Trump in the Desert
Our gospel story today from Luke is the most sustained inside look at Jesus’ private spiritual life that we get anywhere in the Bible, along with his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane.
How interesting that we are allowed inside to see his heart at his moments of greatest trial and temptation.
How very like Jesus to humble himself and show us his moments of greatest danger and even near-defeat, to help us know more solidly than ever how present he is to us when we are tempted, tried, and tested by life.
What are the three temptations Jesus faces from the Devil really all about?
Jesus rejects “power, prestige, and perks,” as Richard Rohr puts it. He resists the temptation to manipulate his environment, manipulate his position in society, and manipulate God.
But at a deeper level, he’s rejecting the temptation to take on a false identity.
He will not be the dominator, the miracle worker, the king, the favorite of God. Because that is not who he is.
I was talking with some friends last night about the destructive and often frightening specter of President Trump and what he means in our country right now.
It can be tempting for those of us who find his racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and unrelenting stream of lies exhausting and demoralizing to call him evil.
I don’t think he is evil. I think he is a concentration of all of (white) America’s worst impulses into a single man.
(In fact, I wrote a whole piece about this called “Trump: The American Shadow Concretized.” Check it out if you’re interested.)
I also think he is a man with a sucking vortex of emptiness at the center of his soul. He is a person who can neither give nor receive love at any deep level.
When I see him on TV, I see someone radiating pain transmitted into hatred. It’s ugly and it’s sad.
It doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does help me remember that he is a human being just like me.
But what I’ve noticed is that the temptation to a false identity didn’t just happen to Jesus in the desert in the first century.
It’s happening to all of us in America today, and we’re falling for it.
There are few stances more satisfying to the human ego than grievance.
We love to be the outraged victim, the put-upon underdog, the misunderstood and affronted good guy.
And here is what is most dangerous about President Trump: he is getting all sides of the political spectrum to fall into this trap.
The right, his base, fall for his rhetoric about Americans being taken advantage of by foreign countries via trade imbalances and immigrants.
The left, his enemies, get to rave about Trump’s latest outrages every single day and feel under siege in their own country from their own president.
And the center, the moderates, get to throw up their hands at the lunatic fringes getting ever more extreme and driving our government further and further into gridlock.
Everyone gets to be a victim.
Everyone gets to point the finger at everyone else.
And Mr. Trump sits atop us all, manipulating us like a puppetmaster.
This is what happens when we allow our identity to be driven by an outside destructive force.
This is what happens when we say yes to that voice of temptation that promises us all the nations of the world kneeling at our feet, plenty of good food to eat, and someone to rescue us when we fall.
I am not equating Donald Trump with Satan—he’s not that smart or that interesting.
He has simply accidentally fallen into a set of skills and experiences that allow him to manipulate a very deep-seated impulse in the human psyche, and the mass media/social media technology to do it on an unprecedented scale.
Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you likely look at others with different views from you as deluded and sheep-like.
What I’d like you to consider is that you are much closer to your hated neighbor than you realize.
We are all addicted to tribalism and outrage.
And the business model that polarization is grinds on as the Devil stalks the desert.
If we want to try to unravel our own false identities, we can look to how Jesus escaped the trap himself.
Jesus was not just rejecting falling into the Devil’s temptations to become what he should not be for himself. He was also rejecting it for the people of his time, and for us.
Jesus as the Savior and the Son of God is such a huge idea that we are tempted to project all kinds of false expectations on him.
We are not likely to ask Jesus to turn stones into bread or jump off the Jerusalem Temple.
But from time to time we are just as likely as the Devil to try and manipulate who Jesus is for our own ends.
What definitions of Jesus are we trying to force on him?
We are tempted by the same impulses Jesus was. We want Jesus to act for our own self-serving ends.
We want him to be our personal Savior and have a rich relationship with us, but it’s a bit odd and off-putting to think of him having a deep and intimate relationship with someone we think is a real jerk (Mr. Trump, perhaps?).
We want Jesus to act for power. We want him to come sweeping in and fix all our problems, exercise one iota of his immense power to just make things a little smoother and more convenient for us.
And we want Jesus to avoid the Cross.
It’s so unnecessary, we think, this theological math problem that we’ve never solved of why God wasn’t powerful enough to save his only Son from dying in such a horrible way.
Couldn’t Jesus have accomplished salvation another way?
Because if Jesus avoids the Cross, then we can avoid the Cross, and that is a secret desire of our hearts we don’t often give voice to.
But Jesus in his incredible strength of purpose and love for us, rejects all these temptations on our behalf out in the desert.
At the low point of his physical strength, he is at the pinnacle of his self-assurance and driving purpose, which is remarkable in and of itself.
I know the minute I get hungry or tired or have a headache most of my moral convictions seem to lose their urgency beside the chance for an aspirin and sandwich and a nap.
But Jesus survived more than the temptation of turning stones into bread or accepting the Devil’s kingdoms.
He survived the worst temptation of all—changing yourself into something you’re not because someone you love wants you to.
He rejected becoming the Savior we want in order to be the Savior we need.
And so as we are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps we are called to resist temptation just as he did. We need to pursue self-denial and self-control, ask God to help us with our helpless longing after power and control and comfort.
But along with those self-evident forms of temptation, are we vulnerable to the deeper temptations of identity that Christ was? What definitions of ourselves should we be resisting?
This is a very deep topic that we could spend hours talking about. How do we let ourselves be defined as Christians, as Episcopalians, as mothers, fathers, children, friends, rather than actively defining ourselves with integrity and forethought?
But perhaps for today let us just consider the temptation of the role of Savior itself.
There is only one Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.
But for something or someone we love, whether it is a parent or a child or our church, we can sometimes be tempted into taking on the role of Savior ourselves.
We’re the only ones who know what is right for this person or this church. They couldn’t survive without us. They’re never going to take responsibility for themselves, and we can’t let them fall, so we’d better do everything ourselves because we can do it faster and better.
And of course, only we and our tribe, whether it’s Left, Right, or Center, know what’s best for our nation.
What an insidious trap this is, motivated by pure and honest love.
But in the end the temptation to act the Savior is, if we give into it, profoundly destructive to both ourselves and the ones we’re trying to “save.”
And when it comes to this country, Mr. Trump is not the savior, and neither is the next liberal dreamboat candidate we want to “save” us from Mr. Trump.
President Trump is not the problem. Our collective unredeemed American soul is what needs salvation.
There’s only one person who is the true Savior, or as Paul puts it in our lesson from Romans today, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
It takes a lot of quiet and concentration to get clear about who we are in our relationships and how we can best serve one another.
Perhaps the best place to tackle our temptations is out in the stillness of the Lenten desert with the one who faced them first, our own Savior Jesus Christ.
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