It is the first Sunday in Lent; we have begun our forty day count down to Easter and the greatest celebration of the church's year. During those forty days we are encouraged to think about who we are and what we do as Christians. This forty day period of reflection is not a new thing. Christians have been doing it for centuries, following the example of Jesus. And when we think about the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, we recall that Moses spent forty days on the mountain without food, as he considered his role in the revelation of the Law to the people of God, we are reminded of Elijah, who fled from the anger of the king for forty days until he came to the mountain of God and heard the still small voice which revealed God to him. The other thing we remember is the forty years that the people of
So when Luke tells us that Jesus spent forty days in the desert we know, even before the devil appears, that this is a time of testing. Jesus, like Jacob, had to wrestle with God to find his future.
I say this because we read that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, and that it was the Holy Spirit who led him in to the desert. There Jesus was tempted by the devil. On one hand there was Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit of God, and on the other, the devil, who represents for us the power of evil in the world, in ourselves, or some cosmic power set over against the will of God. No matter how we see the devil, as a person or as a force, we recognise what it stands for. When we use the word “devil” we recognise that there is in us and among us a strong opposition to love, health, wholeness and peace. St Luke uses the word “diabolos” from which we get our word diabolic.
The contest takes place when Jesus is alone and hungry in the desert, he has not even begun his ministry. The whole temptation story is the story of Jesus struggling with what it really means to be about God's business. Consider the devil's first words to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God..." Jesus is being asked, "Just who do you think you are?''
And look at the temptations; they are so subtle and so cunning. Jesus is attacked not at his weak points, but at his strengths. The devil knows perfectly well that Jesus will never do anything despicable, so he asks him to do something good. "Turn these loaves into bread." Can you imagine the rejoicing if Jesus had simply fed the hungry. The hungry were hoping for bread, the devil tempts Jesus to supply it. And we know that Jesus could have done so, and where appropriate he did do so. One snap of his fingers and there would be no starvation anywhere in the world. But Jesus knows that this is a trap. Let me tell you a story.
In a poor part of the city, the local council decided to make money available to those who needed it for food or other urgent needs. They invited parish clergy and social workers and counsellors to have a cheque book so they could distribute the money. It was a great success! People claiming to be poor and needy came flocking for this relief. 95% of them were genuinely in need. But the more they used this system, the more they came to depend on it. They didn’t try anything else. They were trapped by the council’s generosity. And not only they, the clergy, the social workers and the counsellors were trapped. They found themselves spending more and more time giving out money. It was a disaster. Jesus could have told them that, bread (or money) alone will never be enough.
The second temptation is also a trap. Jesus sees before him the possibility of power over the world - take political control urges the devil. Make the nations obey you; make them obey justice and mercy and righteousness. The devil is appealing to Jesus’ passionate desire for justice and peace, but this is another diabolical scheme. The devil tells Jesus so, “All this power and authority is mine and I will give it to you, except that you must do it my way.” The power of the world, the power to command, the power to be obeyed unquestioningly, this is devilish, and there are many in governments and churches who need to be taught that lesson. But Jesus saw through the devil’s plot, he did not see equality with God as something to be exploited, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave.
The final temptation is another trap. By leaping from the top of the temple, Jesus' claims to be the Son of the Most High God would have been settled forever - Jesus' power and authority would never be doubted, his reign would be supreme, and all the nations of the earth would worship him. Jesus would be set apart from all other men, idolized, worshipped, and in the end, ignored. Jesus knew that to be truly loved, he had to become like us ordinary folk. He was born like one of us, lived like one of us and died as cruelly and painfully as anyone in the world. A Jesus who jumps off temple tops might be idolized, but would never be loved. Jumping off the top of the temple would prove once and for all that Jesus is God, but it would never save anybody. Angels could have saved Jesus from the cross, but we would have been abandoned.
Jesus was in the desert for forty days. The struggle was between God’s will and the diabolic will. The diabolic will puts us as the centre, controlling people by making them dependent on us, or overpowering them or by being different, separate, mysterious and terrifying. God’s will is to show us the possibilities of life lived "full of the Holy Spirit, and Led by the Holy Spirit." Jesus always gives the initiative back to the people; he did not take it away. When he healed someone, he did not say, look what I've done, but he said, your faith has healed you. Always, in whatever he did, he used the power of the Holy Spirit to build other people up. The devil wanted Jesus to make people dependent on him, so that Jesus in turn would be trapped Jesus knew he had come to set people free, and to be free himself, no matter what that cost.
I believe that time of testing in the desert was a good time for Jesus. Far from being weakened by the temptations, he was strengthened because he had lived and grown through them. After the desert experience, Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, to Nazareth, where he stood up in the Synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." This confident declaration tells us exactly who Jesus is and what it means for him to be the Son of the Most High God. He will not dominate or control, he will set free. The devil has got an answer and scurries away.
So, during the next forty days, during the next forty years, what are we going to answer when we are asked, "If you are a follower of Christ...: You call yourself a Christian, what does that mean?" The question is a good one, whether the devil asks us or the person over the back fence. And the answer will be different for each one of us.
“Do our lives as Christians set us and those we love free?” might be the question Jesus asks us. And when we start looking for the answers they may make us uncomfortable - and we are reminded again of Moses' struggle to understand the Law, and Elijah's struggle with his doubts and fears, and the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, and the temptations of Jesus. We know then that we are in good company, and we know that the experience can strengthen us, and when we remember that it was the Holy Spirit that filled Jesus and led him to explore his faith, then we too can thank God, that we can do the same, in the power of the same Holy Spirit, who with Jesus our saviour and God our Creator lives in perfect harmony and freedom for ever and ever, Amen.