After his baptism, 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. Luke 4:1-13
In the past twelve years, I have logged five near death experiences – a DVT blood clot, a brain hemorrhage, two serious automobile accidents and an assault of pulmonary fibrosis.
Prior to these life threatening events, whenever I thought about dying and considered what form my death might take, I had always thought that I would like to know in advance that I had, let’s say, three months or six months or a year to live, rather than being run over by a bus or being shot because I had the bad luck of getting in the way of a bullet that was intended for someone else.
If I learned anything from those near death experiences, it would be that more likely than not, I will not get my way, and that my death will more likely come as a thief in the night.
I am sure most of us have, at one time or another considered or mused about how we might spend our last days, if we knew that they were numbered to run out in the immediate future. If you have never wondered about this, then you might want to engage the exercise, just to see what you might learn about yourself. It can certainly help to clarify any discrepancy or gap between what you are about in the present moment and what you know or believe would really give you joy.
It seems to me that if we were able anticipate the actual approach of our own death, that is, once we got over the shock of the death notice, it would not be unusual to make sure that we make the most of whatever time we may have left. And making the most of that time would usually involve our examining of what have been our priorities and possibly reordering them so as not to spend our last days being about things that are not really very important to us or maybe even important all.
I am sure no one would decide they should work more, because, let’s face it, no one, on their deathbed, was ever heard to say, “I should have worked more.” Again, in the many deaths to which I have been present, I have never heard a dying person lament that they should have shopped more. If you were to die tonight and, after the fact, were able to look back on only the past week, would you be saying, “Had I only known, I would have, I could have, I should have.”
This past Wednesday, Christians came forward to have ashes imposed on our foreheads. We heard the words. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” In other words, “Remember that you are going to die.”
Lent begins with this reminder, that we might take advantage of and seriously engage, this annual invitation to be renewed in Christ and to put our house back in order. And there can be no better motivation to be about the business of renewal than staring our own death in the face.
As we do that, or, better, if we dare to do that, we put ourselves in the wonderful arena of God’s transforming love. We put ourselves in the desert. But it should come as no surprise that many will not engage that dare. Though the spirit would lead us there, we often avoid the desert at all costs.
Rather than face death, many of us, instead, will conform our lives to the denial of death that permeates our culture. If we are young, we generally prefer to live with illusions of our own invincibility and if we are aging, we spend far too much time and far too much money seeking the mythical and ever illusive fountain of youth. Ultimately all our efforts come to naught and fail as the lines deepen, the bones ache and the energy dissipates. Time is always running out and each day we come closer to death.
In today’s gospel Luke tells us that after his baptism Jesus was driven out into the desert wilderness by the Spirit. The story is fleshed out in terms of the three temptations. Jesus is alone in the desert. He is facing himself. He is facing the gravity of his vocation. Facing the struggle and the not so hidden terror, of actually being God’s beloved Son. Yes terror, because facing the prospect that being about the will of his Father will greatly shorten his days.
Facing the reality that to be God’s messiah on God’s terms, will mean confusing the disciples, disappointing the people, invoking the wrath of the religious leaders and threatening the civil order. In the desert, even before he begins his ministry, Jesus is facing the inevitability of his pre-mature and untimely death.
As he looks into the face of death, the gospel tells as that Jesus was tempted where He was most vulnerable. He was being seduced by the tempter to ignore what sustains life beyond those things that sustain physical being. “Command that these stones become bread.” To which Jesus responds, “It is not by bread alone that man lives.”
Being alive, being truly and deeply alive is about more than about not being hungry, not being thirsty, not being sheltered, not being able to pay the mortgage, or not being ill. We may work to sustain our physical selves but it is thru prayer, worship and the reception of the sacraments that we come to be fed by what sustains life at its deepest level. Too often we treat encounter with the sacred, as if we really have no need for it, or with a casualness that would seem to say that we can get along just fine without prayer, worship and a weekly reception of the sacraments.
Jesus was then seduced by the tempter to forget or dismiss what our lives are essentially about. “The tempter showed him, in an instant, all the kingdoms of the world, in all their glory and power. Worship me, he tempted, and I will give you all this”. I will satisfy the cravings of your ego for recognition, appreciation and unending applause. And Jesus said, “Only to God is the glory to be given. God alone is to be served.”
The Narcissus that lives in each of us – you know Narcissus, the mythological creature who fell in love with his own reflection in the mirror, wants nothing more than to be the center. How often are we tempted to make our lives about us, rather than about God, about our needs rather than about His service to charity and to justice, about our affirmation rather than about His glory?
Finally, Jesus is seduced by the tempter to caste God in the role of a magician: As one who intervenes in the natural order of things; as one who makes light of our humanity and its boundaries; and as one who gains our attention thru cheap miraculous spectacles. It always astounds me that so much of our prayer life is, in fact, testing God to intervene like a magician, rather than embracing Him as our companion in life as it presents itself. The tempter said, “Go ahead throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and God will pluck you from death before you hit the ground”. And Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” How often do we put God to the test of delivering according to our wills.
God is Good. God is gracious. God is forgiving. God is loving. He engages us in a covenant of unfailing faithfulness, prefigured in the covenant with Noah, and the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Moses and realized in perfection in the Covenant of the Cross.
Lent is that grounded moment to ask again – What do we do what all that we have been given? What is our response to God’s gracious goodness and loving faithfulness? Do we return to Him the first fruits of the harvest or do we give him the scraps. What are our priorities as time runs out and death makes it way to our door? Before we die with will allow ourselves the abiding joy of living fully as God’s beloved son or daughter.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 10, 2019