Part 1 of the series “Lent and Easter with U2”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 13, 2011
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 • The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Matthew 4:1-11 • Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
Desire by U2
Lover, I’m on the street
Gonna go where the bright lights
And the big city meet
With a red guitar…on fire
She’s a candle burning in my room
Yeah I’m like the needle, needle and spoon
Over the candle with a shotgun
Pretty soon everybody got one
And the fever when I’m beside her
And the fever, getting higher
She’s the dollars
She’s my protection
Yeah she’s a promise
In the year of election
Oh sister, I can’t let you go
Like a preacher stealing hearts
At a traveling show
For love or money money money
money money money money money
money money money
And the fever, getting higher
Desire, desire, desire, desire
You know what I desire right now, most of all? A nice stack of stone-ground wheat crackers to go with some good sharp cheddar. And if not those, I could go for a fistful of Triscuits or Wheat Thins. Or to be perfectly honest, even just a nice slice of multi-grain bread.
See, I am a huge fan of foods like that. So much so that I have decided to give up carbs for Lent. It is already proving to be much harder than I would have thought. Yesterday, I ordered a salad at the coffee shop I write my sermons at and when the preparer was done making the salad, he asked, “What kind of bread would you like with that?” I just answered, “Oh, that’s okay. No bread for me today,” even as I gazed longingly at the bowl full of little sample bread pieces next to me on the counter.
It’s going to be a long Lent.
II. THE TEXT
And it’s only been five days. I can’t even begin to imagine forty days. And forty days not just without carbolicious bread, cereals, and crackers, but without every bit of food. That forty day fast of Jesus’ in the wilderness boggles my mind.
Jesus, who has just been baptized by John the Baptist, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil”. There he fasts for forty days and forty nights and forty nights and we are told that when this period was over, he was “famished”. I have to say, that there is one thing that astonishes me the most. How on earth does someone fast for so long and then when tempted with some bread turn it down? The mind reels.
That part is certainly hard for me to relate to. I cave on my desires with a somewhat decent rationalization: well, I shouldn’t eat this cheesecake by myself, but it would be a shame to waste that food. I mean, who knows how long it will sit in this refrigerator before someone else comes along? It could go bad. Usually by the time I get to that last part, I’m on my third forkful of cheesecake.
I can’t imagine not caving on my desires when I have every good reason to do so; for example: not having eaten for the last 40 days and 40 nights.
And of course, this problem is not limited to food. I can rationalize all kinds of desires, as I suspect a number of us here might be able to. I know that I see that shiny new piece of technology and I think, “I could probably use that for work, and so it’s an important and necessary purchase.” Or I’ll see a boxed set of remastered Star Trek episodes and think, “That looks like a good investment, who knows when they’ll be on TV again and the special features are probably really informative.”
Who am I kidding? I don’t snack because I am trying to exercise responsible food stewardship; I don’t purchased man-toys because they’re essential work tools; and I don’t buy Star Trek DVDs because they’re a useful part of my video library and continuing education. I get these things because I want them. They are objects of my desire and unlike Jesus who can turn down bread after days of fasting, I, in my relative material and dietary comfort, want more.
And as my Lenten fast is demonstrating already, giving up something can remove it from our habits, but it doesn’t remove it from our desire.
Because there’s a curious thing that happens when we deny ourselves something: we tend to want it more. Our desire takes a hold of us in often powerful ways and often becomes like a long-time companion with us. Like someone we know all too well:
She’s the dollars, she’s my protection
Yeah, she’s a promise in the year of election
Oh, sister, I can’t let you go
Like a preacher stealing hearts at a traveling show
For love or money…
In U2’s song “Desire”, desire is personified: desire is the singer’s lover, companion, drug. Desire is the motivator to “go where the bright lights and the big city meet”, to set out for fame and success. Often for money. (In fact, in that song, the word “desire” appears ten times; the word “money” appears eleven.)
The lyrics even speak of how much desire causes a fever in the singer, And yet, he’s stuck. “I can’t let you go” Bono sings, even as the fever itself is “burning”.
When we compare experiences, which one sounds more like the one we’re used to: Jesus’ experience of turning down highly desirable and necessary bread in order not to succumb to temptation? Or U2’s presentation of desire as someone we know isn’t good for us but just can’t seem to let go of? Is that not the human condition? From Adam and Eve on down?
Faced with that, what chance do we really have in resisting temptation?
There’s something important to note right off the bat: in order for temptation to work, it has to be something that the tempted person actually desires. It’s not truly temptation if the thing you’re tempting someone with is not something they would ever want. For example, you can try all you want, but you’ll never tempt me with the promise that if I do what you ask, I can have all the mushrooms I want. That’s not tempting me in the slightest.
