Red Letter Experiment: #3 Wilderness Temptation

sock_monkey_diva_large_mugOrdinary Schmordinary! Living LIfe in the “Lemon Light” 

A Diva is Born

When I was 16, the music director at my church asked me to fill in for a sick soloist. At 16 I was not the confidant chica I am today (scoff scoff), so the idea of singing with a microphone in front of the whole church terrified me! BUT something happened when the soundtrack started playing; the music took over and I owned that song. I sang it from then on–a case of under-understudy snagging the big part.

For four more years, I rocked the roost. I got to sing at big events for thousands and tiny events in tiny churches across my state. I started to strut a bit. Flipped my strawberry-blonde hair in its Farah Fawcett shag with confidence. Collected males across the state, breaking their hearts with abandon. Ok. I exaggerate. A few males. Ok. Three and one was a stalker. So that makes a legitimate two. But I did get cocky. A local recording studio offered me commercials (didn’t happen) and I won a state pageant. There I was–glittering, singing, standing ovations–all for Jesus. Jesus was so proud. Maybe not so much.

From the Limelight to the Lemonlight

University of Oklahoma. Switched from nursing (a mistake) to music education with an eye for becoming the next Contemporary Christian Singing Sensation. And down she went.

 The Reality

Opera? Singing in German which meant lots of spitting? Italian? How was I supposed to “feel” the music, if I didn’t understand what I was singing? What about rhythm and blues? Scatting? (Though very white, I thought of myself as a black Olivia Newton-John!) I remember auditioning for the OU choirs (we were all required to as music majors). A passel of other undergraduates were singing scales, carrying sheet music for Italian arias and I had my hymn book marked at “The Old Rugged Cross.” Eesh. Ouch. A smile and a nod later, I walked out leaving my perky dreams and confidence on the floor of the recital room. My hair sagged in disappointment. I switched out of music to education after only two semesters. Three majors by the time I finished my sophomore year. Oi.

I went from the limelight to the lemonlight in a matter of minutes. I felt like a nothing chica. Not even a chica. A girl. An ordinary education major. Plain. Unexceptional. Worthless. Ok…I was a tad over-sensitive. OK–WAY HYPER-SENSITIVE! Like Anne of Green Gables, I could go from exhilaration to the depths of despair all within 10 minutes. I still can. It’s how I’m made. If you’re a sensitive person, you know what I mean. You cry at the news or at an unkind remark and your friends and loved ones don’t know what to do with you so they say, “You’re too sensitive…get over it.” That always works (note sarcastic tone).

I meandered off topic. I am prone to wander… 

Going from extraordinary to ordinary was a tough lesson. I never set out to be ordinary. I don’t think many people do.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Oh, I just want to be ordinary. Nothing special.”

Don’t hear that conversation very often. Now middle-aged, lightly rounded, a tad saggy, baggy–I can recount numerous “ego bruises.” I receive them regularly. Just when I think I’m exceptional at something–wham–right in the kisser.

Raging Against the Ordinary

I’ll admit it. I want to be exceptional. I want to be lauded as the best at something. Or at least one of the best. Or at least better than average? Here’s an example: I’ve been teaching for 19 years (took two years off as a graphic designer) and I’ve been nominated for Teacher of the Year at four different schools. Out of the 19 years, I’ve been nominated 14 times, including this year. I have never won. Didn’t even make the final cut this year. And yes, the teacher that won is superb and brilliant and deserves the win, but my ego got a tad bruised.

Not a big deal though. I’ve learned to accept these ego bruises fairly quickly with God’s help. He reminds me that He has always used ordinary people. After all, Jesus’ disciples were ordinary folks. He didn’t go out to find the best and brightest and hunkiest in the synagogues–he collected fishermen. He added a tax collector along the way.

Jesus was ordinary, too. He didn’t glow with a heavenly aura. He didn’t travel with a heavily- armed entourage (though Peter did get a little excited with his sword). He wasn’t the Messiah/Deliverer the Jews were waiting for. Shoot, Jesus let Caesar be Caesar. He didn’t encourage folks to take up weapons and wipe out the Romans. He worked as a carpenter in Galilee until John baptized him and he went out to the wilderness and came back to redeem the whole world.

