Jesus was baptised by John in the river Jordan, and the Holy Spirit came upon him. He had a real sense of God the Father affirming him as his Son, and he was given power and strength through the Holy Spirit. He was buzzing! At that moment, he could have done anything!
But he didn’t. Instead, he went away into the wilderness for 40 days. The wilderness was the route to the Promised Land for the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt. It took them 40 years. Moses spent 40 days on the mountain waiting for 10 Commandments. The 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness may not have been an exact time, but it was a symbolic time. People who heard this story would have made the connections.
The wilderness, the desert, is a place of testing and stripping away. In the desert, we lose our pretensions, our illusions. The desert is a place where we come face to face with our true selves. That’s why we have this story for Lent. Lent is a desert place for us, to strip away our masks, a place to be real about ourselves and the things that keep us from God. We take on spiritual practices to help us do that, to remind us that we are dependent on God. Giving up chocolates and biscuits and alcohol don’t necessarily do that. You need to give up something that matters to you, something that will constantly remind you to keep turning to God. Some people prefer to take something on for Lent rather than giving something up: like coming along to Stations of the Cross on Wednesday or the Lent Group. With Yvonne starting, we are also going to be saying Morning Prayer together more regularly.
And in this time of fasting, of deprivation, Jesus enters a real encounter with evil. Jesus may be God’s Son, but he is fully human, and he is tempted, just as we are. In the way Luke tells the story, Jesus comes face to face with the devil, the personification of evil. Evil is real, very real, and it manifests in many different ways.
He was hungry, he was fasting, and human bodies need food. And when you are really hungry, you think more and more about food – that’s one of the problems of going on a serious diet – you become obsessed with food. So the devil tempts him: If you are the Son of God – did you hear that IF? So many temptations begin like that – needling you, provoking you, telling you to prove yourself. If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread!
We know – because we know how the story develops – that Jesus has a strong relationship with bread. We know that Jesus takes 5 loaves and feeds a great crowd. We know that Jesus breaks bread and shares it and says, “Do this in remembrance of me”. The temptation of turning stones into bread isn’t a one-off – Jesus has to work this out all through his ministry. As a church, we are looking to develop projects around food so that we can work with the community better, so that we can help to address issues of poverty – and because food is important for everyone.
But in the wilderness, Jesus turns the devil down: We do not live by bread alone, he says. The temptation was to make it all about bread. Bread is important. The people starving to death in Syria know that bread is important. We all need to eat. But actually, there are other things that are more important. Bread points to Jesus, and it is Jesus himself who is at the centre, Jesus who, in John’s Gospel, says “I am the bread of life”. Jesus fed other people. His priority was feeding other people. It wasn’t about feeding himself. And he fed them with real bread, and he fed them with himself.
The second temptation is probably best understood as a vision or a fantasy. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers him power and celebrity status if only Jesus would worship him. Now that’s a very real temptation today. How many kids if you ask them what they want to be when they grow up say that they want to be a celebrity? Being a celebrity is a curse. Maybe the temptation is that if you have all the power, all the money, all the respect, then you could do so much good in the world? But in reality, it doesn’t happen. There are people like Bill and Linda Gates who are using their wealth and influence to make a different in the world, but they are rare. Most of us here are not celebrities, thank goodness, but maybe we still crave power and influence and money in the worlds we inhabit. Jesus replies, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” We need to put God first, turn our hearts to him and worship him.
And that is what Lent is for, turning to God again and putting ourselves in relation to him. If you value a relationship, you put time and effort into it, you hang out with the people you care about. Spend some time hanging out with God.
The last temptation is probably another vision. The devil uses that IF again – if you are the Son of God. He is casting doubts on who Jesus is, persuading Jesus to check out whether God is really involved in this or not. He encourages Jesus to do something dramatic, throwing himself off a high place, so that the angels will come and rescue him, and that would be proof that God really is behind this. And Jesus says, no, you shouldn’t test God.
We will be tempted, just as Jesus was. We will be tempted all through our lives. And some temptations just keep coming back to us, perhaps in different forms. Sometimes, brand new temptations spring into our lives. Lent is a time for examining ourselves and being honest about the things that tempt us. Temptation is not sin. Sin happens when we let the temptations run our lives.
Lent is not easy, because it is about facing up to things. In church, we have sombre colours in Lent and we don’t have the flowers. It is part of helping us to get into that zone of being real with ourselves, so that when Easter comes, we can welcome the Risen Christ with new joy, new hope, new love.