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Triple-Dog Dare

February 15, 2016

“Triple-Dog Dare” Luke 4:1-13 © 2.14.16 Lent 1C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One particularly funny scene among the many in the classic movie A Christmas Story has to do with the ritual of daring among young boys. It’s the middle of December in a northern state, and snow covers the ground; every exposed surface is icy. In the schoolyard one day at recess, a kid is dared by his peers to lick a frozen telephone pole. He refuses at first, fearing that his tongue will get stuck. The boy remains firm while his friends keep pushing him to take the dare. He’s immune to “I dare you” and even “I double-dog dare you.” But his reputation is at stake when his friend invokes the ultimate: “I triple-dog dare you,” so he agrees to put his tongue on the pole.

How many people live reactively, like that boy? We no doubt know some of them and even may count ourselves among their number from time to time. Life becomes an endless round of challenges to live up to expectations, to preserve reputation, to resist increasingly sophisticated forms of peer pressure. The triple-dog dare no longer is to do some puerile stunt on the playground, but to be successful in the eyes of others, to keep up with neighbors who are better off, to be the one with the latest technology or the smartest kids or the most notoriety in one’s circle of work and leisure. Always it seems those trapped in the ever-escalating cycle of daring keep competing with others or longing to be liked and accepted, no matter what age they are or stage of life they have come to. All that changes are the names and seriousness of the dares.

Sometimes the greatest challenges come from inside. Someone may keep trying to quiet those voices from childhood or his or her inner demons, which often are the same thing, that tell the suffering soul he or she is not worthy or capable or likeable, will never measure up, is an imposter always in danger of being discovered, found out for a fraud. How sad to spend a whole life living on somebody else’s turf and terms, according to their expectations and rules, fitting in with their construction of how the world is and ought to be. And if that were not bad enough, to get reminded of flaws, foibles, and fears even by loved ones at vulnerable moments, when the potential for humiliation and embarrassment is greatest.

So it may be only natural that some people, again maybe even you and I, approach a relationship with God the same way. He’s seen as a cruel, demanding, never-satisfied tyrant who delights in sending test after test to make us prove we are worthy of God’s love. Life is one huge, never-ending cosmic triple-dog dare in which we are trapped. We accomplish something special; we ascend a spiritual height; we show compassion to our neighbor, and all we can hear is a resonant voice from a cloud complaining that we’re not good enough to be saved. All our accomplishments and sacrifices mean nothing; they’re old news. What have we done lately to prove we’re worthy? Work harder! Earn salvation! Do more deeds of penance, fast more stringently, sacrifice for others!

From that point of view, temptation becomes a test from God to see whether or not we’ll make it this time, whether we can run the gauntlet and demonstrate our prowess as a spiritual warrior, our credentials as a candidate for canonization, a stress test to see if we stand firm as a pillar of the Church. And if we fail, we can hear the deity of our imagination laughing, pointing a finger and saying “See! I knew you couldn’t do it!”

But Luke’s story of Jesus’ temptation raises very serious questions about any such notion of opportunities to sin. The gospel writer goes to great lengths to emphasize just who it is that’s being tempted. From the birth announcement through the baptism and genealogy to these forty days in the wilderness, the evangelist has repeated the claim that Jesus is the beloved Son of God. He is empowered, authorized, claimed, and suited for his mission. The Holy Spirit does not leave this man when he heads for the hinterland; it’s in the place of fasting and deprivation and trial, indeed, through those experiences, that the Spirit leads our Lord.

The takeaway from the text is that we are to understand Jesus’ temptation as coming to him in his power, not his weakness, attacking him at the very places he was strongest. The noted preacher the late Fred Craddock once observed: “If anyone is having trouble believing that Jesus was really tempted, then he or she needs to keep in mind that temptation is an indication of strength, not weakness. We are not tempted to do what we cannot, but what is within our power. The greater the strength, the greater the temptation. How fierce must have been Jesus’ battle! And very real; this is no cartoon with pitchforks, red suits, and horns. Temptation is so deceptively attractive. It was not to a malicious opponent but to a very close friend that Jesus said, ‘Get behind me, Satan’” (Luke: 56).

