February 14, 2016
+ Lent is a strange time. It’s so different than the rest of the Church year, for me anyway. Because, what we’re forced to do in Lent is do something I don’t like doing sometimes.
I’m not talking about fasting or confession or giving up something for Lent. No, what Lent forces me to do that I don’t really want to do is: look in the mirror. And not just look—but really look—honestly, bluntly—in the mirror.
That is not fun to do. It is not a pleasant experience to look at ourselves honestly and bluntly in the mirror. It is not fun to confront ourselves. It’s probably easier for most of us to confront the Devil—however we might view this personification of evil—in our own lives.
But, if you notice in our Gospel reading for today, that three-fold commandment of Jesus is all about looking in the mirror and confronting ourselves. We find Jesus repudiating the Devil’s temptations with some strongly worded quotes from Scripture:
“One does not live by bread alone”
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God]”
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
When we look at them, these commandments are really all about us. About me—the ego. The Devil becomes this almost peripheral character in our reading, if you notice. He’s kind of like a whispering shadow at the edge of the story. The main characters of this story are, of course, Jesus and us.
So, in our Gospel reading, we hear first that we do not live by bread alone. Looking in that mirror, looking at ourselves, we find that, yes, honestly, we’ve had too much bread—too many carbs—too much of everything. This season of Lent is the prime time for us to look long and hard at our eating practices.
For the most people, we simply eat without giving a second thought to what we’re eating or why we’re eating it. And this goes for drinking too. Certainly we have doctors who tell us that this is one of the leading causes of a good many of our health problems in this country. Nutrition. Food. And too much food. And too much bad food.
When we realize how high the rate of obesity and related illnesses are, we know that food really is a major factor in our lives. When we look at issues like obesity and eating disorders and alcoholism and all kinds of addictions, we realize that there is often a psychological reason for our abuse of food or alcohol.
We do eat and drink for comfort. We do eat physically or partake of others things thinking that it will sustain us emotionally. We put food or drink into that place in which God should suffice. A time of fasting is a time for us to break that habit and to nudge ourselves into realizing that what should be sustaining us spiritually is the spiritual food we receive from God.
Then, we hear “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God].” Here again is a major temptation for us. Let’s face it, for us: the world revolves around us. Around me. And one of the sources of our greatest unhappiness is when we realize others don’t feel that way.
We want people to notice us, to like us. Ideally, we would like to have people fall at our feet and adore us. We have all thought about what it would be like to be noticed—truly noticed—when we enter a room, like a movie star at the Oscar’s. OK. Maybe that’s a bit extreme. But, just think about it for a moment. Look at how we feel when we send an email—and there’s no response. Or when we post something meaningful on Facebook—and no one likes it. I hate that!
But, it’s not about others. That’s all about me and my ego. And I’m the only one angry or frustrated. And I put myself in this position. Yes, I might be mad at others, but it’s ultimately MY fault for feeling this way.
We are all susceptible to self-centeredness, to that charming belief that the world revolves me—the individual. That, we believe, will make us truly happy. If we can be fully accepted, fully loved and appreciated.
But Jesus again nudges us away from that strange form of self-idolatry and reminds us that there is actually someone who knows us better than we know ourselves, who knows our thoughts better than we do. We are truly loved, truly accepted, truly appreciated—by God. And we shouldn’t worry about the rest. Rather than falling to the self-delusion of believing our world revolve around ourselves, we must center our lives squarely and surely on God.
Finally, we are warned not to put the Lord our God to the test. We’ve all done this as well. We have railed at God and shaken our fists at God and bargained with God. We have promised things to God we have no intention of truly keeping. We have all said to God, “If you do this for me, I promise I will [insert promise here].”
Again, like all the previous temptations, this one also revolves around self-centeredness and selfishness. This one involves us controlling God, making God do what we want God to do. This one involves us treating God like a magic genie or a wishing pond.
I’ve done this. I’ve been here. I’ve shaken that fist at God and railed loudly at God.
The realization we must take away from this final temptation is that, yes, God always answers our prayers. But the answer is not always what we want. Sometimes, it’s yes. Sometimes it’s no. Sometimes it’s not yet.
But what we fail to realize in all of this is that those moments in which God does grant us the answer to prayer in the way we wanted, it is only purely out of God’s goodness and God’s care for the larger outcome. It has nothing to do what we do. We cannot manipulate God and make God do what we want. None of us are in the position to do that. And if we had a God that we could do that to, I’m not certain I would truly want to serve that God.
These are the temptations we should be pondering during this Lenten season. When I said earlier that these confessions of Jesus are the basis for our understanding of Lent, they really are. Each of these statements by Jesus are essentially jumping off points for us as we ponder our relationship with God, with each other and with ourselves during this season. What Jesus experienced in that desert, we too experience this Lent—and at many other times in our lives. The confrontation with the Devil in the desert, is often a confrontation with ourselves in the mirror. It is a confrontation with that difficult and dark side of ourselves—that gossipy, self-centered, controlling, manipulative person we sometimes are.
These ego-centric behaviors really don’t promote our egos. They actually hurt our egos in the long-run. Yes, we might have full stomachs, Yes, we might be loved and appreciated and accepted, yes, we would have a fairy-godmother-God who grants all our wishes—but we would not ultimately be very happy. We would still want more and more. But, in our core of cores—in our very spirits—we would still be incomplete and unfulfilled.
At some point during Lent, our job is to stop gazing in the mirror and to turn toward God. Our job is to recognize this God who does truly grant us everything we really need and want, just maybe not in the way WE think those things should be given to us. It is for that realization that we should be thankful during this season of Lent.
So, let us, when emerge from the desert, do so re-focused—not on ourselves, but on the God who truly does provide us with everything we need in this life, and the life to come.