Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
It is a pretty dramatic scene that we see played out in the gospel text this evening, sandwiched between two key events. It follows Jesus’ baptism—at which the words “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” were pronounced—and is followed by his appearance in the synagogue in Galilee, in which he marked the beginning of his public ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah and announcing “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
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In between these two events is this story of Jesus’ forty day fast in the wilderness, and while Luke tells us that Jesus was “led by the Spirit,” in Mark’s telling the Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness.” That stronger language of being “driven” suggests to me that there was something non-negotiable about that wilderness time; that it wasn’t as if Jesus was booking a room at a retreat centre to do some personal development or soul-searching. God required Jesus to do this, much as in the Hebrew scriptures God required both Moses and Elijah to observe forty day wilderness fasts at hinge moments in their lives.
This is where God needs him to be. This is God’s beloved; worn, weakened and famished. This is God’s Son, alone in the wilderness and facing down the temptation to take an easier path. As Teresa of Avila famously said, “If this is how God treats his friends, no wonder he has so few of them.”
The tempter arrives, offering to him that different path. In the popular imagination, the “devil” tends to be portrayed as being… well, as being clearly “devilish.” The very face of evil, with horns and a tail, and look in its eyes that leaves no doubt as to its destructive and malicious intent. Yet if we look at the nature of these three temptations, there is something terribly reasonable about them… which is why they are real temptations. To imagine a figure who looks monstrous or demonic is to risk missing the depth of Jesus’ temptation. There is another artistic tradition of showing this devil as an attractive young man—Titian’s sixteenth century painting, “The Temptation” is an example—or as the most beautiful of angels. In the imagination of the contemporary illustrator Si Smith, when the devil enters the scene, he looks like a robust and healthy mirror image of the weakened and hungry Jesus. Such imagery strikes closer to the heart of Jesus’ struggle.
There are three temptations. The first is to turn stones into bread, and thereby deal with his gnawing hunger. It is temptation to serve himself and his own needs—very real and very basic human needs, by the way—regardless of any higher calling. The second is to take hold of power; power over all of the kingdoms of this world. The price is to bow down to the ever-so-reasonable devil, who claims to hold in his hands “their glory and all this authority.” The third is what Scott Shauf calls a “cross-avoiding spectacle.”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Prove that you really are God’s son… impress them all with this grand act… you have nothing to lose and everything to gain…
To each temptation Jesus responds by quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. “One does not live by bread alone.” “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” That’s it. Jesus refuses to engage in a debate with his adversary, perhaps to avoid dignifying the devil’s way of being in the world. Maybe, though, it is because at this point Jesus is so vulnerable and these temptations are so real and so reasonable that he knows to debate is to risk it all. Best just to speak the words of his scriptural mother tongue. As we heard read in this evening’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim).” (10:8) “For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” (10:13) Here Paul is actually quoting from the same Hebrew scriptural tradition as was Jesus; in this case from Deuteronomy 30:4 and Joel 2:32 respectively.
This is language with which we can tell the truth, and by which we can locate ourselves differently; in defiance of the temptations to narrow self-fulfillment, self-centered power, and self-serving spectacle. It is a vocabulary that cuts across the grain of all of that, and invites us on a better, truer, though sometimes tougher—even cross-shaped—path.
According to N.T. Wright, “The dictionary definition of the Greek word for ‘sin’ is ‘missing the mark.’ Sin, like a misfired arrow, drops short of the call to true humanness, to bearing and reflecting God’s image.” That is a very helpful image to keep in view as we consider this story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. He was not wrestling with the temptation to do something bad in any sort of moralistic sense, but rather to trade his deeper calling for something else. It is the same with us, and so Wright continues, “The real answer to temptation is not ‘God will be cross if I do that,’ but ‘if I do that, I will miss the best that my Father has for me.’” We will, in this sense, fall short of the intended mark, which is to bear and reflect God’s image deep within us.
As Luke sets forth this story, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” That’s quite a phrase, really: “until an opportune time.” It suggests that while Jesus has weathered this particular storm of temptations, it is not as if he is entirely home free or without ongoing struggles. There will be other days when hard choices will need to be made.
Still, as Scott Shauf observes in his comments on this narrative, “The temptation story… has as a primary point to show what Jesus is not going to do in his ministry. The Nazareth synagogue sermon [which follows this narrative] then gives us the positive: Jesus will bring “good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… the oppressed go free… the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19). “[W]hat Jesus describes in the synagogue” Shauf continues, “is the nature of his kingdom, the kingdom of God.”
It is a way not built on narrow self-fulfillment, or power, or spectacle. And it is the way on which we have been called.