Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Matthew 4:1-11

Click Here for a great article on bread by Henri Nouwen

Theologian Henri Nouwen summarized the temptation of Christ in three distinct categories:  relevance, popularity and power.  The human need for bread was relevant and pragmatic.  Jesus had been fasting.  The allure of throwing oneself off the temple is tempting because Jesus’ personhood (Son of God) would no longer be questioned.  This feat would allow him to move about his purposes unhindered.  The third temptation would give Jesus power, a world fashioned to Jesus’ liking.

The frightening similarity of each temptation is that Jesus could use each of the devil’s deals to complete his mission:  Bread, for the physical journey, popularity to get everyone on the same page and power to shape things as he would like.  So aside from the devil’s authorship, what is so bad about these temptations?

Henri Nouwen would say that these temptation appeal to the illusion of “having it all”.   My good friend, Dr. Joe Perez lends these words to our conversation:  Even when we achieve these personal desires (relevance, popularity and power), it is always fleeting, never permanent, and not totally whole. Thus, it can create an addiction to chase these experiences.  As with all addictions, one is left unfulfilled and wanting more.   These desires will always be with us.  It is the nature of being human.  However, the Christian spiritual life is one that speaks kindly to these voices that demand we give in and offers a gentle management of constant temptations for those who seek a new perspective.

Henri Nouwen recommends maintaining a spiritual tool box filled with alternative ways of thinking about our lives and experiencing our emotions.  He offers to us a life of contemplative prayer, confession, forgiveness, and theological reflection.   A closer analysis of Jesus’ responses reveals that his tool box must have included these spiritual devices.  They are delivered cloaked in the authority of scripture.

Currently, we are in the Christian season of Lent and these practices are common observances of this holiday.  Jesus leads the way through Lent by pointing out dangers along our spiritual walk.  He also guides us toward more holistic living by prescribing an alternative way.

For those who live the preaching life……

I recommend to those who live the preaching life to approach Lent by living and preaching in the gray.  Often we approach scriptures with a black and white mentality.  We warn of the black, we point to the white.  While some of those sermons are helpful, most of them only teach behavior modification.  I would encourage an alternative, gray route.  Allow Lent to be a time of teaching the congregation to form questions about themselves and about God.  (And not for the purpose of the Almighty Pastor to deliver and eloquent answer!)  Rather develop your sermon as a safe place to invite uncomfortable questions to hang.

Taking Matthew 4, for example, the temptations are always with us.  We are human.  Instead of warning about the downfalls, invite the congregation to ask “why?”.  Why is this desire with me?  Why does it materialize in this fashion?  Why did God give me this desire?  The sermon becomes a time to explore these questions that dare not be uttered (for fear they may be wrong/black).  The pulpit brings a question and then encourages the congregation to think about it alongside the pastor.  No definite answers are offered.  Instead, the congregation leaves with things to contemplate throughout the week.  My experience is that many pastoral issues that require a sounding board seek the pastor out!  What an honor!

Let’s take a more detailed example.  Take a look at the first temptation of Jesus (You may  like to click on the picture to find the article by Nouwen that I’m going to use).  My sermon would humanize the desire to be practical and relevant.  Just setting this norm tones down the anxiety in the room.  I can see their thoughts “Whoa.  This is good.  She is not talking about just me.”  Humanizing sin and emotions is a great way to build trust between the pulpit and the pew.

What I mean by humanize is that every human in the Sunday assembly owns this struggle.  We are all together (even the human Jesus).

The next movement would incorporation Deuteronomy 8:3, allowing scripture to interpret scripture.  This would bring us to Nouwen’s point:  Bread is given to us by God so that we will entrust ourselves completely to  God’s word.  So now the question:  If God gave bread so we will entrust ourselves to God’s word, is there a purpose for this need to constantly be practical and relevant?  The rest of the sermon explores this question.  I would make the point that relevance is a by product, not a goal.  The goal is staying in love with God.  This is the thought process of Henri Nouwen.  And his thoughts allow the congregation to embrace the voice of the temptation, recognizing the good in it.  This voice that demands relevance, efficiency and practicality is not black or white, it is gray and gray is where we live.

Just as Jesus “did not deny the importance of bread but rather relativized it in  comparison with the nurturing power of the Word of God (Nouwen)” we do the same with this internal voice by humanizing it and being comfortable with the gray.

Another excellent sermon strategy was inspired by this Nouwen quote:  The radical challenge is to let God and the divine Word shape and reshape us as  human beings, to feast each day on this Word and thus grow into free and  fearless people. Thus we can continue to witness to God’s presence in this  world, even when there are few or no visible results. A good litmus test of this attitude would be to invite the congregation to reflect on a time when they felt useless (at the bedside of a dying person, perhaps.)  How comfortable were they when feeling useless?  Explore those feeling with the congregation and juxtapose them the words of Jesus and Nouwen’s thoughts.  Once again, we humanize feelings and experiences and invite the Divine scriptures to weigh in.

Just a few thoughts for the preaching life….