A sermon from the Rev. Jordan Hylden
What’s Worth Having Luke 4:1-13
I’m tempted to say that temptation isn’t what it used to be. Recently, I came across a column in the New York Times that compared the period drama Downton Abbey with the very much here-and-now HBO series Girls. Much of the drama of Downton, the column observed, comes from the way in which the characters chafe against the duties and restrictions of their roles, in a world where there’s a very specific place for everything and everyone. Can the daughter run off with the chauffeur? Can the servants move up in the world? Will middle-class cousin Matthew ever really be one of them? Can you follow your heart, even when duty and role says you mustn’t? Wouldn’t following your heart be somehow not properly English? And so on, and so forth.
Of course we know that, eventually, the old world of Lord Grantham will give way to the modern world that you and I live in, as portrayed so well by Lena Dunham’s series Girls. The show depicts a group of twenty-something women in today’s New York City, all of them trying to find love and happiness in one form or another, and all of them floundering rather sadly. Apparently, though I admittedly haven’t watched it, the show is a sort of anti-Sex in the City, with all of the freedom but none of the glamour. The girls live at the end of the social process that the world of Downton started, and by now there’s just no drama to be had about resisting temptation, about the clash between duty and desire—the girls are pretty much free to do what they want, to follow their hearts and desires without having to worry about class boundaries or religion or social norms getting in the way. In almost every respect, they’re freer than the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, and in many respects we’d probably judge that to be a good thing. The problem is that none of their free choices seem to have much meaning, carry much weight, make any lasting difference, or lead to real happiness. As the Times critic puts it, “What begins on Downton as a new liberty to follow your heart, to dare love that others find unwise, has culminated in Girls in romantic pursuits that are dully mercenary and often unwise.”
Girls depicts a world—our world—in which we can have anything we want, but there’s nothing to show us what’s worth wanting. “I don’t know what the next year of my life is going to be like at all,” says Marnie, a smart, pretty, rather lost twentysomething on “Girls.” “I don’t know what the next week of my life is going to be like. I don’t even know what I want. Sometimes I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘This is how you should spend your days, and this is how the rest of your life should look.”’
The struggle against temptation, you see, only makes sense if there’s something better out there that’s worth the struggle, if there’s something worth waiting for that’s better than the things you can have right now. If you can’t imagine something worth struggling for, then you’ll probably settle for the things you’ve already got. But if you really can’t imagine anything worth struggling for, then you’re certain to wind up as lost as one of those very free, very sad girls in New York. It really doesn’t matter if you’re free to have it all. What really matters is knowing what’s worth having.
In our Gospel text from Luke today, one of the things to notice is that none of what Jesus is tempted with seems very wrong at first glance. Jesus had been in the wilderness for forty days without food, and we’re told he was absolutely famished. The devil prompts him to whip up some Wonderbread, and what could be wrong with that? Especially for a starving man, isn’t that worth having? And the devil’s offer of power over all the kingdoms of the world—well, what could be wrong with setting things straight once and for all? Putting an end to all of the injustices of Caesar, restoring Israel’s freedom, bringing about peace and justice and harmony—isn’t that everyone’s dream? Isn’t that worth having? And then there’s the last one, which sounds like trusting God to save him from death. What could be wrong with that? We know from last week’s Gospel text that Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, and that he had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen to him when he got there. If Jesus had only lived longer, just think what he could have accomplished—what a pity to die so young, so tragically, with so much promise and his whole life ahead of him. Never married. Only just started in his career. Friends and family left behind. Isn’t that worth having most of all—life itself?
Luke is telling us something important about how temptation works. I doubt any of you are going to go home tonight and be seriously tempted to rob a bank or club a baby seal, or something positively awful like that. Temptation seldom works that way. It’s usually much more subtle—temptation usually means being tempted to let good things keep us from better things, to let smaller pleasures keep us from what really matters in life, from what brings true and lasting happiness. You probably won’t be tempted to abandon your spouse and kids. But you might be tempted to so dedicate yourself to your work, and to providing for your family, that you find they’ve started to become strangers living in your own home. You probably won’t be tempted to sexually abuse someone, God forbid. But you might be tempted to allow sex to get in the way of any real and lasting relationship. You probably won’t be tempted by anything that you know is deeply wrong, or cruel, or hateful. No, if you’re really tempted by something, you’re tempted because you think it’s good. The things that tempt us the most are precisely the things that we think will make us happy. What makes them temptations, is that they won’t.
So how do we know the difference? How can we tell what leads to real happiness, and what only leads to a shadow of the real thing? How do we learn what’s worth having, in a world where we can have anything we want?
In our passage, Jesus had a choice to make. He could have been a very different kind of Messiah, one who filled his belly with good things, basked in the adoration of the crowds, taken the power to have his way in the world, and avoided an early and humiliating execution. He could have, but he wasn’t. So in order to listen for the voice of God amidst the clamoring din of all of the other voices of the world, to find the narrow and difficult path of true happiness amidst the maze of wrong turns and dead ends, Jesus went out to the wilderness to fast and to pray. In the wilderness, he heard his Father’s voice.
Lent for us is meant to be a time in the wilderness, of setting aside the things that distract us from hearing God’s voice and keep us from following it. We give up things in Lent not to show God how pious we are, but to show ourselves what’s been keeping us from what really matters in life, and most of all from God. It’s to show ourselves how we’ve been thrashing around in the shallows, instead of plunging into the vast ocean of God’s love.
Jesus heard the voice of his Father in the wilderness, and found that the path that led to his Father in heaven was none other than the way of the cross. On this path he found that true happiness lay in loving his Father in heaven with all of his heart and mind and strength, and his neighbors as himself, even if it cost him everything. Jesus went to Jerusalem to give his life away in faith and love, only to find it again on the far side of Good Friday. Jesus showed us the path to happiness that lasts, to a full life of love so indestructible that not even betrayal and death can kill it.
This season of Lent, go to the wilderness. Set aside everything that keeps you from hearing the voice of Jesus, and from following in his footsteps. Spend time in prayer. Read the Scriptures and listen for God’s word. Pray that God will show you the things in your life that are keeping you from what really counts, and that he’ll set you again on the path that leads to what’s really worth having. Amen.
 Giridharadas, Anand. “Freedom Has Its Limits,” New York Times, 8 February 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/09/us/09iht-currents09.html?_r=0
 Cited in Giridharadas, “Freedom Has Its Limits.”