This is the first Sunday of Lent.  Today's scripture reading tells the parable of Jesus being tested, or tempted, by the Devil in the desert immediately after Jesus baptism by his cousin John. We are told that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights and after a time in the desert was tested and tempted by the Devil. We are called as Christians to live as Christ as we work towards becoming representatives of Christ. Therefore we fast during Lent in imitation of Jesus’ experience. Or, we "give up" some pleasures or consciously do extra acts of charity, or we commit to Lenten prayer practices.

For forty days Jesus fasted. Forty is a significant number in the Hebrew scriptures. Noah was deluged for forty days and nights. Moses fasted for forty days before he received the ten commandments. The Jews wandered in the desert for forty years. So forty signifies the fullness of time, in a sense. And that is why we, like Jesus, experience the forty days of penitence of Lent, preparing for the saving mystery of Easter.

Jesus was not just hungry during this period. Matthew and Luke both report three specific temptations that Jesus suffered at the hands of the Devil. He was hungry, and was tempted to turn stones into bread. He was probably feeling weak and lonely as he fasted in the hot desert wasteland and the Devil tempted him with great power and acclaim; and during those forty lonely days Jesus, human as well as divine, may have questioned who he was and the validity of his call, his mission. The Devil tempted him with doing away with himself to force God to prove that he was who he thought he was.

Jesus did not sin during these forty days. He was tempted, but resisted. To be tempted is very different from sinning. To sin is to give in to temptation. We pray every day to be led away from temptation, and to be protected from the powerful urges and tricks the Devil uses on us, as he did on Jesus.

Since this is Lent, we are in a penitent frame of mind, are we not? Aren’t we calling to mind the sins we have committed over the past year, and resolving to resist each temptation this year? If we aren’t there yet, let’s take a look at both the temptations we are likely to encounter during Lent - and during the rest of the year – and, let’s take a look at what the results are, the sins we will commit if we yield to these temptations.

Temptation and Sin. Between the Bible and modern psychology we understand there are three great temptations common to all humans, and seven deadly sins we commit if we yield to these three temptations. First the sins. We are all familiar with seven deadly sins, seven mortal sins, seven cardinal sins. Whatever name they are given, there is generally agreement on what they are, and that they poison our souls and hinder our spiritual development.

Here are the seven sins of yielding to temptation:

  1. Pride. The Latin word for this sin is Superbia. We think we are superb. In modern parlance, cool, successful, terrific people, popular, admired and admirable, a tribute to our species, race, town and family. Superior to most, second to none.
  2. Envy. Invidia. Invidious burning because others are getting what we, in our pride, believe we deserve, or just want anyway. That's mine; how dare they?
  3. Lust. The Latin word is Luxuria, luxury, extravagance. Lust is not just - or even mostly - sexual. It is a desire to be pleased, to have our senses gratified. Whether the eye in beauty, the stomach in the best foods or the finest and newest houses, cars, clothes, toys or tools.
  4. Anger. Ira. This is also known as Wrath. This is how we feel and the violence we express when we are thwarted at what we want, or crossed, or insulted or not treated with all the respect and deference our pride demands.
  5. Gluttony. Gula. Enough is never enough. Gluttony is not just with food. We want what we want and lots of it. Gimme’, gimme’, gimme’. Ceaseless, insatiable demands for anything are signs gluttony is working its dark magic on your soul.
  6. Greed.  Avaritia. I want what you have because I don’t want anyone else to have it. I will corner the market and control the flow. It’s mine to hold and keep and grow. How much money is enough? There is no amount enough as long as someone else has more.
  7. Sloth. The Latin is Acedia, which is a better word to describe this seventh deadly sin. Sloth is just laziness. Acedia is not caring. Being lukewarm about things. Lacking zeal, energy, commitment. Having no desire to perfect your soul, no desire to cope with the daily struggles and reach the goal of a well-lived life.

These are the sins, the fruits of temptation. But, what are the three temptations that lead to these sins?  Jesus suffered three temptations at the hand of the Devil. Modern science has not improved on the Bible in identifying these three common and destructive temptations, but we are possibly more familiar with the modern vocabulary. The temptations are not evil in themselves. It's when we yield to the temptation that we sin.

The three great temptations are (1) excessive demand for physical safety and security, (2) excessive demand for power and control, and (3) excessive demand for pleasure, affection, belonging.  It’s worth repeating: (1) excessive demand for physical safety and security, (2) excessive demand for power and control, and (3) excessive demand for pleasure, affection, belonging. 

The three needs themselves are normal human needs, common to everyone. These needs are necessary, healthy - normal. But, when the needs are magnified to excess they are the temptation to sin. And that is the insidious nature of temptation. It is a distortion of the normal and necessary. We all need some degree of personal safety and security. We all need some measure of independence and freedom from oppression by others, and we all have reasonable needs for pleasant experiences and social acceptance. Too little of any of these, and we suffer – without attention to safety we can fall off a cliff. Without any pleasure in food or art, we can become sterile or barren. Without any love or esteem, we can become withdrawn or crabby hermits.

