Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Post-truth is an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In 2016, “Post-truth” was Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. In a July 2017 article by Lausanne Global Analysis, the term “post-truth” is closely linked with another popular phrase of our time, “fake news.”
Some fake news is generated with a specific agenda, but, as stated in the 2017 Lausanne article, a lot of fake news is simply a matter of careless, unverified reporting, or malicious attempts of greedy people to gain money and power through reporting of fake news on social media, thus generating ad money and attention globally. Additionally, a 2016 survey by Pew Research Center states that 23% of people have shared fake news, either knowingly or not. And let’s face it; that was four years ago. What might the percentage be in today’s social media reports?
There are a number of psychological reasons why people believe and share fake news. First, in today’s social media culture, people have the tendency to share and like posts that have more likes and shares. Closely related to the definition of post-truth, people also tend to share posts that move them emotionally rather than those that contain objective information. And finally, people are much more likely to believe news, even if it’s fake, if the news aligns with their previously held world-view or ideas.
So what does this mean for Christians seeking to learn about the world around them? And how does this relate to today’s Bible texts? First, people have always been curious and have always been confronted with new experiences and new information. Second, while fake news may now be a little easier to create and spread due to the speed of internet and social media, fake news is not a new thing. In fact, as we see in our Bible text today, even Jesus is tempted with fake news which comes from a place of truth but gets twisted. Even the temptation of Adam and Eve occurs as a result of the devil manipulating words to imply truth which really isn’t the truth at all.
Temptation is and has always been a large part of human existence, hasn’t it? From the Old Testament lesson in Genesis on the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden, to the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the gospel text for this week, to the regular temptations we face in our everyday life, there always seems to be a way that temptation tries to get the best of us. Jesus even teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer to ask for God’s help in avoiding temptation! The challenging thing about temptation is that it often disguises itself as truth, or part truth, when in fact temptation is really fake news–the lie that something else is more important than God’s love for us or the love we have for others.
Let’s take a look at the Old Testament reading and Gospel reading for this week. First, in Genesis, the sneaky serpent takes the words that God commands and turns them into a lie that seems true…in other words, fake news. Adam and Eve have been told by God that they can eat of ANY tree in the garden except one; the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and that if they eat from this tree they will die. Then the serpent begins tempting them by asking a negative question; “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Already, the tempter is trying to paint a negative picture of God’s words.
Of course when someone starts with a question that gets you thinking about what you can’t do, you are going to hear the rest of the story in a different way! Then, the snake tells them that the real reason God doesn’t want them to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is to keep them from being as knowledgeable as God. The snake turns the truth, that they will die, into something that seems more desirable by telling them that they will be as knowledgeable as God.
In the Gospel reading from Matthew, the devil uses words from the Old Testament, in two cases, almost direct quotes. But, again, as with the fake news in Genesis, the truth is found in the meaning behind the words. God gives us the promises in Old Testament scripture as signs of God’s faithfulness, comfort, and love, whereas the devil uses them to tempt Jesus into showing power and testing God. Jesus shrewdly answers the devil with scripture as well; reminding the devil of the true meaning behind the scriptures. What we see, however, in both stories, is the devil using fake news or post-truth to try and draw us from God and the life and love God promises.
So, what are the devils or temptations in our own lives today that draw us away from the freedom, love, and life that God promises us? Perhaps the fake news for us is found most readily in the form of advertisements and marketing that tell us we need certain products to live a fabulous life or be better people. We are told we need these things to be more beautiful or handsome, “cooler” or more accepted and appreciated. Another daily temptation is to post things on social media whether or not they are true, so that we can gain more attention and power.
Maybe the temptation to give in to convenience lies to us and tells us we can do more, when really, the more we add to our lives, the less time we have for what is most important…God, our families, friends and other loved ones, and caring for our neighbors.
Today’s Gospel helps us to understand in a world of post-truth that temptation is really fake news. As people of God, we are given the assurance of love, acceptance, belonging, forgiveness, mercy, and unconditional grace. These we are called to share with all people.
As we combat the reality of “fake news” in our world—the lies that people tell about others and the world, the lies we tell ourselves, and the temptations which draw us away from loving and living freely—are called to face temptation and tempters with words similar to those used by Jesus. We confess our love and trust in God, so that we don’t test God, but live fully in reliance on God’s truth and faithfulness, even in the wilderness of life.
In Lent we wrestle with temptation, Beloved. We’re led into the spiritual wilderness to see just what we’re made of. And what are we made of? Well, you heard this past Wednesday: dust. Which means, in the wilderness times we don’t rely on our greed, miracles, or power. We rely, instead, on God.
I really appreciate the groupings of Scripture during Lent in the Year A lectionary. The messages of the combined readings feel particularly Lutheran, in that all the texts argue that 1) it is God, not the results of human efforts, who grants us grace and pardon and 2) as a responsibility of God’s gracious adoption of us as dearly beloved children, we have work to do in the world.
This is why confession is so important. We are not sinful all the way down, but we are harassed by temptation and sin. This reality must be dealt with as part of our continual turning toward Christ. During Lent, it is not uncommon to find a confession of sin, often expressed corporately in worship:
- Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.
Statements such as these are important because they help us name sin for what it is, both in our personal lives (e.g., lack of compassion for the needy) and in the social structures around us (e.g., systemic racial bias). We become capable of seeing how we, like Adam, have given in to temptation.
To be certain, there is liberation to be found in confession, but if we left it there, we will not have arrived at hope. So confession is not the last liturgical word, for it is followed by an assurance of forgiveness, a moment when we acknowledge and receive God’s gift of grace. Then, like Jesus in the wilderness, we discover that “steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord” (Psalm 32:10), and we are filled with hope as we continue on our Lenten journey with Jesus.