Into the season of Lent we go, telling once more the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It is the story we always tell on the first Sunday of this season, in part because Jesus’ forty day fast is echoed by our own observances of the forty days of Lent, but also because it tells of Jesus’ need to face down the temptation to be what he is not, and to embrace in its fullness who he truly is. That is a good part of what Lent is about for us too; confronting those things in ourselves that keep us from being what we were created to be, and striving to embrace our deeper, more foundational identity as sons and daughters of God.
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Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came…
Set aside your visual imagery of the devil—pictures of a red-skinned figure with horns and a tail—because the scriptures don’t even begin to go there. We get no visual at all here, but with Jesus we do hear the tempter’s voice. It is a remarkably reasonable voice, really, setting out a series of temptations which are ultimately about suggesting that Jesus would do well to embrace a kind of raw power rather than live into the deeper, inner authority with which he has been graced.
He’s been alone for forty days out there in the wilderness, and he’s been fasting. He is, as Matthew says, “famished”. Famished, which means physically vulnerable, but it is hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have also been emotionally and even spiritually vulnerable as well.
“If you are the Son of God,” says that voice, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Remember, right before he’d set out on his desert sojourn Jesus had been baptized by John, and had heard another voice—God’s voice—saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And now here it is all but tossed in his face. If you are the Son of God… You’re hungry. You’ve endured this long fast. If you really are what you think you are, feast on bread wrought from these stones. Surely your God won’t begrudge you that…
But Jesus answered, It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Ah, you see, he’s been in solitude, yet not utterly alone. He has been feeding on that word, and even in his deep hunger, he knows that to conjure bread from stones would be to declare null and void all that he has learned about himself.
“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.” ’
If you are so sure that you are God’s Son—if you really think your God is present to you, in you, faithful to you—prove it. And imagine the impact it would have on all those on the streets below; to see you plummet down, and then be saved by angels? They’d flock to you in droves.
It is, of course, a rather more fantastical temptation than the first one, but there is a kind of twisted reasonableness to it. And the devil quotes scripture… the tempter knows its bible!
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
One more. Jesus is shown the kingdoms of the world, and promised that, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Now this one seems a little more desperate, doesn’t it? I mean seriously, after Jesus had balked at the first two by relying so firmly on God’s word—God’s presence and truth—isn’t it unlikely that he’d bow down to this voice? But maybe what is at work here is actually trying to play off of Jesus knowledge of Israel’s story and Israel’s scriptures. You know, Jesus, that again and again your God has chosen to use servanthood, struggle, suffering, and even complete and utter defeat? Cut your losses. You can have it all now.
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,” writes Matthew, “and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” He is vindicated in his steadfastness.
But as the biblical scholar Audrey West notes, “What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness.” It isn’t as if Jesus has just passed a test and received his credentials as the Christ. No, West insists, all of these things will continue to “play again [and again] in the life and ministry of God’s beloved son.” He has refused to turn stones into bread, “but before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish, and he will teach his disciples to pray to God for their daily bread.” He will not hurl himself down from the heights of the temple in a grand show, “but at the end of his earthly ministry he [will] endure the taunts of others while trusting God’s power to the end, upon the heights of a Roman cross.” He will not take up that offer of having reign “over the kingdoms of the world, [but will] instead offer the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness.”
That is all about Jesus, but what about us? What does this speak to us as we move through these early days of Lent? Here N.T. Wright is particularly helpful. He writes,
The temptations we all face, day by day and at critical moments of decision and vocation in our lives, may be very different from those of Jesus, but they have exactly the same point. They are not simply trying to entice us into committing this or that sin. They are trying to distract us, to turn us aside from the path of servanthood to which our baptism has commissioned us. God has a costly but wonderfully glorious vocation for each one of us. The enemy will do everything possible to distract us and thwart God’s purpose. If we have heard God’s voice welcoming us as his children, we will also hear the whispered suggestions of the enemy.
Whispered suggestions. I think Bishop Wright is bang on in his choice of that phrase. Were you to be confronted by a horned devil, you’d know right away to turn and flee. But to be faced by “whispered suggestions,” perhaps quite reasonable ones whispered in your own voice in your own mind? Oh come on, no one is even going to know… you can get away with it… you deserve this… who can blame you for wanting a little bit of that… what’s the point of always trying to be a servant, when you can so easily have this instead…
And again I hear that quote from Abba John of the Desert: “We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.” Which is precisely what Jesus doesn’t do in this strange story of the temptations. Instead, with that critical self-awareness, he takes up his costly but wonderfully glorious vocation.
The question is, do we have the courage to embrace both the glory and the cost of our own vocations, marked as we are as beloved daughters and sons of the God most high? Welcome to Lent.