Tempting Us Away from Grace
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
This week, I was talking to my spiritual director about Lent, and I was saying that I’m good at being disciplined. I’m good at self-denial. When I put my mind to a practice of austerity, nothing can stop me. When it comes to the traditional practice of giving up something for Lent, I am an all star. Now I’ve been meeting with my spiritual director for over eight years, so she already knows this about me. She knows that I’ll push myself to exhaustion to stay disciplined. She knows I can get so caught up in keeping up the schedule of my practice that I sometimes miss out on the purpose and spirit of that practice. She knows that I think I have to work myself to the bone to earn God’s love.
So she said to me, “Maybe the Lenten practice you need is to be undisciplined. Maybe the Lenten practice you need is to check in with yourself and ask, do you need to go running right now because you promised yourself you’d go running three times a week, or does your body need a nap right now?”
Because not all temptations are created equal. Not every wilderness looks the same. Take Jesus, for example. Today, we hear how after his baptism, after God names him as God’s beloved, the Spirit leads him into the wilderness.
The Spirit leads him into the wilderness.
Sometimes the Spirit leads us into the sparser, drier, more desolate spaces of our lives so that we may have the openness we need to hear God’s voice, to know God’s grace. It’s in those wilderness spaces that we pay attention to the temptations that come to take us away from ourselves, to convince us that we are not worthy, that we need to earn God’s love. Lent is meant to create 40 days of that wilderness space where we encounter temptation.
And that temptation is going to look different for each of us. It’s going to look different than what Jesus was tempted by.
Because Jesus is, well, kind of a superhuman. He hasn’t done it yet, but we’ll find out that he can turn water into wine, he can heal people of their chronic pain and illness, he can bring the dead back to life. The devil sees this in him, so that’s what he uses to tempt him.
And listen, we can talk about whether the devil is real or symbolic. I don’t think it matters. The devil functions in this world regardless.
So the devil uses Jesus’ strength, his power to tempt him. You’re hungry, so whip up some bread from these stones. I know you can. Then the devil shows him all the world and says, you could rule over all this And Jesus could. He could become a conqueror and take the whole world under his authority by force. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high place and says, throw yourself off so that the angels will catch you. And guess what, the angels would if Jesus commanded them.
But in the face of all that, Jesus looks the devil in the eye and says, “That’s not what my strength, what my power, is for. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to embody grace.”
As you know by now, a lot of us are praying and reflecting this Lent using a devotional based on the letters and art of Vincent van Gogh. We learn in the introduction that van Gogh tried to be a Christian missionary before he started painting. He was a Dutchman and went to neighboring Belgium to spread the good news of Christ there. Turns out, though, he wasn’t particularly good at it. The Board of Evangelization told him his preaching is not up to par, and he was basically fired from that job.
This must have been hard on him. After all, he was a pastor’s kid and had, we are told, “fervently pursued theological study” all through his 20s. He thought that was his life’s goal. He thought that’s what he should be doing.
I think shoulds are some of our biggest temptations. The shoulds we inherit from our parents or from the world around us. That dollars are the measure of success, that domination is the measure of power, that pain endured is the measure of strength, that thinness is the measure of health, that souls saved is the measure of faith. I could go on.
Shoulds make us think we have to do something to earn love, particularly God’s love. But that goes against the very idea of grace that is at the center of our faith. There is nothing we can do to separate ourselves from God’s love. There’s only what we do to blind ourselves to it.
Van Gogh thought he had to become a missionary. But that should kept him from what we all now know was God’s call for his life: to bring indescribable, overwhelming beauty into our world through his paintings. I see God’s grace lighting up his work.
On Ash Wednesday, you heard me say:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.
Much is made of the self-denial piece of this invitation. People give up chocolate or alcohol or social media. And these are fine practices. But Lent isn’t about self-denial for the sake of suffering. Lent is about paying attention to what may tempt us away from God’s love and God’s call for our lives, and then practicing overcoming those temptations.
For Jesus, the temptation was to misuse his amazing power. For van Gogh, the temptation was to lean into what he thought he should do rather than what he was called to do. For me, the temptation is to be so disciplined, so hard-working, that I ground myself into exhaustion.
A person with disordered eating doesn’t need a fasting practice. A person who always puts others before themselves, so much that they can’t identify their own needs and worth, might need to spend these 40 days putting themselves first, saying no to others. And me, well, my practice is to let go of rigidity, discipline for the sake of never-ending productivity and constant self-improvement. My spiritual director gave me the words of Mary Oliver for my Lenten practice: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
I don’t know what your practice will be. That’s where the self-examination part comes in. What do you think you have to be or do in order to deserve love? That might be exactly what you need to let go of. Because Lent is about heading into the wilderness so that you may remember that grace means God’s love is always available to you. There’s nothing you can do to earn it or lose it. Amen.