We’re 1 year on, sadly, from the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Around the world questions are being asked about rights and wrongs, about what countries stand-for, what they believe in and what they should do about it.
At the start of Lent, we’re invited to ask similar questions about ourselves. We often use fancy words like vocation or ministry or calling but, when you boil it down, it’s: “who are you and what do you think you’re here to do”?
Identity and purpose
I think it’s also a useful way to look at this very familiar passage from the Gospel today, because this week the reading is about the temptations of Jesus. Jesus is presented with a series of challenges about his identity and his purpose.
Just after today’s reading from Matthew 4, Jesus finds out about John’s arrest, goes to Galilee, starts his public ministry and calls a bunch of people to be his companions. We looked at that passage in Café Church a month back.
The parallel passage in Luke 4, has Jesus leaving the wilderness and preaching his first sermon. That was when he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in his home synagogue and declared what that public ministry, would look like. He read this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Then he sat down
In two sentences, Jesus encapsulated who he was and what he was here to do. And then he sat down. Perhaps he sat down because that’s what Rabbis did when they were teaching. Or perhaps he sat down in the sudden realisation that these few verses in Isaiah crystallised exactly what he was all about.
In contrast, the story of the temptations in the wilderness which came before that show us what he was not here to do. And maybe Jesus needed to go through this time of testing first. Perhaps he needed to wrestle with what the voice from heaven had said at his baptism. Did he need to figure out what being the Beloved Son of God would actually mean in practice?
Sons of God
Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1 of his Gospel, starting with Abraham and working his way down to Jesus. Luke waits till chapter 3 and does it in reverse order. He starts with Jesus and ends with Adam, whom he calls the son of God.
We’re being implicitly invited by Luke to compare and contrast the two Sons of God. The story in Genesis, which is our Old Testament reading today, with that of the temptation of Jesus. The succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden damaged our relationship with God. Jesus’ resistance to temptation in the wilderness began to restore our life in God’s presence.
So, I don’t think it’s an accident that the first temptation is about eating. This time it’s bread in the wilderness rather than fruit in a garden. After fasting for 40 days, Jesus would be vulnerable and suffering and hungry!
Zechariah tells us that the devil’s role was to test the righteous (3:1-2). And when the devil says “If you are the Son of God…” it’s not meant in a hypothetical sense. This is more “Since you are the Son of God…” Both Jesus and the devil know the reality of Jesus’ identity. The question is about how Jesus will carry out his spirit-filled and spirit-led vocation.
Because in a broader context the devil’s challenge here is whether Jesus would use his authority to meet his own personal needs. But from when he’s reading from Isaiah in his home synagogue and calling his first disciples up until he’s hanging from the cross, his ministry is always focused on others and not on himself.
Power and riches
The second is harder. Jumping from the top of the temple is a showy thing to do but would probably just be interpreted as some sort of illusion or trick. So, is the temptation one of fame, riches and adulation – rather than a life of service?
Or is this a prefiguring of what happens at the crucifixion – where Jesus is taunted by the onlookers to get himself down off the cross. That’s also a reminder that temptations can go away, only to return later.
The final temptation in Matthew was to be the Messiah that many expected. That is, to be a political and military ruler. But Jesus rejects this and shows how his kingdom will be different, alternative. The contrast with what he later announced in the synagogue is clear. His mission is to save others, the poor and the oppressed etc, not about asserting worldly power for himself.
What else did he face?
Jesus, the Beloved, was tempted for 40 days – and we’re only seeing 3 of those temptations. I wonder what else he faced during that time. The 40 days should make us, and the original listeners of this Gospel, think of Moses fasting and waiting on the mountain for the two stone tablets of the law (Deuteronomy 9:9). Or of Elijah as he walked to Mount Horeb to meet with the still small voice (1 Kings 19:8). Perhaps also of the 40 years of the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness – who we’re told in Deuteronomy were also tested to know what was in their heart (8:2). Indeed, Jesus’ responses were all verses taken from Deuteronomy, the last words of Moses, as they came to the end of that wandering and on the edge of the Promised Land.
And what do we face in our own 40 days of Lent? How can this passage help us as we consider the events leading to the cross? As we consider who we are and our purpose.
Doing the right thing
I think firstly we should note that Jesus was full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit into the wilderness. All this happened because he was where he should have been and where he was called to be. It wasn’t a punishment for being in the wrong place. We, also, might face difficulties when we’ve been obedient. The fact that they are happening might be confirmation that we’re doing the right thing not the wrong thing!
The second thought is that there is a common thread in the 3 temptations. They are each an alternative to the mission and destiny that Jesus later proclaimed for himself in the synagogue. We are each called or nudged to a vocation or ministry or purpose. We are each called to continue the work of Jesus in the proclamation and enactment of God’s kingdom, in all that we say and all that we do. But we too, like Jesus, may instead be tempted to look for ways of self-fulfilment, or power, or spectacle.
Who we are
Like Jesus, figuring out what it meant to be a Beloved Son, we each need to figure out who we are and what we should be doing. If it’s to be a priest, then what kind of priest will we be? What kind of warden or treasurer will we be? Maybe what kind of mother or father, husband or wife, son or daughter or friend will we be? Like Jesus, perhaps sometimes we’re given options or alternatives – and we have to make a choice.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we too can resist temptation. Unlike Jesus, but just like Adam and Eve, we will undoubtedly fall and fail at times. Lent is a time for confession and redirecting our steps in the way trod by Jesus. But if we do find ourselves troubled, and in a wilderness, asking questions about ourselves and who we are, then it may help and bring comfort and strength, to know that, just like Jesus, we too are Beloved and we’re not alone…
Beloved Is Where We Begin – Jan Richardson
If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the One
who has travelled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
- Evans, C.F. (1990). Saint Luke.
- Levine, A-J. and Brettler, M.Z. (2011). The Jewish Annotated New Testament.