I’ve Been Here Before
There is a scene from The West Wing. You’re going to find that I bring up that show every now and again.
Leo McGarry is the White House Chief of Staff. He’s also an alcoholic.
A few years before the scene in the show, he was sober. And then he fell off the wagon. It was an important night during the president’s first campaign, and he was meeting with some donors, and they decided to have a drink. So Leo had a drink. And then another one. And then another one.
And someone in the scene asks him how he could have a drink.
And he replies, “I’m an alcoholic. I don’t have one drink… I don’t understand people who have one drink. I don’t understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How can you not want to feel like this longer?”
And he says, “My brain works differently.”
And I’m bringing up this scene because I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure that his brain really does work that differently
We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things:
In a God who you can’t see and, sometimes, who you can’t even feel.
In the idea that that God came to live as one of us, 2,000 years ago, in a backwater province of a great empire, among a dispossessed people.
That that God-become-one-of-us was executed by the powers or that empire… and that he got back up again.
That the sprit of that God is in us and around us and advocating for us and empowering us.
That someday, this world that is so messed up in so many ways, will get better.
And sometimes, we have to take those things on faith. We have to trust that they are true. Even if we can’t quite be sure.
But there is something in Christianity that is empirically verifiable. There is something in Christianity that we can know is true… for certain… without one iota of doubt: the world is messed up; we are messed up.
We all have our thing. We all have our things. We all have those feelings that we will pursue no matter what, no matter how it gets in the way of being the people we want to be, not matter how much it hurts us… or our friends… or our families… or complete strangers.
To put it in Christian terms: we all experience temptation and we all give in. I know I do.
In today’s reading, Jesus is tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Last week, we saw Jesus come to John the Baptizer in the river Jordan. And he asked John to baptize him. And John tried to respond the same way any of us would respond, “No. You are the Messiah, the king of kings and the lord of lords. Ineed to be baptized by you.”
And Jesus said, “No. We’re doing it this way.”
And John baptized Jesus. And as Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And you would think that would be the end of the story. Jesus is baptized, his sonship is confirmed, now it’s time to go into the world and recruit some disciples and perform some miracles and get on with things.
But no… we’re doing it this way. That same Spirit grabs Jesus and takes him into the wilderness: away from John and the river and his family and his community. And he fasts for forty days and forty nights and he is famished. And here comes the tempter.
“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? You’re hungry? Turn these stones into bread.”
“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here is the pinnacle of the Temple. Throw yourself down from here and have angels rescue you.”
“You’re the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased? Here are all the kingdoms of the world. You can have all of them. Just worship me.”
And I have to believe that Jesus was tempted. I have to believe that he was tempted because scripture says so: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit did not fail. And I have to believe that he was tempted because he is fully God and fully human, and temptation is part of being fully human.
Jesus resisted temptation. And part of how Jesus did that is by relying on scripture.
“You want me to turn stones into bread? ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
“You want me to throw myself off of the pinnacle of the Temple so that I can be rescued? ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
“You want me to worship you? ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
And the devil leaves… and that’s great. But the reality of temptation is that quoting scripture doesn’t always work. And the devil can quote scripture, too. And Jesus is still hungry.
The reality of temptation is that it is universal. We all have those moments when we are tempted to step away from the life that God wants us to have. For some of us, it’s the usual tempting culprits. I don’t need to name them. You know them.
For some of us, they are things that we can justify. For some of us, it’s the things that we can justify using scripture:
Homophobia: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
Greed: “Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19)
Child abuse: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24)
Refusing to help someone who is poor: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
The devil is a master of making sin look righteous. And he can quote scripture, too.
(And, by the way, that’s the danger of taking just a verse: context matters; interpretation matters; lovematters.)
And, for some of us, the culprit is the high we get from judging someone else who is being tempted or who has succumbed to temptation.
Temptation is universal. We have all been there. We have all failed. We are all in this together.
But here’s the thing: God has been there, too. Christ faced the devil. He prevailed, but he was tempted. It says so right in the Bible: the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
There is a scene from The West Wing. Josh is the Deputy White House Chief of Staff. And he has PTSD. Leo arranges for him to see a psychiatrist. And after Josh sees the psychiatrist, he talks to Leo. And Leo tells him a story:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
We are Christians. And Christianity asks you to believe a lot of things. And I’ll be honest, the biggest thing it asks us to believe is that God has been there, too.
The world is messed up; we are messed up. We are stuck in this hole and we don’t know how to get out. And Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy. It is so crazy that generations of people have criticized Christianity on the grounds that our God is too weak, and doesn’t crush his enemies under his foot, and doesn’t rule the world by force, like any real god would do.
Christ jumps in with us. And that’s crazy.
But Christ can truly say, “It’s okay. I’ve been here before. I know the way out. Follow me.”
That doesn’t mean that things will be easy. Being a Christian—taking the waters of baptism—doesn’t solve our problems all in one go.
After Jesus sends the devil away, he is still hungry. And angels show up to wait on him. And that… that doesn’t happen for us. Unless, by the grace of God, we serve each other. Unless we put aside that temptation to judge our friends and neighbors who are struggling with temptation. Unless we admit that we’ve all been there.
Unless we jump in the hole and say, “I’ve been down here before, and together, by the grace of God, we can find the way out.”
We are messed up, but we are not alone. We have each other. And we have a God who has been there before. Thanks be to God!