The First Sunday of Lent (March 10, 2019)
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Have you ever played that game where you get to pick your favorite superpower? Maybe you played it when you were a kid, or did the exercise as part of an icebreaker at a work thing. How it goes is pretty simple: if you were granted just one superpower, just one magical skill, what would it be and why?
You have as many options as your imagination will allow. If you can’t think of what you’d choose right off the top of your head, don’t worry–someone has compiled an exhaustive database of all the powers in the Marvel Comics series. There’s superhuman strength, of course, and all the movement-related ones: telekinesis, electrokinesis, hydrokinesis, chronokinesis (that’s time control). Shapeshifting, classic. This is a total rabbit’s hole, so I’m just going to stop there!
Supposedly the answer you give to the question of what superpower you’d choose reveals something about your personality. For instance, if you choose invisibility, what are you trying to hide? Apparently, some employers have used this question in an interview. There was actually a CNN article, “Ace the odd interview questions” about this several years back. The person who wrote the article, who worked for CareerBuilder.com advised:
Be clever when responding. Whether it’s the ability to fly, see into the future or leap over tall buildings in a single bound, you should always make a connection to your professional contributions. The superpower you choose need to relate back to an organization or how your skills would benefit others. For example, the ability to read someone’s mind can help you create better solutions for a client.
I would be like, “the ability to predict lottery numbers so I never have to work again.” Next!
While the answers we give to this question might reveal something about who we are as individuals, these fantasties definitely reveal something fundamental about being human: we live with limitations and we crave a chance, even in a dream world, to transcend them.
Even if it’s not through a superpower, how else do we seek to transcend these limitations? What promises are we offered to shortcut through our frailties? “Take this pill,” at least half of American pharmaceutical marketing lures, “and you will be smarter, sexier, happier, thinner, stronger, healthier. Skip the studying, paying attention your partner, the hard work of self-reflection, the deprivation of dieting, the pain of exercise, the complexities of nutrition, or any of that other cumbersome stuff. This will do it! Consider it a shortcut.”
What ways to we try to bypass the time and hard work that true growth entails? What books or programs promise to be the solution to our problems, whatever those problems are, in just a few steps or by following one particular method or another? There’s so much prescriptive-ness these days, “just do this and…” we can become the people we want to be.
The devil offers Jesus some version of superpowers and shortcuts in Luke’s version of the temptation in the wilderness story. And the offer comes at pretty much the most vulnerable point one can imagine. Think of a time you were famished, parched, aching, sunburned, exhausted, disoriented, maybe even paranoid and frightened… and then multiply that times 40. We’re used to how this story parallels Israel’s 40-years-long sojourn through the wilderness after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, and we’re familiar with the comparisons to the 40 days of Lent, since this story comes up every year, but in our familiarity we risk skating over the depth of Jesus’ anguish here and hence his vulnerability to the devil’s proposals. That word “wilderness” for me growing up meant getting lost in a the rolling hills of a forest of pine trees, but for Jesus this Palestinian scene is more akin to the deserts of the Southwest. The heat. The treacherous flora and fauna. The rough terrain. Forty. Days. And at that precise point of desperation, the devil strikes. “Here, Son of God, I know you’re the Messiah. But here, take my hand, I’ll show you how you’re going to be the Messiah.”
The devil’s offers aren’t that unreasonable, after all. They are packaged to appeal as much to Jesus’ own personal benefit as they are what his mission is as God’s anointed. Turning stones into bread… well, not only was Jesus starving in that moment, but feeding the hungry masses was what he was there to do. To possess all the kingdoms in the world make sense if your goal is to embody and enact the realm of God, to bring both the absence of conflict and the presence of justice to all people and places, and it especially makes sense given that Jesus’ homeland was under Rome’s imperial thumb. And to summon God’s angels to keep him from harm, that we can all relate to. Who wouldn’t want to keep themselves and their loved ones safe?
Superpowers and shortcuts. No, Jesus, for whatever reason, chooses the fully human route. He divests himself of “divine privilege,” if you can call it that. After the devil departs “until an opportune time,” Jesus goes on to be the Messiah God called him to be, with all the grit-and-grime humanness of his ministry. He is Messiah, trusting and being obedient to God all along the way, taking the risks, working with people, doing what he needed to do. Jesus continually refuses the sort of power the devil offers and chooses instead the power of vulnerable love.
Our world is and has long been drunk with power–the power of might over right, the power of expediency, the power that treats people as expendable, as means to an end. That’s what is on the table here. Did you notice how the devil seems to know Scripture as well as Jesus does? I’ve always wondered about that. Even Scripture–perhaps especially Scripture–can be warped for the sake of power, even autographed for the sake of power.
Life is unavoidably hard. There are a million little lies and little temptations that will try to persuade us otherwise, that will try to sway is us from the difficult-but-worth-it path of being who God has created and called and empowered us to be. Being people of good will and good conscience is not easy and never has been and never will. Following the pathway of Jesus as it winds through our families and jobs and neighborhoods and society is so hard. The temptation is always there to bypass the switchbacks and take a shorter path. The choices present themselves not usually as “good versus bad” but as “lesser of the two evils” or “means to an end.” It’s usually subtle.
God never promises us an easy path, but what God does promise is to not abandon us in the wilderness. You see, Jesus entered the desert filled with Holy Spirit and left the desert “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” as he continued on to the chaos of Galilee and the violence of Jerusalem. The Spirit never left him. Maybe that’s why Jesus fasted–to get down to the bottom of who he was and whose he was so that he would never forget and never succumb to the temptation to be a counterfeit version of himself.
The Spirit was his superpower. And, children of the Most High, it is ours too.