Temptation to Despair
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TEMPTATION TO DESPAIR
The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2023
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to the tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. (Matthew 4:1-2)
One of the classic stories of temptation occurs in Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey. Odysseus, champion of the Trojan War, struggled for ten years to return home to Ithaca, and reclaim his reign as king. At one point in his journey Odysseus had to sail past an island where strange but alluring creatures called the Sirens lived and sang out to passing ships. Homer provides no physical description of the Sirens, but later storytellers and artists would depict them as beautiful, scantily clad women with angelic wings. What Homer does describe is their song – a song so bewitching that no crew had ever been able to resist steering close to listen. But it was a death trap every time. No one could hear their song and live. Indeed, the Sirens sat among the bones of all the sailors whom they had lured into the rocks, reefs, and crashing waves that surrounded the island.
Homer tells us how Odysseus was able to hear the Sirens’ song and live. As the ship bore down on the island he instructed his crew to tie him securely to the mast. If he struggled and begged to be released they were to tie him tighter still. Odysseus then plugged the ears of every sailor with beeswax. The sailors bound Odysseus hand and foot to the mast and proceeded to row past the island. On cue, the Sirens sang out their haunting tune, overwhelming Odysseus with the desire to draw near them. He fought to be free from his fetters, but his crew, deaf to the Sirens’ song, tied him tighter and kept rowing. Only the restraining ropes and help from his loyal companions allowed Odysseus to resist the irresistible song of the Sirens.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is another classic story of temptation. Matthew tells us how Jesus was able to resist the song of Satan. Soon after his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to endure forty days of fasting and prayer. I believe it was his way of reenacting Israel’s forty years of wandering in the desert. It was his way of stepping aboard Noah’s ark for forty days and forty nights at sea. It was Jesus’ way of announcing that the great story God was telling through the Jews was coming to its climax in him. Indeed, the long Odyssey of salvation history would find its fulfillment in Jesus. But not if Satan could wreck the ship on the rocks and reefs. So there in the wilderness, when Jesus was at the extremity of his physical strength, Satan sang out with his complex, manifold temptations. To my mind these temptations, reported variously by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, have always defied any easy interpretation. But the unmistakable conclusion is this: with no ropes to restrain him, with no beeswax to plug his ears, with no strength but the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was able to resist the irresistible, say no to the devil, and steer the ship through the perilous waters of temptation.
Today is the First Sunday in Lent. Lent is the annual opportunity for the church to step into the drama. It is the forty days – not counting Sundays – between Ash Wednesday and Easter, when we attempt to go with Jesus and with Israel into the wilderness. Why? Because the Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus is our gift too. By the power of the Spirit, God gives us the grace to be more than conquerors, even to grow into the full stature of Christ. So think of Lent as the work of claiming a gift that is already yours. Through a deeper discipline of self-denial and prayer, our hope and expectation is to encounter the living God.
What do we find in the wilderness of Lent? We find temptation. Let me guess that Lent typically goes for you the way it has gone for me. You want to get yourself back in fighting form so that you can fight the good fight with all your might. You want to eat less, drink less, go to the gym more, lose a few pounds, and get close to God. This is the year. So on Ash Wednesday when you hear the invitation to a holy Lent, you say, “sign me up.” You grit your teeth and start rowing. Then, on cue, the Sirens begin singing. The bacon cheeseburger platter calls to you. The couch lures you into its horizontal position. Playing on your phone is easier than going to the gym. All those enlightening games to play and puzzles to solve! (It’s a good thing they give you only one Wordle a day or I’d never leave the couch.) And so it goes. Not far into the experiment you revise your Lenten discipline and declare that you’re giving up Lent for Lent.
Shall we give Lent one more go? What is your greatest temptation? I believe we all face a temptation today that is more crafty and ultimately more destructive than all the vain things we might try to do in Lent. It seems to me that the particular Sirens’ song playing in our day tempts us toward a deep despair – despair over the state of the world and its future. As if the pandemic weren’t enough, everything from the climate crisis, to the reality of a new cold war, to dysfunctional politics, to our polarized society tempts us to despair. Jesus dueled with the devil in the desert, but we don’t need to go to the wilderness to be confronted by the forces of wickedness. Evil lurks around every corner of creation.
