As I started research for my Doctor of Ministry thesis, one of the members of the Thesis Committee suggested that I read a book called The American Jeremiad. The suggestion was that perhaps America isn’t changing in such a dramatic way as I was suggesting, but rather the words of William Reed Huntington, Brian McLaren, and others were merely a rehashing of the old fashioned jeremiad, the prophetic voice of John Winthrop aboard the Arbella that the American enterprise was God’s Kingdom come, and that any moral failing on the part of the Puritans that were making their way to New England, would bring about not just the failure of the nation, but the failure of God’s dream. I ultimately disagreed with this argument, but in reading Sacvan Bercovitch’s dense prose, I came to realize where much of the prudish, moralistic bent that makes up vast sections of American society comes from.
As Americans, moralistic thought has been in our DNA since before the Arbella landed at Salem, Massachusetts in 1630. As such, there remains a temptation to read stories like the Temptation of Jesus that we hear read on the First Sunday in Lent as a moralistic text. We hear how Jesus withstood temptation at the hand of the devil for 40 days and say, “Just as Jesus withstood temptation, you should too.” Here’s the thing, none of us is Jesus. Jesus is a special case, and while I believe it is important that we emulate his life’s witness of loving God and neighbor, I don’t think we can use him as the measuring stick for successful discipleship.
Instead of lifting Jesus up (no pun intended) as the exemplar of faith that we should all just try to follow, I wonder if we might look at what makes Jesus the example which we should all try to follow. This may be splitting hairs, but bear with me, as this seems to be the difference between asking our congregations to do the impossible, i.e. be like Jesus, and asking our congregations to be disciples, i.e. the very real struggle of everyday life. So how is it that Jesus is able to resist temptation?
First, he is filled up with the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the guide. Jesus is just off his his profound spiritual encounter in the waters of the Jordan River, with the Spirit hovering over him as a dove and a voice coming from heaven, when that same Spirit propels him into he wilderness. Even for Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh, it require the help of the Spirit to resist temptation. Second, he relies on his knowledge of the Law, or as we might call it, the Scriptures. Jesus knows his Bible, and as such, he knows God’s will for him and for all creation. Even when the deceiver tries to use the Bible against, him, Jesus is able to discern good interpretation from false. Having the strength to resist temptation means knowing what is in God’s will for us and what is not, and that requires coming to know as God has been manifested in the Scriptures. Finally, Jesus prayed. While Luke doesn’t mention this detail in his account of the Temptation, we know that throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is in the habit of prayer. As a devout Jew, he would have prayed at least thrice daily, and would have followed the customs of his tradition. Jesus was in tune with the will of God not only because he knew the Bible, but because they were in regular conversation with one another. We too should rely on prayer, and by that I mean being quiet and listening for God, in order to stay in tune with God’s will for our lives, which will ultimately keep us from being led into temptation.