Fish like hotdogs. When I was younger, I learned to fish with my dad. And although serious fisherman would probably dispute me on this, we found live bait too nasty and expensive, so we would use hotdogs. I mean, if you throw a small piece of hotdog in a pond, the fish immediately go for it, so… So the fish would find a delicious morsel of cooked hotdog on our line, but deep inside of that hotdog waited a razor sharp hook. And of course, you know the rest. I don’t know how good Satan is at fishing, but he sure does a good job with his bait. He shows us things that look great to us, things that are very good things, but then uses them to hook us and drag us away from God.
Today we hear the story of the temptation of Christ in the desert. Now this was the wilderness of Judea, and it’s not a nice place to go to. And Jesus found himself having to deal with a few things: he was surrounded by harsh conditions of the dryness, the wind, and the sands. He was also dealing with complete loneliness, with nobody around him for miles and miles. He had the nagging discomfort of hunger, which is way worse than fasting on Ash Wednesday. So he had to deal with all of these things. But then he also has to face something much worse: the temptations of the devil. The devil’s temptations are pretty subtle, and this guy is very smart. He’s a fallen angel, and from our tradition, along the same lines as St. Michael the Archangel. But the thing that makes him deadly is that he knows his victims. He knew Jesus, and he tried to use good things to tempt Christ.
So the first temptation that Jesus is presented with is to command that the stones lying around him become bread. Satan wants Jesus to perform a miracle, something that he’s done quite often. Jesus had performed lots of miracles, all to heal and help people believe in God. The miracles have to do a lot with the identity of Jesus – who he is an why he’s powerful. And so, this temptation that he’s presented with here isn’t really about bread or about filling his hungry stomach. It’s about turning Christ away from the difficult road that the Father has chosen for him. It makes that mission easier. There’s no suffering, no scourging, no cross. What harm is a little bread if you’ve got the power? But Christ turns the devil away, because he knows that the mission he’s been given isn’t about himself, but about serving others and heroic sacrifice for them. And so he tells the devil that we can’t live on bread alone, but on dependence on God. We have to put God and his vocation for us first.
So the devil says, “Ah, so you’re going to play it like that, are you?” He sees that Jesus is using Scripture, so he throws a little in himself, telling Jesus to throw himself off the cliff because Psalm 91 tells us that God will send angels to rescue him. That seems like a good thing, right? Trusting that God will take care of us is something we hear all the time! But that’s not what this is about. No, actually, it’s an attempt to control God. He’s ultimately asking Jesus to say, “Father, if you’re really there, you’ll save me. But if I die on the rocks at the bottom of this cliff, I’m not going to believe that you’re good.” He’s trying to manipulate Jesus into manipulating the Father! But Jesus won’t allow the experience of suffering that he’s having in the desert to lead him to demand things from the Father.
So the devil turns to his last resort, getting less and less subtle along the way. He tells Jesus that he’ll give Christ power over all the kingdoms of the world, as long as Jesus falls prostrate and worships him. Jesus is going to be a king eventually, right? He’s going to be Lord of heaven and earth, particularly as we will remember after Easter. It’s a good thing, right? So basically the devil is tempting him to just take a little shortcut in getting there, one without the humiliation and torment that he’ll experience on Good Friday. But Christ knows something very important: Easter Sunday doesn’t come without Good Friday. He knows that bowing before Satan would not only be idolatry, but would derail him from the very thing that gives Redemption – the Cross! Well, the devil gets fed up and leaves, but you know he must have been thinking, “Well, if I can’t have you, I guess I’ll just have to go after your followers.”
You and I find ourselves surrounded by good things – food, wealth, cars, school, work, the Cardinals, the World Cup this summer… The devil is a smart guy – he knows the things we like, he knows the good things that we surround ourselves with, and he uses them to try to get us to bit into that hook of sin. Take gluttony for example. Food is a good thing, and something we need! But if we’re using it for a crutch, something to replace our intimate relationships, it turns into something sinful. The same is true about things such as pornography. It takes the beauty of our human body and sexuality, something very good and a gift from God, and corrupts it, making it to objectify others, draw us away from our spouse, and leading us away from God. But the temptation of Jesus is very good news for us. It’s more than a personal victory for Jesus, that now he can go and do what he needs to do. Rather, it’s a victory for all of us – Jesus overcomes his temptation by his human will and the grace of God. He could have just smacked the devil across the lip and walked away, but he chose to go through what we deal with and defeat it as a human being, without ceasing to be the Son of God at all. We experience the same things in our daily lives, and most of the time, we try to go through it alone. We have the idea that we’re all alone out there, and that we just have to grit our teeth and push on through. But Christ shows us today that he knows what we’re going through, and he wants to be there for us. He can empower us by his divine grace to overcome those temptations. That is what this season of Lent is all about. We’re going off to the desert for 40 days, and we know what awaits us out there – temptation, suffering, self-denial, and all that. But it’s not a season to torment ourselves, but to grow in our dependence on God. We don’t do our Lenten practices just to see how well we can do if we give up chocolate or whatever, but rather to grow closer to God. We give up things that are good, like TV or soda or candy, things that are good, but which the devil is using to draw us away from the Father. We try to pray more and keep ourselves focused on Christ. And we try to give of ourselves to express our love of the Father. So as we begin this journey through the desert, fully aware that the devil is right there alongside us trying to tempt us, let us remember that the Lord is also here, especially in the Holy Eucharist, to strengthen us, and to draw us closer to himself.