The Temptation

The second temptation was an ego temptation. Standing on top of the temple in Jerusalem, the tempter suggested that Jesus throw himself off the temple and let the angels break his fall. Wow. That would have got some Pharisees in the temple excited. They’d all rush out and see Jesus and the angels, and they’d know he was the chosen Messiah…and things would have turned out quite differently (as Satan knew very well).

Satan: Prove it. Be the Messiah. Be the Son of God. Stop this humble nonsense. Show your studly God-self.

Jesus: Don’t you dare test the Lord your God. (notice the “your”–God is God over Satan, as well)

Ordinary Life

I love my ordinary life. I love teaching my extraordinary students. I love my teacher friends. I love love love my family (especially my new-to-the-planet grandson). I love my little 1950s ranch house in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m ordinary. Nothing exceptional at all…except for Jesus in me. It took me almost 50 years of following Him to figure things out, but shoot, I have an eternity left.

Red Letter Experiment: #2 Wilderness Training

Not my idea of wilderness training. Prefer mug of coffee while sitting on rock listening to babbling brook.
Not my idea of wilderness training. Prefer mug of coffee while sitting on rock listening to babbling brook.

As I was plodding and plowing through the spoken words of Jesus in Matthew, I came to the Wilderness. You remember–the 40 days and 40 nights wilderness where Jesus was tempted by the evil one? As a graduate of Sunbeams, Girls in Action, and years of Sunday School and Training Union, I am very familiar with the story. It seemed like a myth. Jesus’ rite of passage.

Reading it again and again through my adult years, it still remained mythical. . .almost. I listened to sermons on it, all reminding me that in order to fight the devil, I must use God’s sword–His Word. I got that. I understood. But the person of Jesus stayed hazy and distant. A god/man able to defeat the evil one because he conveniently already knew the outcome? Isn’t that always problematic? The duality of Christ? Fully human and fully divine. One member of the Trinity. My puny brain can’t wrap itself around that truth. But I accept it as truth. I trust it as truth. And this time when I read Matthew 4 and the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, I saw the human Jesus rejecting the alluring words of Satan and choosing holiness and single-minded devotion to his Father (and our Father).

No Horns or Sulfur-y Stink

It’s funny–well, maybe not funny–but typically human of us to reduce Satan to an ugly, demonic, perverse-looking creeper. Whoa, I would run so fast if I was approached by this creature. Lucifer (i.e. Satan or “the tempter”) was an angel of light. He was beautiful in Heaven and I believe he is still beautiful. A Dorian Gray beauty. Alluring, sensual, gorgeous and completely evil. No longer an angel of light, but a demon of darkness who rejected “the Light.”

I’m not a theologian, but I am a teacher of literature and I can say that literarilly, John Milton got it right in Paradise Lost–Satan was (and is) beautiful. He’d have to be if people were going to listen to him and believe him and trust him. It is human nature to run from ugliness, thus the Dorian Gray allusion. Satan stays beautiful outwardly, but his inward nature is twisted, distorted, deformed and evil. Do not be deceived; he doesn’t like people.

Onward to Our Hero

Now we’re ready to look at the temptations. Immediately following his baptism, Jesus is “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness. It’s important to note that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. Spirit-led isolation and not an escape from the world. No running away for isolation. Jesus followed the urging of the Spirit to go into the wild desert of Judea. He spent 40 days and nights there. Fasting. Communicating with His Father. I wonder what those conversations were like? I try to imagine and come up short. God the Father talking with God the Son. What I do know is that Jesus came out of the desert and immediately began his three-year ministry. But…before He left the desert, he had to face what we face everyday–temptation to reject holiness and give in to need and desire. 

Three of the gospels cover the temptation of Christ. John doesn’t. Mark barely does. Matthew is the most detailed, followed by Luke. I did some studying and discovered the obvious. All four gospels addressed different audiences, thus their purposes were different. It’s not a contradiction. It’s reality. If you have to relate important information to varied audiences, you have to tailor your writing to engage the needs of your audience. It’s not something an English major discovered; it’s something God–the creator of the universe–already knew. Duh.

So, we’ve established that the devil is beautiful, alluring and sensual–Jesus went to the desert because the Holy Spirit told Him to–Jesus left the desert after 40 days and immediately began his ministry. There. The stage is semi-set. 

