If Satan had worked smarter instead of harder, he might have won Jesus over (see Matthew 4:1-11). One day, one brief moment, and one modest, well-placed temptation might have done the trick. Instead, he may have overplayed his hand and in forty days of fruitless effort squandered what might have been his best opportunity.
Temptation works best, I think, when it’s more subtle. My big temptations are easy to spot and easy to resist; it’s the small ones that slip easily through my defenses. The devil challenged Jesus to turn a field of stones into loaves of bread; maybe he should have suggested turning a pebble into a bagel.
Leap from the temple roof, he dared Jesus; you won’t break your neck. Maybe he should have sneaked up as a feeling of haste, tempting Jesus to jump off the porch instead of taking the long way down the stairs; you won’t break your ankle. Maybe the offer of a little local influence would have been more alluring than power over nations. Instead of the world’s wealth, maybe a nicer car or bigger house or cushier retirement would have worked.
C.S. Lewis’s novel The Screwtape Letters is a collection of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, a younger and less experienced demon, who is charged with guiding a man (referred to as “The Patient”) toward “Our Father Below” (the devil, or Satan) and away from “the Enemy” (God).
After the second letter, the Patient converts to Christianity, and Screwtape chastises Wormwood for allowing this to happen. Screwtape notes however, that they have the advantage of distraction, which could potentially dull his new faith.
Throughout the book a contrast develops between Wormwood and Screwtape. Wormwood, younger and more brash, wants to tempt the Patient into dramatic and extravagant sins. Screwtape, older and wiser, seeks to tempt the Patient in smaller, more subtle ways. As he says, “the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
I’m tempted – I’ve chosen the word intentionally – to draw parallels between the temptations Jesus faced and those we face today. Remaking creation to serve our appetites, testing God, and gaining worldly power through idolatry are temptations we find all around us today, and none of us is exempt from their allure to some degree. But the temptations to which we are perhaps more vulnerable are better disguised. They are so familiar to us we hardly give them a second thought.
For example, our congregation will spend some time together on March 30 to begin identifying a major mission effort around which all of us can unite and that will identify us to the world. If it’s to be a mission that is authentic to our calling as the Church, it will focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ (that is, making new disciples instead of simply moving them from one congregation to another) and effecting significant personal, social, economic, and political transformation in the world around us. That’s our calling; that’s our mission; and our challenge is to embrace it and live it.
One of the significant gifts we have in our congregation is the gift of music. We are blessed with exceptional leadership and talent in our vocal and instrumental musicians, who have developed a music ministry that, as a whole, is second to none in Western New York and for which we are rightly grateful. Any plan for mission in the world that does not acknowledge and utilize this gift, in my opinion, would be incomplete.
Now, here’s the temptation that will determine if we are ready for God to use us in the great work God is doing in the world. And maybe it comes to us like those other temptations came to Jesus in the wilderness. Satan may carry us into an attractive, brightly lit sanctuary with cushions on the seats, one filled with the best church music to be found, and say, “I will give you all these talented musicians and the excellent music they produce, all for your spiritually uplifting pleasure, if you will sit back and enjoy it, show your appreciation for it, and market this gift as a way to bring others into your church so they can enjoy it, also, and so together you can pay the bills and keep this church home functioning for future generations.”
Can you imagine what a congregation would say when faced with such a temptation? I think it might say something like this: “Churches don’t live for themselves alone. They live for the same reason Jesus lived: to loosen the bonds of injustice, to assure a living wage for the working poor, and to let the oppressed go free; to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless; to welcome the stranger and minister to the sick, especially those who don’t have adequate health insurance; and to rebalance the nation’s economy so wealth is redistributed equitably according to each one’s need” (Isa. 58; Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 4:14-21).
The testing of Jesus strikes awfully close to home. The temptations he faced down are like ones we face today. But there is always another test, one particular to us, and that’s the one we especially need to look out for, because it is disguised so familiarly and can be so easily overlooked. “The greatest hazard of all,” Kierkegaard wrote, “losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly.”
A home, a job, a spouse – these are usually dramatic losses, sometimes sudden, and sometimes you can see them coming. If losing oneself, losing one’s soul, were equally dramatic, whether as an individual or a congregation, we could probably avoid it. But the loss of soul is usually a slow, imperceptible erosion of integrity. One day you come to your senses and realize your soul is gone, that the cost of gaining the whole world is your life. And what would you not then give in return for your life (Matt. 16:26)?
Every choice that confronts us, large or small, is another test of our integrity. In each choice, we must decide whom we will serve. And with each choice we climb a step closer to the perfection of life that God wills for us.