First Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2017
From the Gospel: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” (Matthew 4:1)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
If you’re looking for a recipe for spiritual danger, it is summed up in the acronym: “HALT.”
“HALT” stands for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired.”
If we are too hungry, too angry, too lonely, or too tired, we are very prone to fail in resisting temptation.
Hunger gnaws at the stomach; but even more, it represents a very real threat to life.
Anger inflames the mind and impairs our critical faculties; the hormones involved in anger are not intended to help us reason, but to help us flee or fight.
Loneliness clutches at the heart; as social beings, it threatens our very humanity.
Tiredness drags at the body and clouds the mind.
Hungry, angry, lonely, and tired, any one of which is dangerous; but when we are subjected to more than one, the effect of each is magnified.
To use the popular term: “they are synergistic.”
After forty days fasting in the wilderness, our Lord was hungry; and we can well imagine He was both lonely and tired.
We are not told that he was angry; but three out of four isn’t bad, in any case.
It was in this vulnerable state He faced His Enemy.
Let’s be very clear; the Devil, like all predators, always prefers his prey in a weakened state.
He’s not going to take us on when we’re at our best; he isn’t interested in a fair fight.
He waits for vulnerable moments to strike.
When we’re hungry, when we’re angry, when we’re lonely, when we’re tired, that’s when we can expect him to manifest himself.
He begins by casting doubt on our relationship with God: “If thou be the Son of God ….”
At the Jordan, Jesus heard the voice from Heaven which proclaimed: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17 KJV)
But that was forty days earlier.
By now, hungry, lonely, tired, perhaps angry, He could well be beginning to wonder if that was quite real.
When we were baptized, we, too, were proclaimed as being Children of God; but if we don’t hear that reaffirmed frequently, then we, too, may begin to wonder,
“Is it real? Am I really a child of God; or, am I just a bag of chemicals, a complex of conditioned reflexes?”
After all, that’s what the world teaches us about ourselves, which is one reason why we need to come to places like this, — frequently; we need to be reminded that we are, indeed, children of God.
“If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”
This temptation has three parts:
first, it would settle, once and for all, that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God;
second, it would minister to His own physical hunger; and
third, He could later use that power to feed the hungry.
It was a very powerful temptation.
I said earlier, the Devil is no fool.
We are subject to this same temptation, of course.
I don’t mean that we can turn stones into bread, but we can be tempted to misuse our abilities.
We can use our intellect, our talents, our abilities, in the service of God; or, we can employ them selfishly in the pursuit of wealth and status and comfort.
After all, the Evil one whispers, “You’re God’s child, aren’t you?
Doesn’t your Heavenly Father want you to have nice things?”
Even more to the point, you could give some of those nice things to help the poor.”
As I said, “the devil is no fool.”
But Jesus rebukes Him, saying: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
Our God does want us to have bread, and a measure of the good things of this world; and certainly, to help the less fortunate, but our true life is to seek and carry out the Will of the Father.
That didn’t work, so the Devil tries another tack.
He takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the Temple and says to Him: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, ‘He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.'”
“If thou be the Son of God, …” as Ronald Reagan used to say, “there he goes again,” trying to insinuate that bit of doubt.
But then the Devil adds, “…cast thyself down …”
Now, that doesn’t seem to be much of a temptation, at first; but when we think about it more deeply, we can begin to understand the subtlety of this attack.
The temptation is to presume upon the mercy and goodness of God.
The temptation is to prove how “spiritual” we are by neglecting ordinary and prudent care for earthly things.
Obviously, this is a temptation only to the spiritual man.
No practical man would ever be tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, because he does not believe in a God who would save him.
Only the man who aspires to be spiritual can be so tempted, because he knows God indeed does have the power to save him from his folly.
The truly spiritual man knows that although God could, indeed, save us from the consequences of folly, He chooses not to.
If we throw ourselves from pinnacles to prove how “spiritual” we are, He will let us go splat to show that, however spiritual we think we are, we are still flesh.
The “spiritual” man is not exempt from ordinary duties: care of health, care of family, care of finances, care of civic and business duties.
If we neglect our ordinary duties to prove how “spiritual” we are, He will let us suffer the consequences for our presumption upon His mercy.
If God did not let us suffer our consequences, we would never learn anything.
Jesus responds: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
This brings us to the last temptation of Christ, at least on that particular day: “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4: 8-9 KJV)
To understand this temptation, we must remember that Jesus came to bring in the Kingdom.
In one instant, the Devil truly could have delivered into His Hands all the kingdoms of the world.
The temptation, for Jesus, was not to power; the temptation was to be given the opportunity to do good things, but by an evil means.
To appreciate fully the temptation, imagine how much different world history would be if all mankind were united under the rule of a Perfect King: no war, no poverty, no hunger, just laws and courts; all this would be ours, if only Jesus had given that one little act of worship to the Devil.
Of course, Jesus could not and would not sell out even for the opportunity to create a better world; as He said to Pilate, ” … my Kingdom is not of this world.”
So, He says: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (Matt. 4:10).
But how powerful must have been that temptation!
To accomplish, by one simple act, so much good for the world, without the rejection, without the suffering, without the Cross; but, it would not have been The Kingdom, it would have been a counterfeit.
This temptation only comes to the good man.
It is the man who cares deeply about others, who truly wants his life to make a difference, who will be so tempted.
To every good man, it will come.
If the Devil can’t buy you for money, or he can’t trick you into folly to prove how spiritual you are, he will try this last and most potent temptation:
“Shade the demands of the Gospel a little; water down the theology; preach only God’s love and never His holiness, and I’ll fill up your church for you.
Cut a few corners on safety; overstate the claims for your product a little; save a few bucks on your toxic waste disposal, and I’ll keep you in business so that you can pay your workers.
Don’t tell your family and friends about the Gospel; never mention Heaven and Hell; don’t confront them with their sinfulness, because if you do, they won’t want to be around you; just ‘let your light so shine’ and they’ll figure it out for themselves.”
Those of us who do care, who do want to make a difference, will face this temptation.
But the truth is God can and will accomplish His purposes without our ever once having to resort to evil means.
His way may well involve suffering, and pain; His way may well lead us to the cross; but His way is the only way to the real Kingdom, and not to some counterfeit copy.
And so, as we begin our Lenten fast, we recognize that we are putting ourselves in temptation’s path, even as did our Lord.
Our physical hunger, or hunger for whatever we deny ourselves this Lent, may well provide opportunity for temptation: “One little bite wouldn’t hurt; there’s no need to be a fanatic.”
“I can skip my prayers just this once, so that I can watch this excellent television program.”
“I’m so tired, I think I’ll just meditate at home rather than going all the way out to Church; God will understand.”
But, remember, when we are tempted, we have One upon Whom we can call Who has suffered far greater temptations than we ever will.