Attempted Temptation

May 24th, 2011
Close Encounters of the Third Kind © 1977 Coulmbia Pictures / Flickr / Courtesy Pikturz.

A Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11

At dinnertimes growing up, I was often accused of having “a hollow leg.” I kept piling mashed potatoes on my plate and polishing them off and by the time I was on my third helping, my grandmother would be commenting on the vacancy in my lower extremities. In eighth grade, I weighed all of 85 pounds soaking wet, and still, I could put away the food. It has to be going somewhere, my relations would say. “He must have a hollow leg.”

During my overly literal early years, this commentary on my anatomy confused me terribly. Both of my legs seemed full of bone, ligaments, and muscle tissue. How could I have a hollow leg? And even if I did, wouldn’t the appendage fill up with mashed potatoes over the course of a few meals? Over time, I learned about metaphor and imagery, so I stopped wondering about the mutant connection between my stomach and leg. Then sophomore year of high school and my growth spurt hit simultaneously. My already ravenous appetite doubled, and my mother began saying that I had not one, but two hollow legs.

Every day, I filled myself up with carbs and fruit and sweets and the odd vegetable. And the next day, I had to fill up again. My hollow legs got longer, which was a good thing, considering all the food I was packing into them. My metabolism was so high that I often found myself parked in front of the refrigerator half an hour after dinner looking for a post-prandial snack.

In our society, we consume as if we have not only hollow legs, but hollow arms and hollow torsos, not to mention, hollow heads. We fill ourselves up with fast food and fast cars, all the while buying stuff that we tell ourselves we need, but we really don’t. We fill ourselves up with anxiety over making sure our lives and livelihoods are secure, all the while ignoring the vast majority of people who will never have security. We fill ourselves up with the sensational, yet banal, details of the lives of the rich and famous, all the while daydreaming about what we would do if the paparazzi followed us into a restaurant.

We fill ourselves up by hoarding stuff, by worrying about our security, by coveting fame. We fill ourselves up until there’s no room left within us for anything that we ourselves didn’t squash in there, until there’s no room left within us for God.

In the Gospel reading, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness immediately following his baptism. After more than a month in the wilderness, Jesus meets the devil. And the devil can’t pass up such a juicy opportunity for temptation.

“See that rock over there,” says the tempter. “I bet you could turn that rock into bread and fill yourself up.”

“See the ground way below,” says the tempter. “I bet you could jump and be secure in the arms of angels who would never let you hurt even your foot.”

“See the kingdoms spread all over the world,” says the tempter. “I bet you’d be the most famous ruler of those kingdoms who ever lived if you first swore fealty to me.”

These three attempts at temptation are the industry standard. Worrying about getting stuff, getting security, and getting fame – they’ve worked for centuries, thinks the devil. Surely, they will work on this Jesus fellow. Not to mention, Jesus has been out in this wilderness for forty days. I’ve got him right where I want him, thinks the devil. Surely, the industry standard temptations about stuff, security, and fame will work on a guy who has been living out in the elements alone with no food for forty days!

Of course, the industry standard temptations fail. Jesus isn’t worried about getting stuff or being secure or finding fame. Why not? Well, the easy answer is that Jesus is the Son of God and therefore more than a match for temptation. But that’s not much help to you and me, so try this on for size. Rather than being a benefit to the devil in the devil’s attempted temptation, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness actually help not the tempter, but Jesus himself.

You see, Jesus wasn’t just killing time during those forty days. He wasn’t twiddling his thumbs waiting for the devil to turn up. Jesus was fasting.

A fast is a way to make a space, to open up a hole within ourselves. A fast is an active and difficult denial of something that has influence over us (traditionally food, though fasts certainly are not limited to that area). When we fast, we forego the things that we usually use to fill us up, the things that we depend on to keep us going. And when we cease to fill ourselves up with all the junk of the world or all the anxiety about our own security or all our envy of the famous – when we cease to fill ourselves up with these things, we make room within ourselves for God.

Fasting intentionally opens up a hole for God to fill. When Leah and I moved into our new place a few weeks ago, we had boxes piled up all over the living room and dining room floors. But each day, we unpacked a bit and tidied up a bit, and now, we can walk around the house unhindered by all our stuff. This is what fasting does for us. When we clear away the rubbish that has piled up in our interior selves, we make a space for God to come in and dwell. And the more interior square footage we devote to God, the better we will be able to listen and respond to God’s movement in our lives.

This is just how Jesus fends off the devil in the wilderness. After forty days of fasting, he’s not empty, but full – full of God. Notice that each time the devil attempts a temptation, Jesus dredges up from within himself words of scripture that speak to the believer’s relationship with God.

“Bread alone can’t sustain you,” Jesus says. “But every word that God speaks gives sustenance to creation.”

“I’m not going to jump off the temple,” Jesus says. “I don’t need to test God to trust God.”

“I’m not going to bow down to you,” Jesus says. “I serve God, and only God instills in me the desire to worship.”

Jesus combats the industry standard temptations of stuff, security, and fame. He beats off the tempter by filling himself up with God. And he fills himself up with God by emptying himself through fasting. During our own forty days this Lent, how will we make spaces within us for God? How can we clear away the rubbish so that God can move in and walk around? We can make a start by choosing to fast.

If you tend to fill yourself up with stuff you don’t really need, then don’t buy anything beyond basic necessity. If you tend to fill yourself up with worry about the security of your livelihood, then stop and pray when you find anxiety setting in. If you tend to fill yourself up with desire to live as the rich and famous do, then skip the grocery aisle magazine racks and E! Entertainment Television for the next six weeks.

As you deny yourself the things that normally fill you up, actively invite God to enter the newly cleared space. Choose to fast. Clear away the rubbish, hollow out your insides, and give God a place to fill.

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