The Gospel Train Reaches Temptation Station – Stay on Board, Children! A Homily for the First Sunday of Lent
There’s an old gospel song tradition that speaks of the Christian life as a ride on the “Gospel train.” The Gospel train is not always an easy ride with perfect scenery, but you’ve gotta get your ticket and stay on board.
Mysteriously, the train sometimes passes through difficult terrain. But just stay on board! On his way to glory, Jesus faced trials, hatred, and even temptation (yet without sinning).
Today the Gospel train pulls into “Temptation Station” and we are asked to consider some of 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 this desert scene, the Lord Jesus faces down three fundamental areas of temptation, all of which have one thing in common: they seek to substitute a couch for the cross.
In a way, the devil has one argument: “Why the cross?” His question is a rhetorical one. He wants you to blame God for the cross, and in your anger, to reject Him as some sort of 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 in favor of the tree that brought death. We, along with the devil, may wish to wince at the cross and scornfully blame God for it, 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. Only if you can do that will I accept that you have never chosen the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life and that you deserve something better than the cross. Only then will I accept that you have never insisted on “knowing” evil as well as good.
If you can’t, then you’ve made the same self-destructive, absurd choice that the rest of us have. It is not God that is cruel but we who are wicked and are to blame for the presence of the cross. The cross comes not from God but from us. We ought to stop blaming God for evil, suffering, and the cross and look in the mirror instead. The glory of this gospel is that the Lord Jesus entered into this twisted world of our making and endured its full absurdity for our sake. If there is evil in this world it is our choice, not God’s.
Have we finished blaming God? Are we ready to focus on our own issues? If so then let’s look at some areas of temptation that the devil is able to exploit because we indulge them. Let’s also see the answer that the Lord Jesus has for these temptations. For the Lord, though tempted, never yielded.
1. Pleasures and Passions – The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread. After such a long fast 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 give in to what his body craves.
We, too, have many desires and are told by the devil in many ways to “scratch where it itches.” Perhaps no generation before has faced such strong temptation. We live in a consumer culture that is highly skilled at eliciting and then satisfying our every desire. All day long, we are bombarded with advertisements that arouse desire and then advise us that we simply must fulfill those desires. If something is out of stock or unavailable in exactly the form we want at the instant we want it, we are indignant. Why should I have to wait? Why can’t I have it in that color? The advertiser’s basic message is that 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 ones stemming from overindulgence. We are a culture that struggles with obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, and greed. We struggle with a level of overstimulation that robs us of a reasonable attention span; boredom is a significant issue for many who are too used to the frantic pace of video games and action movies. We have done well in turning stones into bread.
Jesus rebukes the devil, saying, Man does not live on bread alone. In other words, there are things that are just more important than 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 will but bow down and worship him. This is a temptation to both power and popularity; the devil promises Jesus not only sovereignty but also glory.
Because most of us are not likely to become sovereigns, and because temptation is only strong in those matters that seem remotely possible for us, I will focus instead on popularity, something we deal with regularly in this life. One of the deeper wounds in our soul is the extreme need that most of us have to be liked, to be popular, to be 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 usually starts in youth, when peer pressure “causes” young people to do many foolish things. They may join gangs, get tattoos, pierce their bodies, and/or 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 in order to gain that “love.” As we get older, we might be tempted to bear false witness, to make “compromises” to advance our career, to lie to impress others, to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t really need, and/or to try to impress people whom we don’t even like. Likewise, we may be tempted to be silent when we should speak out for what is right.
All of this is a way of bowing before the devil, because it says that we are willing to sin in order to fit in, to advance, or to be popular. Jesus says, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.
The real solution to this terrible temptation of 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 them!” In saying this, they reject literally thousands of verses of Scripture that say otherwise. But they have refashioned God and worship this man-made idol. “God does not care if I go to Church,” they boldly claim, “He does not care if I live with my girlfriend.” The list continues to grow.
The attitude seems to be that no matter what I do, God will save me. It is presumptuous to speak and think like this. It is true that Hell and punishment are difficult teachings to fully comprehend and to reconcile 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 constantly put our return to the Lord out of our mind. About this tendency 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 are mostly lying and know deep down inside that someone greater than they made them and all things.” The second demon said he would tell them there is 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!”
Presumption, pride, and their ugly cousin procrastination are widespread today.
Jesus rebukes the devil 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 that 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. We should be sober about sin and call on the Lord’s mercy rather than doubting that we that really need it or just presuming that God doesn’t mind.
The train is leaving the station soon. I hope that we’ve all benefited from this brief stop and have stored up provisions for the journey ahead: insight, resolve, appreciation, understanding, determination, and hope.
The journey ahead is scenic but difficult; 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. Get on board little children, Get on board, there’s room for many more!”
Never heard the song? Here’s a rendition of it: