Have you ever bargained with God? Have you ever been in one of those situations where you say, “Get me out of this just this one time, God, and I promise I’ll never eat anything left out overnight again”? “Just do this one thing, God, and I swear I’ll go to the gym every day from now on.” You ever done that?
Yes, you have. . . Have you ever followed through with it? Those of you who say you have followed through, have you ever lied about anything else?
We’ve all tried to bargain with God. We’ve all tried to persuade God to show mercy, to use divine power, to perform a miracle, persuade someone to see things our way, to rescue us from this situation where we feel incredibly vulnerable and helpless. Sometimes it’s as trivial as a speeding ticket (just get me a warning and I’ll never speed again!); sometimes as agonizing as the death of someone you love. But we’ve all experienced that helplessness, that vulnerability, where there’s nothing else we can do but hope God or someone intervenes. Because whatever it is, is beyond what we have any control or power over.
When we are that powerless, that weak, that helpless, that alone, it’s like we’ll grasp at any straw to change it. When we are so overwhelmed with the situation, we’ll say anything, do anything, just to get through it.
I gotta think that’s where Jesus is in this gospel text. Absolutely overwhelmed, helpless, vulnerable. He’s just been baptized by John and his mission as Savior of all creation has just been declared from the Father. He heads out into the wilderness to regroup, think this through. And at the height of his vulnerability, the text says that’s when the devil came to visit him. Of course that’s when that would happen! If Jesus is feeling all pumped up and strong, excited about what’s coming, nothing could tempt him away from that. But when we’re weak and confused and desperate and defenseless, we all know how quickly we’re tempted to cave in and cry out.
Here’s what I’m noticing in this gospel reading, though. Look at the first six words. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit.” Before he ever went into the wilderness. Before he began his 40-day fast. Before the devil came to him. Before there was any temptation. Before any of it, he was full of the Holy Spirit. Fresh from the baptismal waters of the Jordan River, he was Spirit-filled, and ready for the wilderness.
The point here isn’t that Jesus resisted temptation, therefore you really ought to try harder. It’s that when facing temptation because we are in a situation where we are weak and vulnerable, the Holy Spirit is there and we are filled.
The point is not that if you were stronger you wouldn’t cave in. It’s that at those times when we cannot try harder, the Holy Spirit sustains us.
The point is not that weak people should feel guilty. It’s that because we are weak, the Holy Spirit comes to us in our weakness.
The point isn’t that you better resist temptation in order to be closer to God. It’s that because we cannot always resist temptation, God comes closer to us.
The Holy Spirit is the presence of God. She is the love of God with you. She fills you with forgiveness, comfort, and hope. Not because you are strong enough to resist temptation, but because you are not.
When you are in a situation where you are powerless and vulnerable, the Holy Spirit has filled you up—with God’s love, with God’s tender mercy, with God’s forgiveness.
When you are overwhelmed and helpless, the Holy Spirit is present with you—bringing grace and compassion.
When you cave in, when you are confused, when you are too weak to resist, the Holy Spirit is there for you—in hope and with a new start.
This isn’t a “become more like Jesus” text. It’s a “know the comfort of the Holy Spirit” text. It’s a “receive God’s forgiveness” text. The Holy Spirit fills you with mercy and forgiveness, not because you are as strong as Jesus, but because you are not.
So guess what? Next time we’re in a situation where we find ourselves bargaining with God, where we are helpless to change our circumstances, the Holy Spirit is, at that moment, already filling you to overflowing with the forgiveness and mercy of a loving God. Not because we are free from brokenness, but precisely because we are not.
Know the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Live in the forgiveness of the Holy Spirit. For you are filled with the mercy of the Holy Spirit. When you resist temptation, and especially when you do not.