Lent 1 A
Genesis 2:15-17; 3: 1-7
Romans 5: 12-19
Temptation… Eve and Adam were susceptible to it. The devil did all he could to make Jesus succumb to it….and, we are, likewise, susceptible to it. ”Temptation is the only thing I cannot resist,” Oscar Wilde quipped.
Temptation is a human condition. But the tempter often is hard to spot. Who or what is the tempter? Attempts have been made, over the years, to characterize the interplay between vulnerable humanity and the devil. C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters, a satire illustrating this, in 1942. Written in installments, the book is a series of letters between a young tempter-in-training, Wormwood, and his mentor Uncle Screwtape, both servants to the ultimate ENEMY. Wormwood’s assignment? Securing the damnation of a British man only called “The Patient,” - to darken his heart and to make him love things worldly and reject God. Once the mission is accomplished, Wormwood’s much awaited reward will be in escorting this “Patient” into what we can only imagine is hell. To succeed, Wormwood must keep the patient self-involved…navel-gazing, so he remains clueless about who Wormwood is.
Wormwood’s further instruction is to encourage his prey to pray for tangible, desired ends; to pray to the objects rather than to God. He will encourage the patient to be oversensitive until everything, even his mother and dearest ones, grate on his nerves. By keeping his prayers formless, he becomes easy to manipulate. Wormwood is to teach him that his gaze should be solely upon himself, and never toward God. If the patient prays for courage, Wormwood must encourage him into being boastful. In the end, the patient dies and goes to heaven and leaves Wormwood a failure and Screwtape in a downward spiral of anger.
The tempter and tempter-in-training are not trying to create an army of ruthless killers. No, they are just trying to create a generation of people defined by selfishness and insincerity, pride, pettiness, fear and an intense need to control the things of this world, and to ignore God.
How close these are to our own temptations. When we think of this morning’s gospel lesson, it may be hard for us to imagine the devil offering bread after a forty-day fast. Most of us would have perished or gone crazy after a forty-day fast. Nor do we understand the authentic and gut-grabbing fear of being dangled over the ledge at the top of One World Trade Center. And we certainly do not know the experience of being offered all the power in the world. BUT…we do understand the temptations offered by Screwtape and Wormwood: pride, vanity, selfishness, and apathy. They are just as dark as the temptations of Jesus, because, our temptations do not come with a face. They are hard to identify as temptations, for we humans slip into them without even thinking about them.
Temptations come to us when we are vulnerable…when we feel insecure about not having or being enough. Temptations come in judgements that we make about strangers or friends who make choices that we do not understand. Temptations can take charge of us when we look away from those in need. . . living our own lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, oppression, violence, and disease. Temptations will rage in us at times when we release our tempers and let them define our lives, or when our addiction to power, wealth, vanity or control defines who we are. Temptations will win when we engage in little “lightweight” words and actions that we believe nobody hears…racist jokes, sexist comments, religious slurs, unkind words about others, gossip, or when we take part in questionable business practices only for the bottom line. Temptation wins out when we become so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose track of life and of the Creator of all that is. Like Wormwood and Screwtape, evil lurks in the recesses of our minds, our lives, our souls…and we often do not see it.
During Lent our practice of penitence insists that we seek out, know, and come face to face with those dark places. It insists that we seek forgiveness for them….”and whenever you fall into sin, that you will repent and return to the Lord.” Lent is not about guilt, but about seeking freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us. Lent is about amending life and creating life anew and abundant, so that in Easter and beyond, we are new beings in the Risen Lord. May it be so.
The Rev Rilla Barrett