The temptations come after the 40 days are almost complete. Jesus is in a weakened physical state. I can’t wrap my mind around how hungry he must have been. Starving. I’m a terrible “faster.” I’ll start a fast and I’ll have great intentions. Hunger pains remind me that God is sufficient and I don’t need food–I need God. Concentrate, Cindy. Or as my mentor, Winnie the Pooh, says: “Think, think, think.” I get through a day and cave. Then I try again. And cave. Too much food around and too little self-discipline. Not a lot of food in the wilderness for Jesus. Apparently there were some wild animals (Mark did note that in his gospel). Jesus could have had some wild Judean rabbit or some such edible wild thing. But he didn’t. And of course the “tempter” addresses Jesus’ physical hunger first.

“Hey Jesus. Bet you are really hungry. IF you are really the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, prove it. Turn these stones to bread. Satisfy your hunger. Satisfy your physical need. No one will see. Shoot, you deserve it. You’ve been fasting a long time. What difference will it make if you just do a little of your Jesus miracle stuff and show your God-self to me. Shhhh…I won’t tell.

Big question: would it have made any difference if Jesus had nibbled a little stone bread and proved himself to the perversely beautiful and convincing tempter? Let that roll around in your brain a bit.

Jesus doesn’t cave. He quotes scripture to Satan (who he knew quite well since Jesus is part of the Trinity and was and has been and ever will be present with God). Satan was not a stranger (and nor was he Jesus’ brother). He had been an angel. Only an angel. Not a god and not a son of God. He was a servant of God. He didn’t like it. He got tossed out. Back to the Truth: Jesus was fully aware of what Satan was doing, AND Satan was fully aware of who Jesus was. He didn’t need Jesus to prove his divinity. There was another purpose here. He was playing on Jesus’ human need. No surprises. Jesus–fully human and fully divine–doesn’t cave. I would.

Take-Away Point

Think about what you need physically. Food. Shelter. Job. Love. Security. Health. Family. As humans, when we are weakened by a lack of any of these things, we become vulnerable. On a diet? Vulnerable to bread? Cheetoes? Chocolate? Gummy bears? I’ve been on a low-carb diet (health reasons) for a month. I could eat an entire loaf of fresh bread right now.

How about shelter? Living small? Wanting large? Avoid HGTV or all of a sudden your completely sufficient home seems really lame. What? No jetted tub or walk-in closet? ( Oh, we are a spoiled nation!)

Lack of love? Wow. This one creates all sorts of problems. I can speak for women–we fall hard for the wrong person when we are looking for a man to satisfy our love deficiency. We become loser magnets. Someone comes along and assuages our need to be told we are beautiful or sexy or adorable or perfect and WHAM. Down we go. Didn’t I say the tempter was beautiful and alluring and sensual?

The point is this: when we have a hole in our place of physical need, we become vulnerable. Vulnerability leads us to question God’s sufficiency. We get scared. We doubt God even cares or hears or is really God (the one who spoke the universe into being). Weak weak weak. What Jesus told Satan when he was confronted in his weakened and vulnerable condition? God is sufficient. Go away.

How I Hang On to Jesus by a Tiny Rope

My vulnerability? Oh dear. Too many. But right now it’s my health. I have a disease that is affecting my quality of life. It is so easy to start feeling helpless and hopeless until I get my eyes off of “me” and on Jesus. It sounds like a cliché or a t-shirt or a coffee mug from Cafe Press, but it’s not. And it’s not easy. It isn’t a feeling. It requires a deliberate effort from me. Mental discipline.

I have to surround myself with God. For me, that means putting down the novel, turning off the television AND putting work aside. I use work as a justification for not spending more than a few minutes in the Bible. I excuse myself by listening to sermons from my favorite podcasters on my way to work or grocery store (only places I go anymore). And I go down. Emotionally and physically. I doubt God’s sufficiency and become vulnerable to temptation by the one who is great at exploiting weakness. 

Psoriatic arthritis is my disease but it won’t kill me. It just knocks me around a bit (or the medicine to combat it knocks me around a bit). But it also reminds me that life is fragile and so many people are suffering from things that are infinitely more painful and terminal. I read a few posts from 24-7 prayer or Imago Dei or “She is Safe” and immediately the “I” starts to fade. I’m drawn to contemplation and prayer and my Bible and journal.

Priorities shift around and I see life through my God lens. When I’m looking through that lens, I can’t see the huge “me” and instead see God’s love, grace, mercy and sufficiency. Much better way to see.

And that’s just the first temptation. Oi vey.