So, we may need to reconsider our own temptations. How many of us think of them as coming from and in weakness? And indeed, temptation may come in our place of obvious vulnerability, but really, it’s sneakier than that. We don’t pay much attention to those plates of spiritual and psychic armor we think are impenetrable, those impregnable fortresses of virtue and morality that we have built stone upon stone, those force fields we have erected around ourselves to turn back the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And it’s precisely at those points of strength that we have let go in favor of shoring up the crumbling walls or repairing the chinks that temptation will get to us. Where are you and I the strongest? What are our talents and gifts? How have we prevailed in the past? What can we do, and do well? Are we confident in our abilities, joyous in our work, compassionate and caring in relationships with those over whom we have authority or who need us? That’s where the assault will come when we have our backs turned and our guards down, and we will consider it a complete surprise.

Unless, that is, we learn from Jesus. His temptation was about power and how he would use it. Would he benefit himself or those he came to serve? Would he take shortcuts, keep himself from suffering, do what he could do whether it was right or not? Was his power over others or for them? Would his actions arise from fear or from supreme trust in the One who had called him “my beloved Son”? The Devil’s challenge was for Jesus to strive to prove himself worthy, rather than accepting his acceptance by his Father. Satan keeps hammering away: “If you are the Son of God….” Here too is an acknowledgement of our Lord’s power. The Greek is better translated “since you are the Son of God.” Satan was not expressing doubt; he knew with whom he was dealing. Instead, he was suggesting an alternative understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah.

Here is what the Devil is saying. “You’ve got the power, so use it for yourself! You’re hungry after your long fast. Turn the stones into bread. Just do it! You want to help the oppressed, but you know, there’s a hard road ahead. Wouldn’t it be great just to conquer the powers that be in one fell swoop with a minimum of self-sacrifice. Won’t cost much; all you gotta do is be my yes man! You want to be accepted and prove to God that you trust his care for you? Jump off the Temple! There’ll be cameras clicking all over the place, and if God’s the God he says he is, angels will be there quick as a wink to keep you from dashing your foot and other parts of your anatomy on the very solid stones below. All you have to do, Jesus, is live life on my terms!”

But Jesus refused the triple-dog dare. That kid in the story, by the way, got his tongue stuck just as he knew he would; he was the only one who bore the brunt of the stunt. And now everybody probably thought he was really stupid to boot. Jesus was wise to the snare of temptation. The consequences of using one’s power for one’s own good are written in very small print. That kind of self-serving, like magic, always comes with a price. Maybe not today, but anyone who dares to climb to the heights on the backs of others faces his or her eventual downfall. Jesus didn’t buy the scam.

There was nothing to prove because God’s love is a gift; the voice at his baptism had proclaimed Jesus’ identity as Son, and that was good enough. The temptation in the desert was an empowerment for mission, part of the living out of a calling that Jesus had chosen. There would be no easy way out, no shortcuts, no quick results. The way to salvation for those he came to serve was through his own gift of himself, ultimately on the cross. But hard as such a course was, he was living on his own terms, sharing gifts.

Jesus’ experience is an example of the possibilities for each and all of us. There is nothing for us to prove, either, for in our baptism, we too are claimed and called as God’s children, just as our Lord was. We too are empowered in and through temptation by the same Spirit that led him in the wilderness and throughout his life. We know and trust the same Scripture which served as an essential resource in his time of temptation.

What we can learn from our Lord is the absolute necessity of letting our identity as God’s baptized and loved children permeate our entire being, everything we do, all we are, to listen to the one voice that matters, the one that keeps saying to us: “You are my beloved child; with you I am pleased.” That is who we are; that is the identity which by God’s grace we are summoned to live out with integrity, in the face of all the pressures that would force us in other directions, in the din of all the voices that tell us otherwise, in the chaos of other commitments that pull us this way and that. By that bread, we will be sustained on our journeys, this Lent and the next, and all the days of our lives, making our prayer this one from hymn writer Ruth Duck:  “When we are tempted and wrestle alone, famished for bread when the world offers stone, nourish us, God, by your word and your way, food that sustains us by night and by day.

“When in the desert we cry for relief, pleading for paths marked by certain belief, lift us to love you beyond sight and test, trusting your presence, our only true rest.

“When we are tempted to barter our souls, trading the truth for the power to control, teach us to worship and praise only you, seeking your will in the work that we do.

“When we have struggled and searched through the night, sorting and sifting the wrong from the right, Savior, surround us with circles of care, angels of healing, of hope, and of prayer” (“When We Are Tested,” 1996).

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