Today’s Gospel shows Jesus being tempted. Temptations don’t always come before us as clear-cut choices, between obvious good or evil, rather they are attitudes that we can slip into – normalising attitudes which form our behaviour – quite often choices between two good things, one a bit low level and one ‘higher level’ good thing. Those attitudes are there, just under the surface of what we’re about, all the time – so I rather like this little prayer:
Dear God, so far today, I’ve done all right. I have not gossiped, and I have not lost my temper. I haven’t been grumpy, nasty or selfish, and I’m really glad of that! But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed, and from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot of help. Thank you!
In terms of what you might call ‘bad attitudes’, Thomas Merton reckoned that the biggest human temptation is “to settle for too little.”
What might that mean?
Well –try this: One day, three men were hiking and unexpectedly came upon a large raging, violent river. They needed to get to the other side, but had no idea of how they would do it.
The first man prayed to God, saying, “Please God, give me the strength to cross this river.” Vvm! God gave him big arms and strong legs, and he was able to swim across the river in about two hours, – but only after almost drowning a couple of times.
Seeing this, the second man prayed to God, saying, “Please God, give me the strength … and the tools to cross this river.” Vvm! God gave him a rowboat and he was able to row across the river in about an hour, – but only after almost capsizing the boat a couple of times.
The third man had seen how this worked out for the other two, so he also prayed to God saying, “Please God, give me the strength and the tools…and the intelligence… to cross this river.” And vvm! God turned him into a woman. She looked at the map, hiked upstream a couple of hundred yards, then walked across the bridge.
Certainly, the first two men had settled for too little. But ….perhaps that’s not quite what we mean …?
Let’s try again: when Thomas Merton said that the biggest human temptation is to settle for too little, I reckon many Christians find themselves tempted – in terms of the attitudes they carry around with them as a habit – in, let’s say, three ways of settling for too little:
- Jesus was tempted to satisfy his hunger with turning stones to bread; but my gut feeling is that we just generally expect too little from God; by which I mean that we are tempted not to believe in grace. We act and speak as though ‘Godcan’t do it’, and if anything is going to be achieved it has to be all our own efforts, or not at all. Far from showing that we believe in a generous God of undeserved forgiveness and new beginnings, who has wired us up to be similarly generous we are tempted to settle for ‘getting-by’ with what we can manage. Oh dear!
- Jesus was tempted to grasp at public power; but, by contrast, we are tempted to turn everything inwards and to privatise our Christianity. Of course, ours is a personal relationship, one-on-one, with a personal God, to be sure, – but only to the extent that each member of a family has personal relationships with each other – relationships which only make sense within the wider context of the whole family and of the wider society of which we are all part. In this way, also, we are tempted to settle for a God who is too small, who has no notion of transforming the unjust structures of society and doing something about global inequalities and violent power games – a privatised Christianity merely blesses the status quo, and it’s so incredibly reduced down that it is not recognisably drawn from the same Bible as we read from week by week – it is all too small, self-justifying and inward-looking.
- Jesus was tempted to throw himself down from the church tower, to clearly demonstrate that he was God and could be totally relied upon; whereas, by contrast, we find ourselves tempted towards a God who, if you analyse our puny expectations, really isn’t up to very much, and, therefore, could hardly be a source of hope, let alone someone in whom you put your faith! We are tempted to be risk-averse and pessimistic, with our glass way too often at best half-empty.
As we begin Lent, it is right for us to remember that the truth is the exact opposite of these temptations, which are barely-disguised self-fulfilling prophecies of doom! The Deceiver inverts the truth, and tells us it doesn’t really matter – and we can’t make much difference anyway … whereas the truth is that it does matter and we can certainly work with others to make a difference. “Let’s have a quiet life!” is not an option consistent with what the Bible shows us of God in the prophets and in Jesus. And – because I know you want it! – there is even better news in the Bible about God’s truth.
- The truth, as shown in the Gospels again and again, and affirmed by the Church, is that where we are weak, there He is strongest, and because His unearned forgiveness and healing, and fullness of life, is, and always will be, more than sufficient for our needs.
- The truth is that the heart of God is ‘relational’ not privatised, and deep within God is an unsatisfied yearning for social and political justice, peace and gentleness with each other.
- The truth is that the Gospels show Jesus as healing one person after another, according to their need, and each of the Gospels affirms his self-sacrificing death, for us, with the living hope of His resurrection. Without that – why bother?! But, with that, our glass must always be at least half-full, and flowing over, and Christians have a mission to actively share hope with others. That, and that alone, is why we can be generous – not just because God is generous with us, but because his generosity of self-giving overflows into a lively hope both for this world, which matters to God immensely, and for the life to come, where a mutuality of hospitality and generosity will characterise the heavenly places of the new Jerusalem.
Speaking of the new Jerusalem, let me leave you with an old joke that you’ve probably heard before – but with a sting in the tail: Three men arrive at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?” The first man says, “Methodist.” St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.” He asks the second man: “Religion?” “Lutheran.” “Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.” Finally, the third man, who has been listening, arrives at the gates. “Religion?” “Presbyterian.” “Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”
The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?”
St. Peter tells him, “Well the Baptists are in room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Yes – with old jokes it’s like the satisfaction of welcoming an old friend! Just thinking about that well-worn joke, I remembered the passage from the Book of Revelation where the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven and John tells us: “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and each gate was made of a single pearl…. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west, and they each had a different name on them.” (vss. 12-13). Well, well! And I smiled, because the joke would very much be on all of us, if we dutifully entered heaven through our respective gates and discovered that we were (in fact) all in the same place. I hope we would only stare at each other for a moment before we all burst out laughing and said, “Good one, God!”
So, let’s start Lent by thanking God for humour – all inclusive and totally pervasive, as we share the laughter of the resurrection, in this life and then laughing with joi de vivre into all the ages of eternity. +