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First Sunday in Lent B

February 21, 2021

Mark 1: 12-15

By Rev. John Tran

We used to begin Compline, our night prayer, with these verses from First Peter: Be sober and watchful; your adversary, the devil, goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; resist him steadfast in your faith.”

In today's gospel from Mark, Jesus is confronted with the devil. Mark treats the temptation in the desert in 2 verses where the same subject is treated in 11 or 13 verses in Matthew and Luke. Since Mark says so little, we could talk about either the wild beasts or the devil, so I chose the devil! Mark has no details, so we'll draw on Matthew and Luke also. What happens with Jesus is that the devil tries to make Jesus focus on himself, his needs, his agenda, instead of being focused on the Father and the path Jesus is asked to follow. The devil does not want Jesus to concentrate on the Father or on others.

The details in Matthew and Luke tell us the kinds of temptations Jesus experienced. The devil, offering to turn rocks into bread after 40 days of fasting, points to the distraction of being consumed with worldly goods, satisfying bodily desires, and centering on himself. Bringing Jesus to the parapet of the temple and telling Jesus to throw himself off because the angels would save him, offers the chance of instant fame, an attention-getting spectacle, the chance to be seen by the people as an instant Messiah. Taking Jesus to a high mountain and promising Jesus control of all he saw if only Jesus would worship the devil, would offer power, control of territory and people. These could even be deceptively seen as tools to save others. These temptations are offered to Jesus, just as they are offered to us every day.

Two books come to mind which deal with this problem of the everyday evil we face. One is C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters where he shows how the devil tempts people in a poetical sort of way. Lewis says, “Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and Love to the present. Fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.” A prose version of this is Fr. Louis Cameli's The Devil You Don't know: Recognizing Evil in Everyday Life. Fr. Cameli categorizes 4 types of everyday temptations that we could call the four Ds. What are these? They are: Deception, Division, Diversion, and Discouragement.

Deception: A good example of deception occurs at the very beginning of the Bible. The ancient serpent offers a promise to Adam and Eve that is just too good to pass up; if they only eat of the forbidden fruit, they would be like God. The only problem is that the devil lied; they not only were not like God, they lost much of what made up their life until then. They were taken in, they were deceived. Recognizing the temptation to deception is a first step.

Division: The devil is good at dividing and conquering. He divides us from God; he divides us from one another; he divides us within ourselves. St. Paul is always talking about factions within the community. In Romans, St. Paul offers radical advice that we have yet to follow: he says, some people regard all days as holy, some think that one day is holier that the rest. He basically tells us that it does not matter, since we are all honoring the same God. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the minister lets Hester take all the blame for their mutual sin. The division here is between two people, and, for the minister, within one’s self. The answer to division is forgiveness. When we are connected to one another, we are more likely to show compassion and understanding even if we disagree or even sin. And it can go beyond the usual relatedness to seeing all as our neighbor, a related person. Take the example of the Jew going Jerusalem who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. A foreigner, a Samaritan, cared for the injured man, paying of his own pocket. The Samaritan did not see an injured Jew, but an injured fellow human being, made in God's image. With God’s grace we can overcome division.

Diversion: Diversion turns us aside from our journey toward God. In the desert, Jesus has been on his journey and is ready to start a new phase. The devil tries to break his resolve and get him to go in a different way. The prodigal son is blinded by lure of the world and its pleasures, rather than love of family and God. David is caught by the beauty of a woman and takes his sights off of God and leading the nation rightly.

Distraction and addiction are tools the devil uses, as both Lewis and Cameli show us.

Discouragement: In monastic life, we know this more by the term acedia, which comes from a Greek word meaning ‘not to care.’ It often hits us when we have been on the journey for a while, though it can also happen as we begin our journey to Christ. It can take a cynical tone like when we joke about breaking our New Year’s resolutions a week after New Year. Discouragement happens when we feel over whelmed by life, by the struggle to live the gospel, by difficulty in overcoming persistent faults. However, we can take steps to feeling less overwhelmed. First, we can share the burden of our concerns with a person traveling to God with us. Second, we can rest – realizing that the task doesn’t have to be done in a day, and can be addressed one thing at a time. Third, we can remember all the good things the Lord has done for us, and how we have shared these with others.

Satan uses all these temptations on us; he used them, after all, on Jesus, as we see in today’s gospel. The Key is to realize that the devil wants us to forget about God, about others, and concentrate on ourselves, on what is good for us, or at least, what we want. He desperately wants us to be self-centered, not God-centered.

Satan has tried to make Jesus focus on looking sideways, which means looking horizontally, so that we are concerned with material things, with our advancement and comfort. Instead, we are to look up toward God. When we do this, we also become aware of our brothers and sisters journeying with us on that same path. Satan continues to use the strategy he used on Jesus in the desert on us, because the less time we spend looking towards God, the better chance he tempting us away from God. Just ask Screwtape.

Piri Thomas wrote a book called Down These Mean Streets. It describes his conversion from being a convict, a drug addict, and an attempted killer, to becoming an exemplary Christian. One-night Piri was lying on his cell bunk in prison. Suddenly it occurred to him what a mess he had made of his life. He felt an overwhelming desire to pray. But he was sharing his cell with another prisoner called ‘the thin kid.’ So he waited. After he thought ‘the thin kid’ was asleep, he climbed out of his bunk, knelt down on the cold concrete, and prayed. He said: “I told God what was in my heart… I talked to him plain…I talked to him of all my wants and lacks, of my hopes and disappointments… I felt like I could even cry….” After Piri finished his prayer, a small voice said “Amen.” It was ‘the thin kid.’ The two young men talked a long time. Then Piri climbed back into his bunk. “Good night, Chico,” he said. “I’m thinking that God is always with us -it’s just that we aren’t with Him.” — This story is a beautiful illustration of what Jesus means when he says, “Reform your lives and believe in the Gospel!”

Remember: “Be sober and watchful; your adversary, the devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him steadfast in your faith.” (1Peter)

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