Sunday March 5 2017
Preacher: The Rev’d Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating ,redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
Why did he go there?
Why did the spirit lead him into the desert?
“This is my Son, the Beloved.” God says to Jesus as he is baptized in the River Jordan by John. “My Son with whom I am well pleased.” “My Son, the Beloved.”
With God, his Father’s, words ringing in his ears, this Son is led by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus spends forty days there, fasting until he is famished. Then the tempter, the devil, speaks with Jesus. In the heavenly court in the Jewish scriptures, the devil, the Satan, is the accuser, the heavenly barrister, if you like, who puts suspected offenders to the test. We might imagine this devil, this tempter, as the voice inside us that doubts God’s naming of us. The devil takes the name given to Jesus by God and works with it, undermines it, attempts to poison it. “If you are the Son of God,” this devil says. And he lays before Jesus the three great temptations for the one who is God’s Son. What does it mean to be the Son of God? Does it not mean being physically full, physically safe and politically powerful …
“Work a little magic, why don’t you?” This devil hints, surely God’s Son can do that. Intervene a little in natures’ processes. Don’t let yourself be vulnerable, powerless. Surely the Son of God has extraordinary power.
For reasons that the devil cannot possibly understand, Jesus has come into the desert, brought by the spirit, and spends forty days and forty nights allowing his humanity, his physical being, to be placed under extreme pressure. Jesus allows himself to be vulnerable, to be powerless. Jesus is famished. He is embracing his humanity and the frailty that human beings can know, firstly in a physical way.
Physically diminished, Jesus then faces the spiritual frailty of a human being. Temptation – to shortcut what it is to be a child of God – temptation – to risk one’s soul. This is the devil’s specialty.
‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ The devil says. Work a little magic to heal your hunger.
Jesus responds to each temptation with words of scripture, each time from the book Deuteronomy, one of the books of the Law.
4 ‘It is written, says Jesus,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’ (Matthew 4:3-4)
Jesus puts physical hunger in its place – our true food is the spiritual sustenance that comes from God. The forty days and forty nights that Jesus spends in the wilderness remind us, of course, of the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness after they were led by Moses from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Those Israelites cried out to God the moment they became hungry and God gave them manna – the food that was supplied each day – only enough for the day – and so the people were not only fed, but taught dependence on God. Jesus knows and responds out of his dependence on God. It is the love and presence of God that sustains him.
The devil then takes Jesus him to Jerusalem and placing him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6says 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.” ’ (4:6)
The devil, we notice, has decided that if Jesus is arguing using the words of scripture, then he can match Jesus at that game. Jesus and the devil are working in a manner not unlike Jewish rabbis, wrestling with scripture to discern the truth of God’s ways. This temptation is about taking a risk, about gambling. The devil is tempting Jesus to take the greatest gamble of all, with his life.
7Jesus quotes scripture back at the devil, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’(4:7)
Jesus is tempted to put himself, and his identity as God’s Son on show, to draw attention to himself, to place himself in danger. We know all too well that Jesus will place himself in danger, danger that costs him his life, when he has done his work on earth. Jesus will go to his passion and death, dying as he lives, sustained by his profound faith and trust in God. And God does not rescue him.
Finally, in the third temptation, the devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he says to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus says to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’ (4:9-10)
The devil does not bother to remind Jesus that he is the Son of God in this final temptation. This is about the worship of another god. This, surely the most sinister of the three temptations, again mirrors the failure of the Israelites in the wilderness to behave well as people of God. Becoming impatient with the God who had promised to lead them to freedom, they make a golden calf and worshipped that instead. The devil promises Jesus all earthly power, all the kingdoms of the world, if he will turn away from his worship of his father. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. His love is only for God.
Jesus, in the wilderness, embraces his humanity. As he faces temptation, he allows only his humanity, and his deep trust in his Father’s love, to support him. Jesus lives and loves, and he will die and rise again, with only his humanity and his faith in that Father’s love. This time in the wilderness is a time of wrestling with what it is to be a human being who is named God’s Beloved Son.
Lent might be, for us, a time of similar wrestling, reflecting. What is it to be a human being who is God’s beloved child? What does it mean for us to be children of God?
Why would we go to the desert?
Why did Jesus go?
The word salvation is derived from a Hebrew word which means “to be spacious.” Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness might be thought of as a time for making space. Perhaps Lent is a time for making space. A time for reflecting on what it is that we think feeds us, makes us worthwhile even, that is not God, and fasting from that for a while. What might it be that makes us feel better, feel worthwhile… it could be alcohol or chocolate, the traditional Lenten fasts, but it might be many other things… It is because we are God’s beloved child that we are worthwhile. What gets in the way of that?
And pondering Jesus’ second temptation, we might wonder when it is that we gamble, what it is that we place at risk? Might we reflect upon that? Do we place at risk our health, our most precious relationships, our families, our friends? Do we gamble with our souls?
And the third temptation that Jesus wrestled with was idolatry. What do we worship? We all have idols for loving God is difficult. What do we love in place of God? What do we find easier to love?
The word salvation is about making space, space for our souls. For our forty days and forty nights might we find a way to do that? Might we find a few minutes each day to sit quietly and hear God’s voice naming us beloved. And might we wonder about what it is that muffles that voice, what makes us doubt that we could be so named? What are our sins? And do we believe them forgiven? What of God’ gifts to us do we place at risk?
Jesus went to the desert and faced temptation and then lived his earthly life with only his humanity and the great love of God. We, too, have our humanity and the great love of God. Might this Lent be a time to make space for that, for pondering the blessing and struggle of being named God’s beloved ones?