Sunday, March 5, 2017

March 5, 2017
First Sunday in Lent
If there's any more ubiquitous sound in the 21st century, it's hard to know what it would be. The clicking of a mouse and the tapping of the touch screen are the soundtracks of our daily lives. We get everything with a click -- from the news to ordering groceries to checking in with a distant friend. 

But while the Web has brought us ease of communication, it's also shouldered us with the burden of distraction. You can't read an online article, for example, without being bombarded with ads or worse, temptations to click on another article that may take you down a rabbit trail you never intended to follow.

Savvy Internet users call this "clickbait," which refers to any ad to lure us by posting sensational, salacious and seductive images and teasing headlines that tempt us to click on thempique your curiosity and suck you in. The headline usually doesn't deliver what it offers, and your "click" usually results in a bevy of more ads and useless information. 

For example, how about:

"Brady Bunch Secrets That Will Leave You Speechless."

"American Residents Born Between 1936 and 1966 Are in for a ..."

"What the 'Star Trek' Cast Looks Like Now Is Jaw-Dropping."

"21 Facts About the Amish Most People Don't Know." 

Click on any of those and you've burned an hour without even realizing it.

It's no wonder, then, that the devil himself is a master of clickbait. He's always trying to get people distracted from what really matters, he doesn't deliver on what he promises and he plays havoc with people who are driven by emotion rather than by faith. Biblically speaking, there's no greater example of how his clickbait strategy works than the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The way he refused to click on it can teach us a lot about dealing with temptation in our own lives.

The way Matthew tells the story of Jesus is very Jewish. There are echoes of the Old Testament all the way through his gospel, and here in chapter 4 we hear it very clearly. Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days, which is emblematic of the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert before entering the promised land, but even more a reminder of the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai to receive God's commandments (Exodus 24:18). In spite of the fact that God was present with them in cloud and fire and in the tabernacle, the Israelites still wrestled with what it meant to be God's people and gave in to temptation. (In fact, that's what "Israel" means: one who "wrestles with God.")

Matthew sets the scene of Jesus' own temptation in the wilderness using this imagery, and the temptations of Jesus reflect the temptations of Israel in the desert. The devil shows up to offer Jesus some salacious shortcuts for his ministry, which will reflect the mission of Israel, beginning each one with "If you are the Son of God ..." The question is whether Jesus will click on any of the devil's bait. Let us look at the three temptations of Jesus in clickbait form.

Clickbait Headline 1: "Making bread out of stones? The shocking dietary revolution that will change your life!" 

The devil's first piece of clickbait is to get Jesus to use his power to transform stones into bread. That must have been a real temptation for one who was "famished" after 40 days without food, but it's an even bigger temptation when put into context.

Many Jews in Jesus' day were hoping for a new exodus out of their practical slavery under Roman occupation. They were looking for a messiah who looked a lot like a new version of Moses, complete with God's provision of manna from heaven. Turning stones into bread would be a sure sign for the people that the messiah they were looking for had finally arrived. Satan wants Jesus to conform to the people's expectations. Why not? We expect the same! We want God to conform to our ideals.

Of course, we know that Jesus was quite capable of pulling off this miraculous recipe there in the desert. He would turn water into wine; he could certainly turn stones into bread. Elementary. All four gospels report that he could feed 5,000-plus people with just five loaves of bread and two fish, which was a sign of God's provision throughout his ministry. In John's version of that particular story, the people wanted to "take him by force and make him king" because of this miraculous multiplication of bread, indicating that their vision of the Messiah was one who could give them the manna they wanted (John 6:1-15). But John also tells us that, in response, Jesus "withdrew again to the mountain by himself" rather than take the bait. 

Jesus understood, however, that this clickbait temptation was about focusing on the product rather than the source. The Israelites wandering in the desert eventually got sick of eating manna day after day and whined to go back to Egypt where the menu had more variety (Numbers 11:1-6). They ignored the fact that God was the one keeping them alive and leading them toward the Promised Land. Bread alone wasn't enough to keep the people satisfied after all. 

Jesus responded to the devil by quoting Moses' own warning to the people: "God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Deuteronomy 8:3). Jesus was not dependent on his own ability to provide for himself and his people, but on God's provision and on God's promises. He knew that the devil's temptation was to produce a product rather than rely on the ultimate source from whom every good thing comes. Both he and his people needed more than a steady diet of bread -- they needed a steady diet of God and the Word to sustain them for the long haul. 

We're tempted to seek the quick and easy route to fill our empty bellies and empty souls. We fill up on products, both spiritual and material, that satisfy our need for a while. Jesus invites us to consider that the only thing that will truly satisfy us is the presence of God who supplies all that we need. That's the reason Jesus will later tell his disciples to pray for their "daily bread," and not for bread for a lifetime. When we feed on the Word of God and the Bread of Life, we are on a diet that brings health for eternity!

Clickbait Headline 2: "Man jumps from incredible height with no parachute. You won't believe what happens next!" 

The devil's second clickbait temptation was to get a kind of YouTube video of Jesus jumping off the pinnacle of the temple into the Kidron Valley with no net and no chute. The fall would have meant certain death, but the devil was certain that Jesus could land unscathed. 

Such a video would have gone viral instantly and ensured Jesus' celebrity status among all the people, not just the scraggly band of disciples and hangers-on who followed him around. The devil even tries to bait Jesus by using Scripture, quoting Psalm 91:11-12 to pump up the fact that God would provide an angelic safety net for the jump: "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone".

But, like a lot of clickbait of the semi-religious variety, the devil uses Scripture out of context. Psalm 91:9-10 says that God's protection is for circumstances that befall his people and not for those who stupidly test God by taking foolish risks, especially when those risks are designed to impress others. "If you make the Most High your dwelling, even the LORD, who is my refuge, then no harm will befall you". 

In response to the devil's clickbait, Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:16 which refers to Israel's testing of God in the wilderness by complaining about their lack of water: "Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah." Jesus says this right to the devil's face. "You want me to jump off this pinnacle? Not going to happen. Scripture says not to test God." 

Jesus had no doubts about the presence of God. He had nothing to prove. At the very beginning of his ministry, he was convinced he was following the will of the Father. Only hours or days before, he'd been baptized in the Jordan, and the heavens had opened and he had seen the "Spirit of God descending like a dove on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased'". In fact, those words are the last words of chapter 3. Immediately after those words are spoken, Jesus is led by the same Spirit to the wilderness. 

Does the devil think that Jesus might not believe that the God, who was with him in the waters of baptism just hours ago, was no longer with him now? Does the devil think that Jesus might actually test God's faithfulness and presence by flinging himself off the temple pinnacle without a birdman suit, looking like a crazed flying squirrel?

We can't know what the devil thought, but we do know what Jesus thought. It was a stupid idea to think that God was not with him. 

The lesson here is we don't tempt God; we don't test God. We don't make our plans and expect God to bless them. We don't intentionally engage in risky behavior and expect God to protect us. We don't bend Scripture to suit our purposes -- a huge temptation with respect to political issues.

Clickbait Headline 3: "The secret to world domination. It's easier than you think!" 

Every time I read of the temptations of Christ, and I am left thinking, "All the kingdoms of the world" have never really belonged to the devil, but his final offer is to make Jesus the kind of ruler the devil could live with -- one who worships him. That kind of ruler is the kind of political and military leader the world normally expects -- one who exercises power to keep everything in line without needing God's help to do it. The devil offers Jesus the world as it is and as everyone expects it to be. All he needs to do is to "fall down and worship" the devil and his way of owning and manipulating human hearts. 

But Jesus is not interested in the world as it is and as everyone expects it to be. He will come out of the wilderness preaching the reign and rule of God on the earth. This is a quite different governing system than the devil's rule. As the second person of the Trinity, He knows what was created and wants to get it back to resembling that.

The devil's kingdom is a kingdom of darkness; God's is a kingdom of light. The devil's kingdom is all about domineering authority; God's kingdom is about servanthood. The devil's kingdom is about coercion, violence and bondage; God's kingdom is about peace. The devil's kingdom is about the "pleasure principle"; God's kingdom is about holiness and right living. The devil's kingdom is based on lies and deception; God's kingdom is about the truth, which sets us free. The devil's kingdom is a culture of death; God's kingdom is a culture of life.

Jesus said that it is the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted who will inherit this kingdom -- those who "worship the Lord God and serve only him". When we're tempted to click on things that promote the world as the devil wants it, Jesus reminds us to turn our attention to the reality of the kingdom and not the devil's fantasy world. Jesus already rules his kingdom and calls us to join him in making it a reality on earth as it is in heaven. 

Jesus refused to be drawn in by the devil's clickbait. Interestingly, the devil, rebuffed three times, leaves Jesus alone, probably returning to Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell where he might feel more at home.

In any event, as we go about our daily lives, there are plenty of pop-up temptations that cross our paths and our screens every day. Jesus invites us to turn our attention to the wilderness, to the Word and to his wisdom. They're the only ads that really deliver!
Let us pray.
Father God, as we begin the season of Lent, help us to not only prepare for the glorious season of Easter, of which this is a precursor to, but to also help us to better prepare for the myriad of distractions that are placed on our path in our regular as well as our spiritual paths.
As with the Israelites in the desert and Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus too went through a period of 40. Although, as Your Son, He could not be tempted in the same way, however He is indeed tempted by Satan, the father of lies and not only overcomes this, but shows by example how we should lead our lives during temptation and how living by Your Word should be valued above all else.
During these weeks ahead, help us to know we do not live on bread alone, but on every Word of God. May the Holy Spirit keep us from the temptation to put You to the test, when we fully know all we need do is to pray and You WILL answer. And lastly, help us to be involved in the reality of life by knowing the true kingdom is the kingdom of God and not the fantasy world of the devil. We ask all this, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.