During this season of Lent we will be considering the Gifts of the Dark Woods and the experiences of those times in life when God can feel far away. Times of feeling lost, uncertainty, when life drops out beneath us, and ultimately finding God in places we wouldn’t imagine. They are often places that we don’t want to go initially, BUT often they are places that can give us powerful revelations about who God is, and who God is calling us to be. Engaging meaningfully and being receptive to the quiet promptings of the Spirit might reveal your path through the Dark Wood. Today we look at the Gift of Temptation. The challenge posed by this gift is so formidable that even Jesus struggled with it. 

When Jesus is baptized he hears the voice of God voicing pleasure in him, “You are my son in whom I am well pleased.” He receives a new name, God’s Beloved. And this is the name that God desires us to have as well. “Remember Who You Are. You are God’s beloved. Go, love the world.” 

After receiving this name  and God’s affirmation, Jesus was full of the Spirit, and led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days where he fasted and discerned his call, preparing his heart and soul for what God wanted him to do. He spent time discerning what this naming and claiming event meant for his life. In the midst of this he was tempted by Satan or the Adversary in Hebrew. 

He is not tempted by bad things, but by goodness. It’s an Intense version of Dark Wood.

Some people focus is on how temptation is bad –  a battle of good versus evil. In a nutshell:

“Satan tempts. Jesus refutes. Temptation is bad. Be like Jesus.”

Instead Jesus is presented with a series of alternatives, which all seem to be good things. Turning stones into bread would not only satisfy his hunger, it could eradicate world hunger. Jesus refused, stating that humans do not live by bread alone. Next the adversary showed Jesus all the cities and kingdoms of the world, claiming they would be his if Jesus just bowed down and worshiped him.The opportunity to wield political power holds tremendous potential for good. He could change oppressive laws by executive decree, direct resources for their best use, bring an end to war and violence, usher in an age of peace and justice. But Jesus rejects Political Power as well, declaring that we are to worship God alone. Finally, he is tempted with religious authority. The adversary took Jesus to the highest point of the Jerusalem Temple, challenging him to jump off and let angels save him. Those who had doubted God or who had no faith would believe. But Jesus says, Don’t test the Lord your God. Defeated, the adversary left Jesus to await the next opportunity.

No matter how we interpret the temptations, they are complicated because they hold the possibility for good. Jesus isn’t asked to do anything shameful; he is not asked to commit the 7 deadly sins. He’s not being asked to rob a bank, lie under oath, or commit murder. UMC pastor Lisa Caine, Athens: He is being tempted to potential greatness, at the point of what is reasonable, helpful, and good. He is not being tempted to fail or fall; he is being tempted to rise and succeed. He isn’t being tempted to do something he cannot do, but something he can do. He isn’t being tempted to misbehave; he is being tempted to forget his identity, who he was named at his baptism, all in pursuit of doing good things. 

Over the course of his ministry, Jesus will feed the hungry; he will perform miraculous healings; he will change the political and religious equation, confronting powerful people in places of authority, but he does not become an activist like the Zealots and he isn’t going to do it in the way Satan desires, in a kind of superman way. Jesus’ way is through vulnerable love in empowering others. While these activities were part of his path, to devote his life to any one of them would have been less than what he was called to do. These aren’t the things to which Jesus has been called to devote all of his time and energy. These were not bad things. There is a difference between doing good and doing the specific good you were called to do. It wasn’t Jesus’ good thing to do in that moment. 

And that is the tension and temptation for us as well. What is our good to do in this life, in this moment? There is a quote attributed to John Wesley, although scholars can not find these words in any of his writings, but it is a well known quote: Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can. I think most of us in this life of faith try to live up to the high bar of these words. Contrast that understanding with this well known poem, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing 
your place in the family of things.

What a tension there is between these two understandings of what it means to be good. What happens when you hear those words. How did these words land on you? Have you ever followed somebody else’s idea of what it means to be good instead of listening for God’s naming and claiming event on your life? The one where you hear the voice of God – calling you God’s beloved.

It sounds almost blasphemous as a person of faith to be told, You do not have to be good… but there may also be a sense of release, as we realize we can release the burden we carry of having to do enough good in the world – to hear someone like Mary Oliver say, You don’t have to be good.

