Today I want to take a trip down memory lane with you. Do you remember these bracelets? Who has ever worn one of these? (Livestrong wristband)
Is anyone still wearing it?
I remember the days when those wristbands were everywhere. And not only that, first there were yellow wrist bands, then red ones, then pink ones, then rainbow colored ones – these yellow wrist bands by the Livestrong foundation, with its mission being the fight against cancer and the support of families affected by cancer, inspired many other non-profit organizations to come up with their own wrist bands. Those wrist bands made a statement. I support this, I support that.
Now there is a reason why we don’t see many, if any, of those yellow wrist bands around anymore. The Livestrong Foundation was founded by and led until 2012 by Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and amazing bicyclist. He won the Tour de France a record breaking 7 consecutive years, from 1999 to 2006. But then, in 2012, he was stripped of all his titles because he was convicted of doping, of cheating.
Lance Armstrong’s story was the quintessential story of survival and the beating of all the odds. I read Armstrong’s autobiography, It’s not about the bike, in 2000. In this book, Armstrong describes the long and hard road from being diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to the brain and the lungs, in 1996, to winning his first Tour the France in 1999. Throughout the book, Armstrong would mention doping suspicions against him, and he would vehemently defend himself against those allegations. And I was on his side! Oh, how I wanted to believe that Armstrong beat cancer and went on to be the greatest bicyclist of all times by sheer hard work and determination. How I wanted to believe that Armstrong winning the battle against cancer prepared him to win the grueling race of the Tour de France.
And those yellow bracelets, seen on millions of wrists around the world, demonstrated: there were many who wanted to believe him, there were many who wanted to believe this miraculous story of survival, this dream come true. Even more so because Armstrong didn’t just rest on his laurels, but gave back to the community. More than 500 million dollars were raised through the Livestrong foundation, partly through the sale of these bracelets. And even though Armstrong fell from grace in 2012, still in 2014 3.8 million dollars were raised – 2014 being the last year numbers are available for.
Many families who didn’t know how to deal with mounting medical bills because of a cancer diagnosis have been given grants by the foundation. Cancer research was supported. Programs for cancer education were funded. All this admittedly good work probably would not have been accomplished, if it hadn’t been for Armstrong’s successes and popularity. And I am sure there are many out there still today who may be thinking: I don’t care if Armstrong cheated. If it hadn’t been for his foundation, I wouldn’t have gotten the help and support I needed. What can be so bad about that? Which leads to the question: does the goal always justify the means? I am thinking it would be easy for many of us to be tempted to do the wrong thing for the right reasons.
And Jesus , full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where, after forty days of fasting, he was tempted by the devil. Feed the world! Rule the earth! Show the world your divine powers!
Jesus could have had it all, right there, right then, in the wilderness. No suffering, not death on the cross. Instant power without all the downsides of human nature.
It’s not as if Satan out there in the wilderness tempted Jesus to do horrible things. I mean, why not turn stones into bread and feed the world? That would be a good thing. Imagine, being able to show our Christian love and to bring instant relief to all those suffering from hunger. If we had the power to do it – wouldn’t we?
Why shouldn’t Jesus rule the world? After all, Jesus is God, who wants the best for all of creation. How could he pass up on such an opportunity, to bring about what we all hope for, God’s kingdom of justice and peace and grace, and maybe restore the wounded creation at the same time as well? If we had the power to do it – wouldn’t we?
Why not demonstrate faith in God by trusting that God is there when we fall? What’s wrong with that? If we had the power to do it – wouldn’t we?
Satan is trying to tease out of Jesus all that is good: love, hope, faith. Yet, as we would say in German, there is a Teufelsfuss, a devil’s foot, attached to the whole thing. The obvious thing: Jesus is supposed to worship Satan. But then I think we have a reference to the very first temptation story of the Bible: the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and the temptation to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent’s promise to the woman is: you will be like God if you eat from that tree. And what a temptation that is!
Basically, what Satan is doing in the wilderness is dangling the same bait in front of Jesus’ face – you will be like God, all powerful, all good, all merciful. But Jesus is not all God; Jesus is fully human as well, and as a human being his will comes second to the will of God the loving parent. I imagine Jesus in agony, not as some strong and heroic figure. I imagine Jesus in agony over being so close to having his desires for a better world fulfilled. And yet, he knows that the means to get there are wrong. That, once he gives into temptation, he would be prone to be tempted again. And again. And again. Jesus knows that giving into temptation eventually would corrupt him. Who knows what Satan might ask next of him to achieve his goals? Maybe use violence? There are many examples in history of people with good intentions who were corrupted by the temptations of ideology, money, power and fame. But Jesus, very human Jesus, manages to ward off temptation. It is possible. You don’t need to be superhuman to not give in when desire nags at you.
Innocence was lost the day human beings bit into the fruit that stirred up the desire in them to be like God. Humanity, we all, are under the spell of desire. We all want. And where there is want, there is temptation.
We all have eaten from the fruit of knowledge. We are all full of wants and desires, some good, some better, some not so good. And throughout life, we will be tempted to get what we want. Even at the cost of the welfare of others. Even at the cost of integrity and honesty.
Often that will lead us into dilemmas. To come back to the tragic example of Lance Armstrong, sometimes it will seem that something that is wrong, like cheating, can be used to do a good thing. Often, we don’t even have to make decisions between an obvious right and wrong, but often between a good and another good – between an okay solution and another okay solution – sometimes even between something which we know is bad, but the alternative could be even worse. We are prone to fall. We are prone to fail. We are prone to make the wrong decision. Temptation, testing, or, as the German says, Anfechtung is everywhere.
My prayer is that, like the human Jesus, we will be able to recognize the devil’s foot in the decisions we make and give God’s will priority over our own. That we will not just look out for ourselves first, but keep the commonwealth in mind. Prayer is a good way to do that, to just be open to God’s voice in our lives, and to get help with decision making this way.
However, even a spiritual giant like Martin Luther knew about our humanity and our tendencies to make un-godly decisions, even with prayer. And that’s why he could say, “Sin boldly” – not to give us a blank check, but to give us courage to make decisions and take responsibility for them before God and our neighbor; Luther knew that, with a contrite heart, God’s forgiveness and mercy are always granted.
Our lives often lead through wilderness terrain. The journey we are on is not an easy one. Not even baptism can shield us from temptation and wrong decisions. May our 40 day journey through the wilderness of Lent reconnect us with the loving will of God for all and everything, and may God’s loving will become our desire which we follow passionately. And may God accompany us through the wilderness of life and maybe even send some angels to guard and protect us from all temptation and all evil.