The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004

Tempting Desires
Year C - 1st Sunday in Lent Luke 4:1-13

The sun rises over the landscape and the first rays of light bring a welcome-warmth that erases from you memory the cold chill of the night. You have survived another lonely night without becoming the evening prey for some scavenging predator. For a few moments, you are comfortable but it is only an interlude. Soon the light beams of warmth will turn into scorching rays of torment. The sand flies will emerge hungry for a carnivorous meal. They will not discriminate. They will feast on your flesh or another wayward animal. 

Sitting quietly in the shade of a rock does not bring you any safety. The scorpions are moving and ready to inflict severe pain on an exposed hand or foot. With depleted strength, you dig in the bottom of a dry riverbed for water that has escaped the evaporating heat of day. The dryness of you mouth urges you to dig deeper for even a few drops of refreshment. Such is life in the desert. Such was the ordeal that Jesus endured for forty days.

Jesus did not meander into the desert. The Spirit led him. The verb implies force, non-optional direction. His journey was not a leisurely stroll but a mandatory march. He did not walk into the desert to retreat from the stress of life. His stay was not a brief respite for renewal or refreshment. The desert experience brought trial, testing and temptation. It was not a time to contemplate gentle graces but for a purifying power to summon, call, and refine. God uses the desert to train his leaders in humility and his people in obedience. "No man can live in the desert and emerge unchanged."1

After forty days, Jesus was physically ravaged, emotional depleted and spiritual exhausted. Jerome once wrote in a letter, "The desert loves to strip bare." The enemy waited until his prey was spiritual naked and vulnerable, then he pursued his assault with three temptations that reflected the same themes of the desert temptations of the nation of Israel after their deliverance from Egypt-food, false worship and testing God. These temptations were not enticements to perform acts of evil but reasonable alternatives. The Enemy presented variations. Actions that appeared inoffensive, morally neutral and ethically acceptable. They were merely suggestions to satisfy the desires of his heart. What harm could they do?

The Enemy's first temptation comes with the suggestion that Jesus turn the stones into bread and satisfy his desire for pleasure. It seems innocent enough. Hunger is the expected by-product of a 40 day-fast. What dastardly deed of defiance would be exercised by fulfill such a desire? The body cannot grow without nutrients. Survival necessitates food. The proposal appears so innocuous. Each of us spends the better part of our lives earning money to feed our family and ourselves. "Most of human creativity is tired to economic production."2 The physical needs are the most basic desires of the human body. Why refuse?

Food, money, sex, success are all gifts of God but we grow impatient. We grab. We rush. We push. We force. We gotta have it now. Why wait?

We desire the pleasure of a new car. Why wait?
We desire the pleasure of a new entertainment theater. Why wait?
We desire the pleasure of a Cancun vacation. Why wait?
We desire the pleasure of sexual union. Why wait?
Even the spiraling cost of excessive credit debt or the complications of an ill-timed pregnancy harness our longings.

This desire for pleasure distracts our vision of God's priorities but one young coed sees God's vision very clearly. Rather, than fulfill her desire for pleasure by enrolling in graduate school and pursuing an academic career, she chooses a career of community service to minister to poor women and children.3 By resisting a seemingly 'harmless' temptation, she will seldom dine at 4-star restaurants. She will probably never own a new luxury car and will probably shop for 'new' clothes mostly at second-hand stores. Her home may never have an entertainment center or a wireless network of computers but soul will be satisfied as with the riches of food because she resisted the tempting desire for pleasure.

After his first rebuke, the Enemy counters with another offer-the desire for power. While the inherent evil in this proposal is obvious, the evil in our desire for power is not always. Power if properly employed can serve great humanitarian ends. The political world understands that without power good things cannot be accomplished. Legislation to protect the welfare of the poor can only be passed through the wise and skillful use of power. Fair negotiations in business depend on the equality of power. But power can be wielded for good but laced with evil. Deceptive motives may lie hidden but will negate the positive we seek to achieve.

While we do not engage in the competitive arena with the power brokers of the world, we must be care how we use our power each day with are friends and family. Husbands who dictate family finances may kindle fires of resentment and bitterness in their spouse. Parents may offer bribes, threats or other forms of coercion to obtain desirable behavior but are they training their children to be responsible mature adults. At work information is power, do you withhold it hoping to manipulate your boss or fellow employees. 

In every interaction, in every exchange with another person we are offered the desire of power. Will we use it to build up and edify or misuse to manipulate and control?

In the third temptation, the Enemy takes a very different tactic. The first two temptations offered the gratification of desires; the relief of discomfort; the enhancement of life. But the third temptation is more a challenge-let your God proof himself. How powerful, how mighty, how loving is your God? How trustworthy? Will he rescue you? Will he really deliver on his promises?

I received an e-mail this week asking about the message of Psalm 91. The psalmist words do leave much wiggle room. His words make the unmistaken claim that the person who believes in God will not suffer.

9If you make the Most High your dwelling- 
    even the LORD, who is my refuge-
10then no harm will befall you, 
    no disaster will come near your tent.
11For he will command his angels concerning you 
    to guard you in all your ways;
12they will lift you up in their hands, 
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; 
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
14"Because he loves me," says the LORD, "I will rescue him; 
    I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15He will call upon me, and I will answer him; 
    I will be with him in trouble, 
    I will deliver him and honor him.
16With long life will I satisfy him 
    and show him my salvation."
I wrote back and told her that we have to understand that the psalms were poetry written at different times for different reasons. They express the full array of human emotions-from joy to sorrow, from lament to thanksgiving. Those written after a personal crises will be more lament and the verses composed after in prosperous time will be more heavily weighted to thanksgiving and gratitude. We should not base our theology on one or two lines.

While I still stand by those words, after watching the movie The Passion of Christ, I realized that they miss a key component to the question. We have an erroneous view of suffering and pain. Phillip Yancy states that most Christians if pinned against the wall by a skillful debater would admit that pain was God's one mistake. "He really should have worked a little harder and invented a better way of coping with the world's dangers."4 We do not understand pain because we are so focused on the physical dimensions of this world. We cannot comprehend a reality beyond this earthly.

Before his arrest, Jesus suffered immense physical, psychological and spiritual anguish but he still trusted that God was his refuge. Why? Because he looked beyond the Cross to his eternal reward. He never expected God to provide him with a comfortable, leisurely, pain free life. He came into this world expecting to suffer and die but he did expect his Father to deliver on his promise of rescuing him from the grave. He trusted that neither in this life or in the life to come, neither powers or principalities could ever separate him from the love of his Father. That eternal relationship was vastly more important than any discomforts in this world.

The tempting words of the Enemy haunt us each day we hear the news that a loved one has been killed in a tragic accident. We cry out to God asking where were those angels. Why have you forsaken me? Why weren't you there, delivering her from danger? Why did you let harm take his life? But God answers, 

"I am with you!" 

"I will not let her soul be abandon to hell" 

"I will not let him go down to the depths of the pit." 

The Enemy tempts us each day with the desire for protect. God calls us to walk in faith and endure the suffering of this life for the glory of the life to come.

The movie The Passion of Christ opens with Jesus praying in the garden alone, or is he. A dark solitary figure keeps appearing and disappearing. At first, you do not know who it is but then you hear its speech. The Enemy has returned. Temptation is revisited. Jesus must once again resist. He must hold fast to long ago spoken promises. He must exercise the courage to face an uncertain future all the while a voice whispers words of doubt, despair and hopelessness. Jesus resists and faithfully embraces his destiny and accomplishes our salvation.

Such a display of faithful does not come from a life that constantly yields to desire. Faith is strengthened only through the habit of resistance learned in the desert. Character is developed only during the dry times of solitude when the evil of harmless temptations is exposed in its stark reality. The imprisonment of the desert is essential if we are to win freedom of the enslaving desires of our heart. Through the parched times of the desert we strengthened to withstand the harsh "...blows of life, the disappointments and even the helpless of forces beyond our control."5

Let us allow the Spirit to led us into the desert this Lenten season so that we might learn to resist our desire for pleasure, power and protection.

1 Wilfred Tresiger quoted by David W. F. Wong, "Wilderness and Prayer," Serve the Lord with Gladness, edited by Howard Peskett and David W. F. Wong , Singapore: Biblical Gradute School of Theology, 1991, 17 cited by James Houston, The Heart's Desire, (Downers Grove, IL: NavPress, 1996), 1987.
2 William H. Willimon, "Righteous Renunciation," Pulpit Resources, Vol. 29, No. 1, March 4, 2001.
3 Willimon, "Righteous Renunciation."
4 Phillip Yancy, Where is God When It Hurts, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 22, 23.
5 James Houston, The Heart's Desire, 196.

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