The Gospel Train reaches Temptation Station: Stay on Board Children! A Meditation on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent

021613There’s an old Gospel song tradition that speaks of the Christian life as a ride on the “Gospel Train.” But the Gospel Train not always and easy ride with perfect scenery. But you gotta get your ticket for the Gospel Train and stay aboard.

Mysteriously, the train sometimes passes through difficult terrain and life’s temptations. But just stay on board! Jesus too, on his way to glory faced trials, hatred, and even temptation (yet without sin).

Today the Gospel Train pulls into “Temptation Station” and we are asked to consider life’s temptations. The three temptations faced by Jesus are surely on wide display in our own times. What are these temptations and how do we resist them?

In the desert scene of this Gospel, the Lord Jesus faces down three fundamental areas of temptation, but all of them have one thing in common: they seek to substitute the cross for a couch.

In a way the devil has one argument: “Why the Cross?!” And his question is not a real one, but a rhetorical one. He wants you to blame God for the cross, and, in your anger, to reject God as some despot.

Well, pay attention Church, the cross comes from the fact that you and I, ratifying Adam and Eve’s choice, have rejected the tree of life, for the tree that brought death. We, along with satan (I refuse to capitalize his name) may wish to wince at, and scornfully blame God for the Cross, but in the end, the cross was our choice.

And if you think that you have never chosen the tree of death and that God is “unfair,” then prove to me that you have never sinned, and I’ll accept that you never chose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,  over the Tree of Life and that you deserve something better than the cross. I’ll accept that you never insisted on “knowing” evil as well as good.

Otherwise, you’ve made the same self-destructive, and absurd choice that the rest of us have, and it is not God that is cruel but we who are wicked who are to blame for the presence of the cross. And, thus  the cross comes not from God but from us.We ought to stop blaming God for evil, suffering and the Cross and look into the mirror. And the glory of this gospel is that the Lord Jesus enters into this twisted world of OUR making and endures its full absurdity for our sake. If there is evil in this world, it is our choice, not God’s.

OK, are we over “blame God” thing and ready to focus on our own issues? If that be the case then let us look to some areas of temptation that satan is able to exploit because WE indulge them.  Let us also see the answer that the Lord Jesus has for these temptations. For the Lord, though tempted, never yields.

1. Pleasures and Passions The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread. After having fasted, the thought of bread is surely a strong temptation. In effect the devil tells Jesus to “scratch where it itches,” to indulge his desire, to simply give in to what his body craves.

We too have many desires and we too are told by the devil in many ways to scratch where it itches. Perhaps no generation before has faced temptation in this area so strongly as we. We live in a consumer culture that is well skilled at eliciting and satisfying our every desire. All day long advertisements reach into our mind to excite desire and to advise that we MUST fulfill our every desire and wish. If something is out of stock or unavailable in exactly the form we want we are indignant. “Why should I have to wait? Why can’t I have it in that color?” and so forth. The advertiser’s basic message is “You can have it all!” This is a lie of course but it is told so frequently that we feel entitled to just about everything.

Some of our biggest cultural problems are problems of over-indulgence. We are a culture that struggles with obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, greed, and an over-stimulation that robs us of an attention span, and this causes boredom to be a significant issue for many who are too used to the frantic pace of a video game or action movie. We have done well in turning stones to bread.

To all this Jesus rebukes the devil by saying, “Man does not live on bread alone.” In other words there are things that are just more important and bread and circuses, than creature comforts and indulgence. Elsewhere Jesus says, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Lk 12:15). I have written on this in another post: The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things

2. Popularity and Power –  Taking Jesus up a high mountain the devil shows him all the nations and people of the earth and promises them to him if Jesus but bow down and worship the devil. This is a temptation to power but also to popularity for the devil promises him not only sovereignty but also glory.

Since most of us are not likely to attain to sovereignty, and since temptation is only strong in those matters that seem possible for us, I will focus on popularity. Here too we face a lot of this in life. One of the deeper wounds in our soul is the extreme need that most of us have to be liked, popular, well thought of, respected, and to fit in. We dread being laughed at, scorned or ridiculed. We cannot stand the thought of feeling minimized in any way.

For many people the desire for popularity is so strong that they’ll do almost anything to attain it. It starts in youth when peer pressure “causes” young people to do lots of stupid stuff. They will join gangs, get tattoos, piercings, wear silly clothes. Many a young lady desperate to have a boyfriend and thus feel loved and/or impress her friends, will sleep with boys or do other inappropriate things to gain that “love.” As we get older we might be willing to bear false witness, make compromises etc to advance our career, lie to impress others, spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t really need, to impress people we don’t really like. Likewise, we can tempted to be silent when we should speak out for what is right and so forth.