Too much of any of these and we sin. And that is the course we need to steer as spiritually growing humans. Too little security, love or independence and we suffer and wither and fail as humans; too much fearfulness, luxury-seeking or domination of others and we sin. Just the right amount and we are following the strait and narrow path Jesus described as the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us look at the first. Jesus was hungry. He wanted to satisfy his sensate desire for the taste, fullness and blood sugar lift of food after his long fast. The Devil temped Jesus to satisfy this craving by using his divine powers for personal sensory satisfaction. Jesus response; Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. He armored himself against yielding to sensory temptation by reference to scripture.

Then too, Jesus was alone in the desert. The Devil tempted Jesus by showing him all the cities and kingdoms of the world spread out before him. He whispered to Jesus that all power over the world had been given him, the Devil, and he could give this power to whomever he chose. All Jesus had to do was agree to worship the Devil rather than God – and power, acclaim, honor, control would be his. No longer alone and vulnerable. Jesus response again was from scripture – You shall worship the Lord your God and him alone.

Finally, as Jesus was weakened from lack of food and drink, maybe approaching delirium, the Devil worked him over again. In the spirit he took Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem. “Are you really who you think you are? Are you really in God’s hands doing his work? Here’s how to really prove it to yourself. Throw yourself off this tower and he will send his angels to save you. “After all,”  said the Devil, this time quoting Psalm 91, remember, the Devil knows scripture, too, For He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. They will lift you up in their hands so you will not strike your foot upon a stone. Jesus resisted that temptation by responding again from scripture – You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.  

We’ve seen Jesus respond to these temptations by looking inside for the right scriptural answer. One of the fruits of Bible study are these ready responses to specific temptations – but, we also need the will to apply them. There is another tool to resist temptation. As you pray, the Spirit responds with what are called fruits of the Spirit. These are mentioned in several places in the New Testament. I want to just name a few of these fruits of the Spirit – just seven. For each of the seven deadly sins there is a corresponding grace-given virtue. These seven virtues are spiritual armor and the antidote to commission of the seven sins.

The sin of Pride is defeated by the virtue of Humility.
Envy is opposed by extending the virtue of human Kindness.
Lust is opposed by chastity, a pure simplicity which defeats extravagance.
Anger is dissolved by the virtue of Patience, which reveals how stupid sustained wrath is.
Gluttony is resolved by the virtue of Temperance, which doesn’t require abstinence, but asks us to measure consumption against need.
Greed is conquered by the virtue of Charity, which causes us to want to give for the sake of others rather than take away what they have.
Sloth is turned into energized spiritual zeal by the virtue of Diligence, which reminds us we are put on the earth with a job to do. And that job, for each of us, is with perseverance, to diligently pursue our calling.

So folks, here we are at the beginning of Lent. Temptations will come. Whether or not we fast, one way or another temptations will come.  We’ll be tempted by fears for our family’s security, health or well-being, we’ll be tempted by not feeling in control of events or our kids or parent’s behavior towards us, or our superiors at work making unreasonable demands, or we’ll be tempted by foods we shouldn’t eat, buying things we don’t need, overdoing, overindulging. Each of us knows where our weaknesses are. And be assured, the Devil knows that too – even better than we do. And especially during Lent, when we pay special attention to our need to turn our face in a better direction, to repent and focus on doing better. That is the moment the Devil is most afraid of losing his hold on us and will come to us in a beautiful, attractive disguise and whisper in our ear exactly what he knows we want to hear. That’s what he did to Jesus in the desert, and that’s what he does to us.

We will experience temptations during Lent as we do all year. During Lent, we heighten the likelihood of temptation by deliberately focusing on our spiritual health by resolving to give up, to not eat, to refrain from, to stop. In each of these practices we are rehearsing our resistance to temptation, strengthening our ability to turn away from the Devil's enticements. Each of these small temptations we resist during Lent works to remind us of the bigger temptations we faced last year and the temptations to come; the  temptations we need to resist - if we are to avoid the mortal, deadly sins, the sins that lead to despondency and depression, the sins of envy, of greed, of gluttony, of pride, of lust, of anger – of sloth.

As we close, we need to answer, “How do we deal with these temptations?” First by recognizing the temptation is not powered from outside, it tickles a responsive chord within us. These triggering events may come from outside us, but they hit us square in our primal needs. Those rich desserts on the table trigger exaggerated needs for pleasure, rumors and news trigger exaggerated needs for security, people in authority over us making unreasonable demands triggers exaggerated need for control. Excessive, irrational exaggeration of these three primal needs for pleasure, security and control are what lead us to commit the seven deadly sins. But, if we follow the gospel, armed with the scriptural virtues of patience, temperance, humility, kindness, chastity, diligence and charity, we can take the secure middle road.  The middle road is not denying or exaggerating our needs for pleasure and affection, our needs for security or our needs for control. The middle road, the gospel way is asking ourselves, “Is this too little, is this too much, or is this just enough?”

Think of Lent as a warm-up practice of perseverance, of resistance to the more subtle temptations of the Devil. Because certainly we will face the real thing. Pray that when temptation comes we will resist the Devil as did Jesus. But, we have to decide to put on Christ’s spiritual armor. Remember when the enemy stabs you – and the Devil will – Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins, and as long as we are in the fight, the healing medicine of repentance restores us – we are loved, and we are forgiven.