One of the largest freshwater turtles is the alligator snapping turtle. Found primarily in the southeastern United States, these massive turtles have been known to weigh close to 250 pounds. They are carnivorous, and while their diet is primarily fish, they have been known to eat almost anything else they can find in the water—even in a few cases small alligators! The alligator snapping turtle relies on a uniquely deceitful method of foraging for fish.
The turtle will lie completely still on the floor of a lake or river with its mouth wide open. At the end of the turtle’s tongue is a small, pink, worm-shaped appendage. The turtle wiggles the end of its tongue so that it looks like a worm moving through the water. When a fish comes to eat the worm, the turtle’s jaws rapidly close, trapping the fish so that it cannot escape.
Temptation acts like an alligator snapping turtle. It comes in the guise of something desirable, but it always carries destruction with it in the end. If we could see the end result rather than the tempting part, it would be far easier to resist. But Satan knows this, so he cleverly disguises what is deadly in the guise of something pleasurable. Isn’t that what happens to us when we are tempted? We are convinced we are encountering something wholesome, decent only to find we are the victim of a trap, and bait-and-switch trick.
Since the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, temptation has been a constant, unrelenting part of human life. People have tried to avoid, resist or ignore it. But no person has ever found a place or a circumstance that can make him safe from temptation.
Similarly, to the snapping turtle’s lure, temptation comes in the guise of something desirable, but it always carries destruction with it in the end. But Satan knows this, so he cleverly disguises what is deadly in the guise of something pleasurable.
Today in our gospel from Luke we find Jesus, fresh from his baptism, pushed out with great force by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. And there in the wilderness Jesus encounters Temptation. Before he can begin his public ministry, Jesus must know what it is like to survive temptation.
It’s not surprising this passage often appears on the first Sunday in Lent. It is customary among many Christians to give up something or add some practice to our lives as part of our Lenten observation. Giving up candy. Coffee. TV. Going to the Gym. Helping out weekly at a soup kitchen. Reading extra devotionals, making it more often to worship. Even the most experienced among us discover making changes isn’t easy. We learn how weak we are, how hard it is, how much help we need. Because we are tempted. To eat that piece of candy. To stay home and lounge in front of the TV. The Devil knows our weak points, better than we do, and is eager to exploit them. Something simple, good ordinary turns out to be a terrible mistake, an error, ensnared by temptation,
After fasting for 40 days Jesus encounters the Tempter. Satan came across sympathetic to Jesus’ plight. He wants to appease Jesus’ hunger by turning stone into bread. Who’s going to miss one measly stone? Wouldn’t Jesus function better if he weren’t hungry? Next Satan promises the kingdoms of the world and all earthly power and glory if Jesus would just worship him. Just one time. He knows Jesus is messiah and offers him power over all the kingdoms on earth. Wouldn’t that make Jesus’ work go more smoothly? Finally, Satan tries to get Jesus to spread his wings – to leap from the pinnacle in the Temple in Jerusalem. Wouldn’t that be a grand entrance for the leadership and faithful to see? They’d be talking about it for months. How could they dispute God’s Chosen One with this feat? Just one time, Jesus, just one time. Satan is so suave and convincing. He knows his scripture well, better than us. He just wants to get between him and God. That’s all.
Temptation shows us our real selves. I remember once I was having a pretty good Lent. I had given up chocolate and had set aside extra time for prayer and spiritual reading. When I got to Holy week, I felt pretty confident. On Palm Sunday someone gave me an early Easter present - a box of Hershey’s
Chocolates. With caramel and nugent. I looked at the box and started thinking about which one I would eat first when Easter came. Then I reminded myself that Palm Sunday was well a Sunday - a kind of little Easter- Sundays technically didn’t count in Lent. And I noticed that some of the chocolates have nuts which, of course, are nutritional. Well, you know what happened: I stripped the plastic off the container and ate one. By the end of the afternoon I had finished the entire box.
That temptation exposed my true self. I am nowhere near as strong as I thought. Our common humanity has an unattractive side. We humans have developed an almost unlimited capacity to deceive and allow ourselves to be deceived. When we want something badly – when we want to get our way -- we easily fall into self-deception. We make excuses. We go in denial. We pile one lie onto another. And we pay the price. The loss of peace of mind. Our relationships suffer. We become ill – in body, mind and spirit. In my case, I was also left with a nauseous stomach ache and the blues that follow a "sugar high."
And the sorrow of a broken promise to God. What a lesson. Just over chocolate. What if it were about stealing? Or not forgiving some one?
The tempter’s plan is to get us to give in and break our promises or do something wrong – but that’s not the real goal. The Tempter’s goal is for us to feel badly about ourselves, and in our shame we will turn away from God. I had a professor once who was a consultant on the movie, “The Exorcist.” He was the Devil expert, we called him. His insight on Satan and Evil is that, the devil prefers to tempt us subtly, raising doubt quietly, almost without us even realizing. Why? If Satan can’t turn us from God, then Satan’s desire is to destroy relationship, to weaken and tear apart community. To smash the image of God within our soul. To force us to flee from the presence of God, convincing us that God does not love us or will forgive us.
The devil knows us better than we know ourselves. As the Father of Lies, and half-truths, and ruler of this world, he knows how to lead us away from what is true and right. He knows how to plant fear, worry and self-righteousness in our hearts – and have it seem like carrying, concern and competence. The tempter knows what buttons to push, what triggers our weakness. We learn through Lent through struggle, us have a choice. Will we stay in the Tempter’s snare or will we break free? That’s why Jesus was sent to the Wilderness, that’s why he embraces the cross – so we are not finished when we fall. Jesus is there, helping us up again.
Whatever is in your past, whatever you have done, whatever the devil keeps throwing it up in your face, God wants us to know that He loves us and that we are forgiven. With God backing us, we can survive temptation. No matter how many forbidden chocolates we eat, or other temptations we face, how many times we fail and have start over, God is there. Thanks be to God, we can get up, and begin again. amen