All of this is a way of bowing before the devil since we are, in effect, willing even to sin in order to fit in, advance, or be popular. Here Jesus says, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.

The real solution to this terrible temptation to popularity is to fear the Lord. When we fear God we need fear no one else. If I can kneel before God, I can stand before any man. If God is the only one we need to please, then we don’t have to run around trying to please everyone else. Here too I have written on this matter elsewhere: What Does It Mean To Fear the Lord?

3. Presumption and Pride Finally (for now) the devil encourages Jesus to test God’s love for him by casting himself off the highest wall of the Temple Mount. Does not scripture say that God will rescue him? The devil quotes Psalm 91: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. In our time the sin of presumption is epidemic.

Many people think that they can go one behaving sinfully, recklessly, and wantonly and that they will never face punishment. “God is love!” they boldly say, “He would never send anyone to hell or punish!” In saying this they reject literally thousands of verses of Scripture that say otherwise. But they have refashioned God, and worship this idol. “God does not care if I go to Church,” they boldly declare, “He does not care if I live with my girlfriend.” The list continues to grow.

The attitude is that no matter what I do God will save me. It is boldly presumptive to speak and think like this. It is true that Hell and punishments are difficult teachings to fully comprehend and square with God’s patience and mercy. Nevertheless God teaches it and we need to stop pretending that it really isn’t for real. This is presumption.

I have written elsewhere on the topic of Hell and why it makes sense in the context of a God who loves and respects us: Hell Has to Be.

A mitigated form of presumption is procrastination wherein we put off our return to the Lord day after day. Of this it is said,

There were three demons summoned by satan as to their plan to entrap as many human beings as possible. The first demon announced that he would tell them there is no God. But Satan wasn’t too impressed. “You’ll get a few, but not many, and even those atheists know deep down inside that someone greater than them made them and all things.” The Second demon said he would tell them there was no devil. But satan said, “That won’t work, most of them have already met me and know my power. Finally the third demon said, “I will not tell them there is no God or no devil, I will simply tell them there is no hurry!” And satan smiled an ugly grin and said, “You’re the man!

And thus presumption, pride and their ugly cousin presumption are widespread today.

Jesus rebukes satan by quoting Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. We ought to be very careful about presumption for it is widespread today.

This does not mean we have to retreat into fear and scrupulosity. God loves us and is rich in mercy, but we cannot willfully go on calling “no big deal” what God calls sin and takes seriously. Hence we should be sober about sin and call on the Lord’s mercy rather than doubt we really need it and just presume God doesn’t mind etc.

Our train is leaving the station soon. It is to be hoped that you and I have benefited from this brief stop and have stored up provisions for the journey ahead such as: insight, resolve, appreciation, understanding, determination and hope.

The journey ahead is scenic but also difficult and temptations are a reality. But as the Old Gospel Song says: The Gospel train’s a’comin’, I hear it just at hand. I hear the car wheel rumblin’ And rollin’ thro’ the land. Then Get on board, Children, Get on board, there’s room for many a more!

Never heard the song? Here it is:

9 Replies to “The Gospel Train reaches Temptation Station: Stay on Board Children! A Meditation on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent”

  1. I know a 9 year old who is constantly wondering what she can do to be famous. She even asked if there is a website which she can access in order to be famous. It is very hard not to laugh out loud at such utter nonsense. She cannot see that fame is ephemeral and that often those who are famous in today’s world are actually the very worst wastes of space that there are. The ones that come into my mind most readily, are in the entertainment industry often strutting around stages, in ridiculous costumes, and shrieking loud noises.

  2. Msgr. Pope,

    Please check your spelling and grammar. There are several errors in your discourse above.

    Your English teacher

    1. I didn’t capitalize the devil and satan on purpose. Also, is “discourse” the proper use of terms? My methodology here is not discursive, since it is written. Is not my methodology more literary? Check your dictionary, but discourse more usually refers to verbal methods.

  3. That is a good story, the ‘no hurry’, story. Reminds me of how Pope Benedict emphasizes that fact that Mary ‘made haste’ to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, in his Infancy Narratives book. A priest one time told me that if I commit a serious sin that I should, ‘flee unto the Confessional’. I think that is good advice.

  4. Very nice as always Msgr. Pope.

    Our pastor noted in his homily yesterday these three temptations and how we can counter them with the three pillars of Lent: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

    The first temptation appeals to appetite so for that we fast, the second tempatation appeals to our worshipping false idols and so we are to pray more. And the third appeals to pride as you noted, so to counteract that we are asked to give more of ourselves to others, or almsgiving.

Comments are closed.