A friend and colleague UCC pastor Rev. Peter Ilgenfritz, preached on this text and said: Goodness can keep us trapped into doing what other people think we ought to be doing, living someone else’s life. Goodness can keep us from having the authentic conversations we need to have about race. One of the things I’ve learned along my stumbling way in talking about issues of race is that the biggest thing that keeps me from an authentic conversation about race is my own goodness. It keeps me from the work of transformation. A good person could never have racist thoughts, could never say things, or not say things – that others interpret as racist. Good people do not do that. So instead walls go up.

DJ radio host Jay Smooth: We have to put down the binary of good and bad people. It doesn’t help us, it keeps us from the conversation. Instead we have to pick up goodness and say “Good people look at their imperfections.” But being a good person is not about being perfect. When I can put that down and the protection of Goodness, I’m open, more open to a real conversation, where I can really hear from other people about my mistakes, my learning, my opening – I don’t have to hold that high mantle of Goodness. 

Rev. Stephen Garnaas Holmes wrote this week on his internet page UnfoldingLight.net:

There are days we think, “What a waste.  I didn’t get anything done today.” OR “I have not done anything useful with my life”—as if we are workers on a factory line, or peasants serving an overlord.  When you feel that way, ask yourself if you haven’t done what you needed to do, maybe even simply swept the floor, or kept yourself alive. It may be you are avoiding what you’re really called to do. Be honest with yourself.  Or, consider this: if you have wasted time, perhaps you needed sabbath, which is rest from being productive. Give yourself that gift.  God does.  Really, the question is not what we produced or accomplished but the real work of life: When did I wonder today?  What did I notice? What grace did I receive? How grateful was I?  How did I praise? How did I love?

~St. Francis of Assisi 

I have done what was mine to do.  May Christ teach you what is yours.

In the dark woods, we can sort through what we want to keep in our lives, and how we can make our pack a bit lighter as we travel and get rid of things we’ve been carrying, release some things to create more room, for something that really might matter in our lives. Perhaps we can put down the heavy mantle of Goodness, somebody else’s goodness or our too high standards of goodness and pick up another name, a real name, Jesus’ name for you to live into today. God called it Beloved. You do not have to be good. 

Thomas Merton:

“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist…destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

The temptation then is to “destroy our own inner capacity for peace … or the fruitfulness of our work” when we say yes to too many good things. It is a spiritual discipline to know one’s own limits. It feels humbling to say “This is all I can lovingly, wisely do.”

Eric Elnes:

Jesus offers something bigger than being good. Goodness keeps us from being all we are meant to be. It can fill us with shame and guilt because we can’t possibly live up to the high standards. Jesus is not calling us to be good, but calling us to another name. The Spirit beckons us not to be good, but to be human—humble, of the humus—which ultimately means finding your elemental waters, which are connected to God, and living into your fullest energies. You can and will do a lot of good by walking the path that brings you most fully alive in this world, but in order to stay on this path, you must learn to say no to doing a great many “good” things. 

What is mine to do? What is yours?
Do that. Do it well. Do it with all the love you have.
And let the rest go.

Our prayer hymn is new to me, and most likely new to you as well. I asked Jeff if he would record this for us. It is such a lovely tune with beautiful words. Let’s learn a new song written by Thew Elliott.

PRAYER HYMN Spirit, I Have Heard You Calling  by Thew Elliott

1. Spirit I have heard you calling, like a memory long grown dim,
crying from creation’s moment, seeking voice from deep within.
I have heard you in my loving, I have heard you in my pain.
Now I feel you moving in me, feel you burning like a flame.
2. Now I see you all around me, now I hear you call my name.
Now I speak the words you give me, now I feed creation’s flame.
You are speaking through my longing. You are speaking through my pain.
Now I feel you moving in me, and I’ll never be the same.
3. Since you moved upon my waters, since you spoke and set me free,
I have yearned fro this communion, for your fire inside of me!
Now your love defines my longing, now your love shines through my pain.
Now you dance in endless union singing out creation’s name.