Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Until re-reading this passage in my sermon preparation this week it had never registered with me that there is a sequence in the temptation of Jesus other than the sequence of the three temptations. Sometimes as a preacher I lock on to any three point passage and away I go with my sermon without reading around the passage to see perhaps the greater structure of the whole. I am so glad I did the “reading around” this week as it has been revealing.
Apart from, stones to bread, pinnacle of the temple, and the promise of world domination; there is the larger sequence in the passage of:
- Led to the wilderness by the Spirit
- Forty days of ritual fasting
- Profound physical hunger
- The temptation (nested in this larger sequence)
- Stones to Bread
- Pinnacle of the temple
- World domination
- The ministrations of angels
It has been the contemplation of this larger structure that has prompted the following thoughts.
The first aspect of the story that impacts me is the fact that Jesus, up to the moment where the Tempter manifests, has been very obedient to his calling and his mission. He has been baptised by John, he has been affirmed by the voice of his heavenly Parent, he has followed the Spirit’s leading to go away into the wilderness and he has been diligent in fasting.
It is at the point of discipline and due diligence that Jesus renders himself most vulnerable. Isn’t it true that we are often most vulnerable to the darkness when we are doing everything correctly and are wearied and worn out from the doing of it all so correctly. Please don’t hear me dismissing discipline and diligence. Not at all. They are the framework of any meaningful spiritual practice. I do however recall a time in my ministry when, totally over-extended by pastoral and community service work, I unlocked the front door one night and thought to myself, “I am really at the top of my game!”. One week later I was in a psych ward undergoing sleep therapy for burnout! It happens that quickly.
There is a false doctrine that wafts around the church as it wafted around the temple in Jesus’ time. It says, “If you are diligent and dutiful and if you keep all the rules, then only good and pleasant things will happen to you.” The life of Job, Jesus and your life and mine attest to the fact that this is not true. Every great spiritual tradition on the planet attests to the fact that shadows are darkest around those that burn brightest. The presence of these shadows doesn’t diminish the devotion and diligence of the devotee, they are the realistic counterpoint to the music of their beautiful lives. The joyless secret journals of Mother Theresa are recent evidence of this reality.
Secondly, I need to confess that I prefer to speak of the singular temptation of Jesus rather than the temptations of Jesus. My reasoning is that I don’t think that the struggle which Our Lord had in the wilderness was merely confined to: the avoidance of suffering (Stones to bread), the lure of cheap sensational showmanship (Pinnacle base jumping sans parachute), and world domination at the cost of Godly obedience( Bow down and worship me). I speculate that these are merely illustrations of the torment he faced as, filled with power and blessing, he had to submit his ego to the will of God for his life.
Carl Jung said most powerfully, “Any form of neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”. Are we perhaps, the neurotic society we are, because we recoil from legitimate suffering either as discipline or as duty? The temptation of Jesus is essentially Jesus’ costly choice for mental, spiritual and physical health over the soft and cheap neurotic options he could have embraced for his ministry. I wonder how much healthier I would be if I could do the same?
The third and most striking discovery I have made in this passage for the first Sunday of Lent, lies in the final verses. “Jesus said to him[tempter,ego, false self], “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
The way Matthew tells the story suggests that despite the temptation struggle of the faithful, fasting and thus famished Jesus, this battle does not happen in a place where God is absent. We, as pilgrims of the cross, know that no such Godless place exists! God is. The Israelites regarded the wilderness as a place of demons and devils. For them it was the destination of centuries of scapegoats, those symbolic bearers of the nation’s sin. But the wilderness was also the place where the fledgling Israel, fresh out of Egypt, learnt devotion and dependence to what Daniel Erlander calls their Manna and Mercy God.
Jesus learns in the wilderness temptation, as every faithful servant of God has come to learn, that once we put our self-centred, selfish, false-self Satan in its place, the runway is clear for the hovering angels of God’s grace to land.
Desert Tower to Angel Flight, self is contained, you are cleared to land.