So it stands to reason, that for the temptation in the wilderness to actually have been a temptation, Jesus must have found the things he was tempted with desirable. It wouldn’t make sense otherwise. The text describes Jesus as famished after his period of fasting. Of course he wanted bread. Jesus was a human being as much as we are. And like all human beings, indeed like all living things, if we don’t get food, we die. Our genes know this, that’s why it takes such power of the will to override the desire to eat. The idea that he could simply tap into God’s favor and change stones to loaves must have been incredibly tempting.
How much must Jesus also have wanted to see God’s direct intervention in the world? I think that’s what is symbolized by the temptation to throw himself down off the pinnacle of the temple and be rescued by God’s angels. See, it seems like a silly thing to tempt Jesus with—what is he, a bungee jumper? A base jumper, parachuting off of one of the buildings downtown? This passage, like so many passages in the Bible, can only be understood in light of the end of the story. When Jesus is on the cross, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” don’t you think he would have loved to have seen God’s angels come down and rescue him in some triumphant act of divine intervention? Surely Jesus desired that kind of triumphant entrance–the way Martin Sheen comes in at the end of the pilot episode of The West Wing, saying “I am the Lord thy God…” We all want that.
How much also must Jesus have wanted the world to have been changed? All the kingdoms, all the nations of the world, to come under his direction? The world in the first century was a very broken place (not like it is now)–with systematic oppression, imperialism, idolatry, poverty, violence, war. You know, all the things we’ve gotten rid of. Imagine someone offering you the keys to the whole thing. You’re in charge. They all answer to you. You have the benefit of their power, their wealth. Here’s your change to make the world over in your image. The way you would have it to be. Anyone here going to turn that offer down? We all want to remake the world. I have a very good friend who likes to say, “The world would be so much better off if everyone would just listen to me and do what I say.” It’s why you are all here at American University, because this is a place of hopeful world-changers. That’s what you came to college to do, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you like the power to fix the nations? I sure would. I’d start with Burma.
Surely, Jesus, who came to proclaim the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God would have been tempted by the chance to actually implement some of that kingdom right now.
These three temptations in the wilderness were all temptation because Jesus must have actually desired the things being offered. So, if that’s the case, what does it say about our own desires?
What it is not saying is that we are to purge ourselves of all desire. It’s simply not possible, and I am not convinced it’s a good thing. Desire is what gets us out of bed in the morning. Desire keeps our bodies alive. It often gives our lives some direction and purpose. Having goals and the desire to fulfill them is an important part of being an adult.
Note what Jesus does: he does not say, “I have no desire of those things”. He declares that his faithfulness to God comes first. “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” It’s not that Jesus doesn’t have desires. It’s that he prioritizes them. It’s that his first desire is to be faithful to God.
And when Jesus prioritizes that way, when he places faithfulness to God first, he is able to contextualize his desire in ways that are healthy. Jesus does not refrain from eating ever again, he simply grounds himself in the knowledge that he is dependent on so much more than on bread for his well-being. As are we all.
Jesus does not rid himself of the desire to see God’s direct intervention in the world. He reminds himself that God keeps her own schedule and that our patient faithfulness is our responsibility.
Jesus does not rid himself of the desire to see the world itself changed. But he grounds himself in the affirmation that the world is God’s and that one cannot serve the world by serving anything other than God.
We are all creatures of desire. It cannot be helped. Too many millions of years of programming have made us creatures that want things: food, sex, shelter, and anything that will help to get us food, sex, and shelter, like status, money, and power. It would be bizarre, if not downright impossible, for us to banish all desire–it’s hard-wired into us.
And so, we are not called to live lives of guilt and shame over the things we desire. We are not meant to look at ourselves as miserable wretches who are consumed with desire. We can acknowledge the desires we have and understand them in a context that’s healthy, a context that might actually see them used to some good purpose.
I know that’s easier said than done. Good little Christians, after all, just seem to have this enduring sense that they’re not supposed to want things, at least things that they might actually enjoy. And to be fair, we have so very often seen the consequences of greed and unabashed desire: whether it’s in corporate corruption, grabs for political power, a lust for land that deprived the American Indians of their homes, or someone’s lust for another person that causes them to break marital fidelity, or countless other instances of raw desire unleashed, we have this inherent sense that the road of desire is a path that leads to nowhere. We know that that bite at the apple may cost us in the end.
We start our Lenten journey in a wilderness, and that is appropriate. The wilderness represent the brokenness of things, the empty places in us before we reach the promised land.
We can feel as if we are in a wilderness, a wasteland created by those desires we have but we somehow feel we should fear. And perhaps we are. Perhaps we’ve been in this wilderness since Adam and Eve. But we are not in this wilderness alone. We are in it with one who knew our desires. One who understands our longings. One who allows us to affirm that we desire, but who through focusing on God as a priority shows us the way not to be ruled by those desires.
And one who walks beside us in this wilderness, not as a detached critic in judgment, but as a fellow traveler with love, mercy, and grace. One who walked through the lonesome valley, who knew temptation, who knew our sufferings, and even our death. But one who has also passed through this wilderness and will see us through as well.