A traveler is walking alone across a wilderness. Suddenly, he hears a weird growl and the sound of ominous footsteps coming toward him. It is a huge elephant charging straight for him. He panics and runs as fast as he can. But he makes a wrong turn leading him to a cliff. Fortunately, there’s a tree standing on the edge of the cliff. But he has no time to climb it. So he quickly grabs one of the ivy vines hanging from the tree and clings to it. Now, he looks down to see if there’s any way out. But to his surprise, there are large venomous snakes waiting for him to fall. Making matters worse, two mice, one white and the other black, appear out of nowhere, and takes turns gnawing the vine—his only lifeline. At this desperate moment, something strange happens. There’s a beehive over him on the branch, and it starts to drop some honey to his face. He licks it a little bit and finds it really sweet and delicious. So he keeps on licking the honey and wants it more and more. After a while, he totally gets addicted to this small pleasure, and forgets all the dangers he is in.
What’s going on here? This story sounds ridiculous, right? This bizarre and even comical story is actually a famous Buddhist illustration of human life. I know, it’s from another religious tradition, but I think, it gives us a poignant description of life with some universal wisdom.
Let me explain its symbolism and it will make sense to you. Here, the traveler represents us, humans. We, lonely travelers, take a journey of life through a wilderness. And there, every one of us encounters death coming toward us like the huge elephant. We try to run away. But we can’t avoid it because there’s a cliff, a certain end. We have to jump off of the cliff and hold on to the ivy vine, which signifies, our uncertain lifespan. And do you remember the two mice gnawing the ivy vine? They represent the passage of time. The white mouse is the symbol of day and the black mouse, night. So day and night take turns and shorten our lives. The venomous snakes in the bottom mean endless sufferings that are ready to devour us. But in this desperate situation, we humans don’t realize the danger and even forget about it. How come? It’s because of the sweet and delicious honey—worldly desires and pleasures. The more we lick it, the more we get indulged and addicted, and the more we lose our mind.
What a stark picture of our life. Like the story shows us, we are stuck. We can never be free from the matter of death. And our fragile ivy vines are being cut even at this very moment. But in reality, we live as if our life would last forever and keep on craving for more honey. Then, what’s the solution here? What might be the way out of this seemingly inescapable situation?
For your information, the Buddhist solution is like this. Wake up! Realize that all this situation is just an illusion. Wake up from your dream. This is what the Buddhist enlightenment is about. But for us, Christians, the solution is certainly different. Our Christian faith understands that it’s impossible for humans to find their own way out by themselves; it’s impossible to renounce all the temptations in life. Look at today’s Genesis story about Adam and Eve. Even though the serpent makes an offer they can’t refuse, they themselves also find the fruit is, the Bible says, “a delight to the eyes,” and “to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 2:6). Yes, the Bible is honest about us. And I believe, this biblical assessment on human nature is so true. It’s impossible for us to reject all the honeys of the world and make the way out by our own ability and willpower.
Then, what’s the Christian solution for us, for humans who are bound to the chains of temptation, sin, and death? Here, our Christian faith opens our eyes to see a person coming into the picture of our life. This person was the same human just like us, but there’s something different, something special, in him. He came, renounced temptations, put up the way out to set us free. Who is this person? Yes, Jesus Christ.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is tempted by the devil. The devil brings Jesus to the cliff and offers him the finest and sweetest honey of the world so that he may lose his purpose and forget who he is just like other humans.
The first temptation targets on his hunger, a basic human need. The devil lures him to satisfy it by using his power. After fasting 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus is famished. But he renounces the temptation, saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:3-4). The second temptation targets on Jesus’ vulnerability. The devil attracts Jesus to earn security and fame by using God’s power. If Jesus would jump off of the pinnacle of the temple and get rescued by angels, he could be easily called the Messiah and draw many followers. But Jesus rejects the devil. The last temptation targets on Jesus’ human ego. After showing him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” the devil asks him to get them by using the devil’s power (4:8). “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (4:9). But Jesus overcomes this final temptation.
Follow your human urge. Satisfy your need. Crave your desire. Don’t you know you can use your power, God’s power, and even my power anytime you want? Just tell me. You can have it all. The finest and sweetest honey of this world is yours if you only ask. The devil’s temptation is strong and tries to bind Jesus tightly. But Jesus renounces this temptation. He becomes free and finally, paves a way out of the cliff. And the way he opened…he opened it for all. So the people who has followed Jesus and taken his way also find freedom. Which way is this? It is the way he made by his sacrifice, the way of freedom…yes, it’s the way of the cross.
Faithful friends in Christ, please remember our Christian solution to the matter of life and death is always the cross. Paul proclaims in his Letter to the Romans, “[Jesus’] act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5:18). The way of the cross…this way of freedom reveals, there’s a different life in Christ, a life free from human bondage to sin and death, a life free from the fragile ivy vine, and from the worthless honey. And this way of God’s grace saves us from the deadly cliff and leads us to follow Jesus and join his victory. So we give thanks and praise to our God for this amazing act of righteousness of Jesus.
On this first Sunday in Lent, Jesus calls us to open our eyes, look around, and see the true picture of our life, the stark picture of our status quo filled with our hidden addictions and flaws, our greed and sinfulness. And today, Jesus also calls us to take his way of the cross with our faith. He leads us to renounce temptations, sins, and all the spiritual forces of wickedness. And he leads us to walk up the way out of the cliff in our continuous works of piety and mercy. Pray. Meditate. Examine yourself before God. Repent. Love. Forgive. Build up the church. Carry out missions for the lost and the least among you. Share the good news with others. Jesus is calling us. So from today through this Season of Lent and beyond, let us cling to the cross. Let us cling to the old rugged cross of our Lord, join his freedom from temptation and his victory over sin and death. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim