Genesis 2.15–17; 3.1–7
Every life is a march from innocence, through temptation, to virtue or vice. Lyman Abbott
The First Sunday in Lent begins as usual with the story of Jesus’ temptations. This is how Jesus begins his ministry, tempted by the devil in the wilderness. I’ve seen the Judean wilderness; if you’ve seen it too, you’ll know it’s pretty desolate.
I wouldn’t want to spend forty days there. Certainly not without food.
Yet Jesus didn’t go to this bleak place by accident. He didn’t take a wrong turn on his way back to the Galilee after his baptism. Matthew tells us ‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’. Luke’s Gospel also says the Spirit ‘led’ him; Mark says the Spirit ‘drove’ him there.
It was deliberate; Jesus was there for a reason, and that was to be ‘tempted by the devil’.
Now, Jesus had just been been baptised; the Spirit had come upon him, and a voice from heaven had declared
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
‘This is my Son…’
But instead of receiving a right royal welcome as God’s beloved Son, Jesus is ‘led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’.
Strange way to treat the Son of God.
The Royal Road for the Son of God is the descending way of humility.
It reminds me of a lovely passage about Jesus in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in chapter 2.5–11. It describes his descent from ‘equality with God’ into humility, which went even to the shameful cross. It was probably an ancient Christian hymn, though we cannot say that with certainty:
though he [Jesus] was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself…
Since this is such an odd way to treat one called the Son of God, it’s no wonder the tempter tries to sow the seeds of doubt:
If you are the Son of God…
‘If’ can be a very big word.
What Jesus is being tempted to do is to stop trusting in the God who has led him into the wilderness, and put on a show: Grab a stone and make it bread. Throw yourself off the highest point of the temple, and see how God will rescue you. Why not? If you’re the Son of God, use your powers. And while you’re at it, worship me. I can give you it all.
But Jesus was keeping his eyes on the One who had led him into the wilderness. So he went to the scriptures:
One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes
from the mouth of God.…
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.…
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.
The temptations Jesus faced had the purpose of diminishing, debasing and devaluing his standing as Son of God. They were aimed at pressuring Jesus to walk away from the descending way of humility and embrace power, pride, and pomp.
Had Jesus succumbed to temptation, his mission would have been set on a course of selfishness and self-glorification. How could he have ever spoken the words of the Sermon on the Mount if he had become an abracadabra saviour, whose mission was characterised by magic tricks and death-defying displays? A saviour whose real allegiance was to the tempter?
But Jesus is not an abracadabra saviour. He doesn’t take short cuts. The end doesn’t justify the means. Jesus is the humble, servant Saviour. He lives life under the same circumstances as anyone else.
In overcoming temptation, Jesus set the course of his ministry. He undid the fall of our first parents, so graphically told in the Genesis story we heard today. And so he can be named the Second Adam.
In overcoming temptation in enduring forty days in the wilderness, he also obeyed where Israel had failed, when they wandered around for forty years in the wilderness. And so Jesus becomes the New Israel, embodied on one person.
Jesus is fulfilling God’s hopes for humanity, in offering a human life that is totally committed to God. (That is, a life without sin.)
This is how I see it: when Jesus emerges from the Temptation in the Wilderness, he is changed. He is confident of the direction of his mission; more than that, he is confident of the God who has sent him on the mission, the God who is his Father.
This leads me to say something about ‘temptation’ and ‘testing’.
The Bible is clear: God our Father does not tempt us. But we are tempted—by gold, by glamour, by the flesh, by pride. Some of us are very easily tempted.
God doesn’t tempt us, but God can allow us to be tested. God can use a time of testing to refine us, help us to go through trials that deepen us. I had a period of quite severe depression a few years ago which tested me. I don’t ever want to go through it again, but it has deepened my faith.
Now, it’s clear that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. But was he also tested?
This is how I think of it:
Once Jesus emerged from his temptations, he was stronger than before. And on the ‘other side’ of temptation, he could look back and reframe it. He could see it as a time of testing. A time that God had used to ‘refine’ him.
So Jesus enters the desert to endure temptation; he emerges having stood the test.
Not that we want to invite times of testing or trial. I certainly don’t want to experience depression again. And the Lord Jesus himself indicates that we shouldn’t invite testing; in his own prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, we say
Save us from the time of trial,
and deliver us from evil.
We ask to be delivered from times of hard testing.
Well, we’re just not very good at it.
We need the Lord for every day, let alone for trials and tests. They’ll come all by themselves; we don’t have to desire them. We do have to prepare for them by depending on the Lord in the everyday.
A final word about overcoming temptation: Jesus overcame temptation by Spirit-filled faith in the word of God. Faith that the voice from heaven had spoken truly when it called him ‘beloved Son’; faith in the word of God that he discerned in the scriptures.
This is the way we overcome too.
When the great Reformer Martin Luther doubted his salvation he would say to himself, ‘I am baptised’.
At his baptism, he was declared to be a child of God. If in temptation we have a thought like You aren’t really a Christian, we can remind ourselves just as Luther did: ‘I am baptised. I am a child of God.’
But we also need to be grounded in the scriptures to overcome temptation. That was the tool Jesus used, and it is ours too. There is promise upon promise in the Bible; there are stories such as the one we read today. Read the Bible daily. Let it sink deeply into your heart.
Jesus overcame temptation, and he did it for us. He is gentle with us as we are tempted; he knows what it’s like. We overcome temptation by taking on our baptismal identity as daughters and sons of God our Father, and by letting the scriptures become part of our very bones. And while we pray to be delivered from testing, God strengthens us through times of trial.
It’s Lent again. Let’s open ourselves up to the light, that the sin which remains in us may be cleansed and we can approach Holy Week with holy and reverent joy.
(5 March 2017; Lent 1A)