Lent 1 9th March 2014 Year A
Jesus goes into the desert.for between and waters and the annunciation of the call to living, there must be a desert sojourn. As was the case for Israel of old where the passing through the waters of the Red Sea would be followed by a desert journey and the giving of the Law on a mountain, so here the passing through the waters by Jesus at baptism is followed by his desert sojourn, that in turn being followed by his giving of a new law on another mountain. Matthew in his writing is wishing to make the parallel very explicit. In this Jesus there is a new exodus out of slavery, the reception of a new law, to live as a new community. To reach that point there must be a time of orientation and testing between. For Israel that time was a 40 year exodus journey, a time in which they bowed to temptation, while for Jesus representing the new Israel there is a 40 day retreat to the desert where he succeeds in resisting the trials and temptations put before him. The number 40 is one commonly used in the Scriptures and really signifies ‘a long time.’
Let us turn to those temptations. Israel we know was miraculously provided with provisions in the desert, the quail, bread and water. Nonetheless they failed in still not trusting God. In one episode at Manasseh their complaints were such that their tradition from that time often referred to that place as being synonymous with their lack of faith in God. ‘Did you bring us out into the desert to die’ they complained to Moses. It would be better to go back to slavery in Egypt. In the particular case of bread they again failed. Promised bread each day in the desert and enough to sustain them on the sixth day over the Sabbath, they sought instead to hoard it. Jesus is faced with the same temptation to do with bread. Thus Satan,, and one can take the figure literally or metaphorically as symbolizing evil and temptation, comes to Jesus and seeks to test him by calling him to turn stones into bread. Temptation is subtle of course masking itself as piety by using the old tradition by saying God must provide for you in the desert. If God does not, why serve God? Jesus, unlike the Israel of old, resists the temptation, giving evil its answer by quoting from the Scriptural tradition. Thus whereas Israel failed to trust God even in the midst of God’s provision for them, Jesus shows trust in God even in the midst of deprivation.
We then come to the second temptation. The evil one taking on board Jesus’ answer comes back at Jesus along the lines of, well if God then cares for you such to the point that you do not even need bread, then surely God’s care will extend to your doing something wonderfully spectacular for God. Go then and cast yourself off the pinnacle of the temple. What makes the temptation more powerful is that Scripture is quoted in order to justify it. Little wonder it is said that ‘the devil can quote Scripture.’ Perhaps never before has Scripture being more misused in order to justify all sorts of evil than it is today! Jesus once again retorts to the evil one using Scripture. ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ The Israel of old had for them provided miracles in the desert which enabled them to survive and should have fortified their trust in God, and yet they failed. Jesus has no need of miracles to sustain his trust in God. What a lesson this is for faith today which seems to be ever more centred on the need for the miraculous and spectacular in order to sustain faith.
Thus we come to the third temptation, Jesus facing a temptation that would ever be before him for the rest of his ministry. The temptation is a very alluring one. Your ends are good so why not use power to obtain them. The evil one has Jesus from a high mountain image the kingdoms of the world. No doubt then as now the wrongs and evils of those kingdoms are before Jesus. If you truly want the good says the evil one then take these kingdoms from my hands and thus possessing them bring about good in them. The exchange is simple. All you need do is fall down before me and offer worship. Jesus is tempted with power, the use of the methodology of the world. Through the gospels it is clear that Jesus does indeed possess power. He raises by his charisma a tribe of followers. How tempting it would be for Jesus to misuse that power, as do so many then and now, politicians and religious leaders among them, but Jesus resists the temptation. He knows he cannot bring the good by those means. Thus Jesus tells the evil one that worship belongs only to God alone. Here again Jesus succeeds in overcoming temptation in the desert whereas the Israel of old failed, that failure seen in their construction of the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After thus successfully resisting the evil one three times Jesus turns and says ‘begone.’ It is interesting that the only other time Jesus uses those words ‘begone Satan’ is when Peter later tempts him in the same manner, to yes go to Jerusalem but in power and prestige, but not to suffer and die as Jesus has intimated he must.
In a world and church increasingly attracted by the use of power, where manipulation is a scientifically worked out system employed by spin doctors, Jesus way stands as still the great challenge for us.
Like Jesus perhaps we need our desert sojourns in order to prepare us to live the way that God would have us to live, to follow the path that God would have us follow. The deserts have always been the places from where it is said the prophets come. They come from that experience of radically preparing themselves, from time spent in that solitude which strips all else away so leaving us facing our deepest inner impulses, fears and wants. It is interesting that another great faith tradition has its founder likewise in solitude facing those same deep impulses, before he, like Jesus, is able to commence his ministry. I am referring of course to Siddhartha Gautama, to be known following his passing through the time of trial and temptation as the Buddha.
To take that time is to acknowledge just how subtle and yet profound evil can be and the need to be prepared for it. That subtle depth of evil is what our story from Genesis is all about. It gives no real explanation for evil impulses but rather seeks to acknowledge their very real presence in the heart of human existence, present from the very beginning. Already there from the beginning with all their subtlety and depth evil is present.
Today we are often so busy doing and planning, surrounding ourselves with noise, even in our religious life, that we never allow ourselves to take that space, that silence, to explore our deeper motivations. Having not allowed our times that truly sacred space and time we are unable to face those trials and temptations when they come to us. Jesus having faced them off in the desert was however ready to meet them in his life and ministry. We do well to follow his example. John Queripel