Have you been paying attention to the news out of Prospect Park in Brooklyn? If so, you know that the Urban Park Rangers recently pulled a four-foot long alligator out of the lake. Yes, the alligator was in poor condition. She was near death and not a threat to anyone due to the cold. She’s now being rehabilitated at the Bronx Zoo. Her medical team has named her Godzilla, and we wish her well, we really do. But let’s face it: Godzilla is only going to put up with so much rehabilitation. She will never become a friendly beast, suitable to appear in our Christmas pageant. Alligators are fierce, dangerous creatures. You want to steer clear of them. But you don’t expect to meet them in Brooklyn. I ask you: who put an alligator in the green and pleasant enclosure called Prospect Park? It’s the same question you might ask about today’s reading from Genesis (2:15-17; 3:1-7). God created Adam and Eve to live in peace and plenteousness in the Garden of Eden. Who put the serpent in the garden? Jesus was able to say no to the devil, but Adam and Eve had no such ability. The serpent tempted them, and they ate.
Evil lurks not only in the desert, not only in the park, not only in the garden, but in the heart of humankind. On Friday the world observed the dubious one-year anniversary of the criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, we have a world leader who sits atop a stockpile of nuclear weapons, and thinks it is acceptable to murder civilians, kidnap children, and destroy the infrastructure of a neighboring country. The man is a baptized Christian. What happened to his humanity? Who put the serpent inside his soul? It appears that he will tolerate only so much rehabilitation. He has no intention of withdrawing his forces. Instead, his plan is to wear down the Ukrainians and wait out their supporters. He’s counting on the free world falling into despair and losing its will to say no. Unfortunately, the only “no” he seems to understand is military force. And so it goes.
One-hundred years ago later this week a new rector climbed into the pulpit of Grace Church (no, we are not talking about me). Walter Russell Bowie had been an army chaplain in France during World War One. He had gone over there fully believing that it was the war to end all wars. What he saw, however, was human carnage on a scale so horrible that he came home essentially a pacifist, vowing never again to speak a positive word about war. I don’t mean to disrespect his legacy. I am not speaking positive words about war. But I do wonder and worry about what the proper response to the Ukrainian crisis should be from people who claim to love God, and want to reflect the goodness of God.
I’ve been thinking this week about the parable of the Good Samaritan, even though it’s not one of our readings today. Suppose the priest, then the Levite, then the Samaritan traveled down the road between Jerusalem and Jericho an hour earlier than the story goes (Luke 10:25-37). Suppose what they came across was not a man who fell among thieves, lying in the road half dead. No, what they saw was the crime taking place before their eyes. What should they do? What would be their ethical responsibility? It’s hard to imagine the Good Samaritan passing by on the other side, just as it’s hard to imagine Jesus’ commending anyone’s looking away. “Go and do likewise” is not what he’d say about the self-absorbed. Sadly, an ongoing crime for all to see, with no end in sight, is the story of Ukraine for the past year. The temptation to despair is great.
And yet, again and again in the Gospels Jesus encouraged his frightened little band of disciples to take heart, to fear not. What does it look like to trust in Jesus? Today’s closing hymn is one of the classics of the Christian faith: “A mighty fortress is our God.” Both the lyrics and the tune were composed by the 16th century German monk, Martin Luther. As you sing the hymn it will be hard to miss the references to Luther’s own struggles against the devil:
And though this world with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure
A legend about Luther tells of a tumultuous period in his life when he’d been condemned as a heretic. He’d made many enemies who did not wish him well. Thus he spent ten months in hiding in Wartburg Castle. To fill the time he wrote books and translated the New Testament into German. All the while he was beset by manifold temptations that he attributed to demonic attacks. The story goes that one night the devil’s presence was so real for Luther that he picked up the inkwell on his desk and threw it at the apparition. It is said that the ink stain on the wall remained visible on the wall in the room of the castle for hundreds of years.
Is Lent merely about gritting your teeth and exercising the power of the human will to resist the wiles of the devil? Is life in Christ simply a matter of confiding in our own strength? If it were, the things we say today would hardly be counted as good news. Our words would be little more than good advice, just another plan for self-improvement. But in fact today we do speak of a means of grace and a hope of glory. Another familiar verse in Luther’s hymn speaks of how our hope in Christ, not in ourselves:
Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing;
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he.
What Luther came to understand and believe and trust is what the heart of the gospel had always been: that we have the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit to call upon for strength in times of trouble. The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who sides with us.
We all face temptations to despair. The Sirens sing their song in this and every day. But perhaps we can drown them out with Luther’s hymn, trusting that we confront a world filled with devils not alone, but in a living relationship with Jesus, who was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin. By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.