“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the Wilderness to be tempted by the Devil”. It is the beginning of a very familiar passage in the life of Jesus, his temptations in the Judean desert, and one I am sure we have heard at the start of Lent many times before. I have always found this one of the most intriguing parts of the gospels. What is happening here? Why does Jesus need to be tested? Surely he doesn’t need to be. Why does the Devil tempt him in these ways and why does Jesus respond as he does? Above all, what is the significance of his testing for us, here in Richmond – hardly a barren and stricken wasteland.
To understand this passage we have to go back to the Old Testament. Not to the passage from Genesis (with all due respect to the Lectionary) but to the first trek through the Wilderness: Israel’s 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Now God has called together the Israelites, Abraham’s children, to him for a purpose. They are to be a beacon to all nations, to reveal to them the God who made the world and to show all people how to live rightly. But God wants to test Israel first to see if they are up to it. I think we all know what happens next. They badger Moses: “why did you lead us into this horrid place. We’d have been better off slaves in Egypt”. They don’t trust God, continually questioning him: “are you really with us – or are you not?” Worst of all, they are unfaithful. They forsake God and grovel before other deities, idols they make for themselves. Long-suffering Moses finally loses his temper in the end and complains to God. “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?” If Israel was meant to be a light to the nations, then evidently there had been a power cut. They get to the Promised Land in the end, but only because God is willing to bear with them.
Later, about 1300 years later, a man also goes out into the wilderness. He goes alone. He is Jesus. Why? I think Jesus is re-enacting the story of Israel in his own life. He feels called to fulfill the task that Israel failed. That task was to live the perfect human life that God intends for the human race, a life absolutely centered on God, depending on him alone as our maker, trusting him alone as our guide through life, putting faith in his ultimate vision for us. Jesus felt the call to follow God, as his ancestors did in Egypt. He then passed through the waters of baptism, as they went through the waters that God parted for them. Now Jesus’ commitment to God and to his way of life has to be tested, just as Israel’s was.
It is on how Jesus responds that I want to concentrate, because this teaches us so much about what the good life, the godly life, is all about. All Satan’s temptations are directed at Jesus’ faith and trust in God. Everything hinges on faith for Jesus, and no less for us.
“You are the Son of God – turn these stones to bread.” How often in our lives do we try to do things on our own, thinking that we can accomplish whatever we want without asking God whether it is right, or even if it is, without asking for his strength and guidance to do it. But the whole universe, everything that ever could exist, is what God chooses to create and keep in being. As we shall shortly acknowledge in the Eucharist, ‘all things come from you, and of your own do we give you’. Jesus responds that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. We can not cut ourselves off from God, running off to do our own thing, confident in our cleverness and power. Certainly God has given us intelligence, strength and abilities. It is right to use them. But they are just that – gifts. We did not make ourselves. The good life is lived by true humility and by depending on God alone to show us how to use our lives.
“You are God’s son – jump off the Temple’s pinnacle and surely angels will catch you.” Satan tests Jesus’ trust in God. You are the Messiah – what’s the harm in making sure? If God loves you, he won’t mind. Surely he’ll confirm it by saving you from falling. But real faith, real love, is based on trust, not suspicion. Israel didn’t trust God’s promise that he had chosen them and would guide them safely. They continually questioned whether he was really with them in the Wilderness. Jesus responds “you shall not put the LORD your God to the test.” True faith has no need of constant reassurance and questioning. It just is. This is very easy to say, and real life is not easy. It can be as hard as crucible steel and as confusing as mist at sea. But having faith is about having hope that God will show us the way through, however unexpected his help may be, whatever form it may take. The good life is about listening to him and having hope that he will save us.
“Bow down and worship me and I shall give you all the kingdoms of the world”. Last of all, Satan tests Jesus’ trust in God’s ultimate purpose for him. Jesus is the world’s true lord; all of it belongs to him, by right, as God’s own Son. But how will he come into his inheritance? Will he persevere along the path God has set for him, even though this will lead to complete isolation and dreadful torment? Or will he decide to seize it now, perhaps distrusting God’s promise of final glory, taking the easy way by adoring somebody else who offers it? Jesus response is utterly clear. “Worship the LORD your God and serve only him”. We also have the prospect of glory. God has promised to remake this earth and all creation, putting right what has gone wrong so that is glorious in a way we can not imagine. And he wants us, you and me, to be citizens of this new earth, by having faith in his Son. But only God can do this. Only he can make it happen. Now we may not be tempted to bow down before physical idols, but we are tempted to worship other things that are idols in all but name. Fill in the blanks with your own experience – money, the esteem of others, your work, sex, alcohol, food etc, etc. None of these are bad in and of themselves. God made them all. But if your whole life revolves around them, if they are master of our every waking thought and become your reason for being, then they are idols. And they won’t give you the fulfillment that is found in God alone. As St Paul said, the good life is one lived in hope that one day God will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like Jesus’ glorious body. Nothing and no-one else will do for us.
How then should we look upon Lent? I think as a chance to clear out all the dross and clutter which inevitably gathers in our lives. A chance to gain wisdom by asking some basic questions. How do I relate to God? Do I depend on him alone as my creator, redeemer and guide? Are all aspects of my life centered upon him? Do I trust his vision for my life?
We must all of us answer ‘no’ at some point. But have hope. Life is a journey through a harsh wilderness, and we all fall down again and again. But faith is about getting up off the ground, knowing that God’s love is greater than our stumbles. Faith is about believing that God not only can, but will help us to stand upright. Faith is about believing that he will give us all we need to nourish us and guide us and help us to carry on. Faith is about hoping against hope that he will lead us through the Jordan. Jesus had that faith. It took him to the cross. But it took him out the other side on Easter Day. It brought him into his true inheritance, enabling him to tell his disciples “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”. Let us therefore respond with gladness and gratitude as we follow behind him.