we prayed for Christ’s own love to banish the contempt we have in our hearts for the people who stand on the opposite side of the huge social and political chasm that divides our society?
This is a big ask. It might well take a miracle of the Holy Spirit to make it possible for us, because we are immersed in a continual barrage of societal messaging which tell us that the individuals who stand across that great political and social divide from us are not just wrong—they are sick; they are crazy; they are disgusting, they are evil. Their vile stupidity has nullified any right they might have to be treated with the least modicum of respect, or grace, or human dignity. We pickle our brains in this messaging every day!
But you and I have seen how Jesus’ love preserves our dignity and upholds our freedom as human beings, even when we misuse our freedom and make disastrously wrong choices. So a powerful sign that Jesus’ own love is entering our hearts will be when we start caring for our neighbors’ dignity and common humanity even when they are seriously in the wrong. This doesn’t mean our disagreements with them are unimportant. But the Spirit will help us nonetheless to see them as human beings created in the image of God, and sinners redeemed by the cross of Christ–just like us.
Can Jesus really help loosen the death-grip which contempt and hatred have on our hearts? Can he really fill us with his kind of love instead? Jesus can do all this and more if we ask him, my friends. He gave up a whole world to make it possible.
In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] The interpretation of Jesus’ Temptation presented here takes inspiration from Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov, Bk V, Ch 5.
[ii] Matthew 7:7; also Luke 11:9.