Author Topic: The Temptation of Christ (Part 1)  (Read 1142 times)

Richard Johnson

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The Temptation of Christ (Part 1)
« on: February 12, 2005, 01:27:58 PM »
The Temptation of Christ: Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent
(by Richard O. Johnson)

(An On-line Forum Letter article)

In West Africa there is a long, graceful and beautiful river called the Niger. In its 2600 miles, it meanders through seven different nations before emptying into the sea. It provides a picturesque scene of human life. People bathe themselves in the river, and wash their clothes; the river gives drinking water that people carry for miles; children laugh as they swim in its waters, seeking relief from the oppressive tropical heat.

Yet underneath the placid surface of this center of African life, there lurks a fatal danger. A small parasite, called schistosomiasis, thrives there, carried by snails, and infecting millions of people just going about their daily life and enjoying the apparent benefits of the river. It is a deadly parasite, second only to malaria among the world’s parasitic infections. But unlike malaria, the infection rate of schistosomiasis is increasing rapidly each year.

The gospels present the temptation of Jesus in an amazing sequence. It happens right after he is baptized. A spiritually powerful moment, the inauguration of a great ministry, the strong presence of the Holy Spirit—everything seems fine! Yet underneath it all—could we even say “underneath the waters of his baptism”?—there lurks this strange and deadly parasite called sin which raises its ugly head here, in the wilderness, in these dreadful temptations.

Sometimes it seems we have lost the sense of struggle in Christianity. We make of baptism a wonderful celebration of life and promise—and so it is. But danger lurks beneath the baptismal waters! It is struggle and conflict with sin, and its cohort, temptation; and it comes to us, just as it came to Jesus.

In our baptismal liturgy, we ask the person being baptized, or the sponsors, if the candidate is a child, a pointed question:  “Do you renounce the devil and all his ways?” They say “I do.” About three seconds worth of attention to the devil. How much more straightforward were the words in the old Book of Common Prayer: “Dost thou, therefore, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all the covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?” And the response would be, “I renounce them all; and by God’s help will endeavor not to follow, nor be led by them.” Now that’s giving the Devil his due! That’s taking seriously the struggle that we have, we who have been baptized, against all the powers of darkness! But we don’t say those things much anymore.

In the Catechism’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, Luther says that we ask God to watch over us “so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us.” The devil, the world, and our sinful self. I believe we could understand that “unholy trinity” as being just what is involved in this story of the temptation of Christ.

The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. What a picture of “our sinful self”! We think first of our own needs, our own desires. It is the temptation, Dostoevsky once suggested, to be pampered, to be taken care of. It is something to which we are particularly prone. Ever since the Garden of Eden, we human beings have thought first of ourselves—always “looking out for number one!” For us human beings, number one means me.  What I want is most important.  

Of course we never think of ourselves as self-centered or selfish. That is a large part of the danger of our sinful selves—we  are able to justify almost anything, to deny a good deal.  In Psalm 32, we hear the prayer of a man who has denied his own sin: “My bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long . . . my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.” The very reason we refuse to acknowledge our sin is that we are entrapped by our sinful self. It convinces us that we have done nothing wrong.

Continued on the next post

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« Last Edit: February 12, 2005, 02:12:08 PM by roj »
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS