The Temptations of Christ

Deut. 26, 1-11: Psalm 91: Rom. 10, 4-13: Luke 4, 1-15.

Many years ago, when Pamela and I were in Zimbabwe, very good friends of ours, adopted a baby girl. She was a beautiful, doll-like little child whom they named Lorna Jane. One incident, when Lorna was three, remains imprinted in my mind. We had invited the family for tea and on arrival, Lorna rushed into our house and as she always did, gave both of us a big, big hug. Then she asked for ‘music to dance’. My immediate thought was to put on an Irish jig. As I looked for a record her Mum came to me and said she means ballet music.

Pamela put on Swan Lake and Lorna, taking a colourful, almost see-through piece of silk, wafted around the room like a little butterfly, with a smile of pure joy. This little soul had come to earth to dance. As soon as she was old enough, she joined a ballet class and when her parents moved to England in her early teens, she was good enough to be accepted into the school of the Royal Ballet. Lorna was one of those rare people, who know, from the moment of birth, what their life’s work is to be.

Have any of you had experiences of, or heard of, children like Lorna ?

Of course, in every other way Lorna was just like us. She did not have a crystal ball. She did not know what the future would bring. She worked her hardest to make her dream, of becoming a great ballet dancer, come true and then one day in a doctor’s office, her dream was shattered. She had always been a delicate waif-like girl and the doctor had to tell her that, already at 15, her knees were so badly damaged that she could not make dancing her career. She was heart broken but she had more strength of character, more resilience, than any of us had imagined. It took her a little time but she refocused, and learned to dance to another tune. She studied theatre costume design, and today she is very successful and happy young woman.

I’m sure that if I were to say that Jesus, like Lorna, knew, from a very early age, what his life’s work would be, you would not be surprised. We know that his parents were pious Jews and that growing up in a devout household Jesus would have learned the scriptures. He loved God and just knew that and he was called to serve Him. But you probably would be surprised if I said that, just like Lorna, Jesus did not have a crystal ball. He did not know what form this service would take or how his future would evolve!

Does that come as a shock ? If it does it is only because we have read the book. We know the ending and with the ending in mind we cannot take the unfolding of the story seriously. We know that he was the Son of God, so deep down we believe that he knew exactly what was going to happen, when it would happen, and how it would happen. Looking at his celestial chronometer he would say, “ Oh yes, today I heal the leper and in two weeks’ time I’ll have to go to the Sea of Galilee and preach the sermon on the mount – no need to prepare, I know exactly what I’m going to say !”

No, no, no ! If we believe that then we do not believe that Jesus was truly man, with all the limitations that being human brings – limitations of time and space and knowledge. . You see we are the opposite of his disciples. They had no problem in believing that Jesus was a man like them. A special man, a leader with such charism, that fishermen would even leave a huge catch of fish to follow him; but a man nonetheless. For those of us, who have difficulty in believing that Jesus really did become man, that the incarnation did happen, then listen to St. Luke 2,52:
“And Jesus grew in wisdom, and stature and in favour with God and man.”

It was only at the end of his ministry, at the end of this ‘growing’ that when Jesus asked the question. “And who do you say that I am ?” that Peter was able to answer ”You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.

John O’Donoghue, the Irish mystic-poet, says in one of his lectures:
“The book that I would give anything to read is the book that describes what Jesus felt like the first moment he realised that he was the son of God.”
I believe that today’s gospel tells us what Jesus felt like at that moment.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…” What had Jesus returned from ? He had returned from his baptism by John at which he had heard the words :
“You are my Son, my Beloved, in you I am well pleased.”

Yes, he was ‘full of the Spirit’ : the thought I am the Son of God kept going round and around in his head and he could not concentrate on ordinary things, he couldn’t even talk with his companions. He had to get away, to be alone. Jesus did not go into the wilderness, ‘to fulfil the scriptures’, or to give us a good example. No, he went there because he had to. Like Lorna he had to work out, what this new insight, this revelation, this new reality, meant for him, for his work, for his life. He had to refocus on what was important for him and his ministry.

Was this an easy time apart ? No, today’s reading tells us that, “for forty days he was tempted by the devil”. How do you see this encounter between Jesus and the Devil? Does Satan wear a carnival costume – horns on his head, a spiked tail and have a pitchfork in his hand and say “Ha, Jesus, now this is the big test”? I don’t think so. That would be too easy, too obvious and most of us in such a situation would give the correct answer. No, just as the Kingdom of God is within you, so too the temptations of Satan are within you, buzzing around and around in your head. We participate in our own temptations and we judge ourselves.

WHAT WERE THESE TEMPTATIONS ? THESE THOUGHTS ?

“IF you are the Son of God command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

It begins with such a tiny word, yet such an important word – ‘if’. If I am the Son of God ; if I am the long awaited-one, the Messiah who will gloriously lead the chosen people to the freedom of God, what does that mean for my work ? Does it mean that I can do anything I like with matter ?– for God’s glory of course. Can I have food appear with the flick of a finger and feed everyone ?
If I can do that it will certainly save much time and worry for the disciples and give us all a lot more time to get on with our preaching. If I have that power can I do miracles all the time ? That would be great fun; it would also impress the crowds and in no time everyone would be converted. Is that the way the Father wants it ? Is that the way it should be ?

And then Jesus turned the thoughts over to the Spirit and asked “what do you think”. And clearly the reply came :” Sounds like a big ego trip to me Jesus”. And Jesus realised that if the Father wanted him to play around with the laws of nature: if He wanted everything to be magical, He would have created it that way. And he knew, deeply this time, that material things should never be an end in themselves.

The second thought, the second temptation, was to compare himself to world leaders: the successful men and women, who ruled over people and had the wealth and power to get things done. Was that how it should be ? Look at the High Priests. They have their awe-inspiring Temple. Is that what I should do? Build a bigger and better Jesus temple, full of gold and silver and marble, with a big sign proclaiming JESUS IS THE SON OF GOD. That would certainly impress people and the whole world would marvel. Of course to preach there I’d have to dress up, I’d need robes of gold studied with precious stones in such an environment, and perhaps a special peaked hat as a crown, otherwise I’d look silly. I would have to play the part and yes I might even enjoy this power and wealth but it would be all for a good cause. Is this what the Father wants me to do ?

What do you think Spirit ? “Well Jesus, I think you know you are fooling yourself. You know, deep down, that if you play the part and begin to enjoy power and wealth you’ll end up being swallowed by it. You will become its servant and there will be little place for God. If only this were the 1980s, I would show you what happened to W.A. Inc. and you would never need another lessons on just how totally wealth and power corrupt.
And Jesus said : “ Yes I do know I should only worship God and serve only Him!”

The third thought that kept returning to Jesus’ mind was “ If I am the Son of God He will never let anything bad happen to me.” . I know now that playing around with natural laws, or using wealth and power is not the path the Father wants me to choose. But if I am His son then surely God will protect me and take care of me and no one will hurt me. I may need to live a simple, humble life but at least it won’t involve hardship and pain and suffering.

“What do you think Spirit? ” “Well Jesus, have you forgotten the scriptures ? Don’t you remember how God treated His chosen people? They were lead to a land of mild and honey but only after a detour of 40 years ( not 40 days) of penal servitude in Egypt ! Why should it be different for you ? Or do you want to tell God how He should treat you ? Do you think it is up to you to set the rules ?”
And Jesus admitted : “You are right again. I am wrong to put God to the test. I must accept whatever happens to me as His will.

And then with his mind and heart at peace Jesus returned to Galilee, began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone.

WHAT DOES THIS GOSPEL STORY MEAN FOR US TODAY ?

The Gospel is not meant to be just an interesting history lesson; it is our story and is meant to throw light on our lives as they unfold today. I believe today’s gospel asks two questions.

1. What did you feel like the moment the realisation dawned that you were the son, the daughter of God ?

Did you take time out in a quiet place, without distractions, to get your mind around that tremendous fact ? Or did you continue to say Our Father, and think “Ah shucks, that is only for the pious and holy members of the congregation not for me” ? If you think like that, then there is a wonderful phrase in Romans, which I have often found to be a great consolation : “While you were sinners I loved you.” (Rom. 5,8). God doesn’t love us as sons and daughters because we are good; He loves us because we ARE!

And so it is good, at times, to get away from our humdrum, everyday lives, to become aware how much we are loved and think about our response to God’s love. Lent is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how much we are loved and ask ourselves how we are living up to that reality. Over the next 40 days it may mean some quiet time every day. It may mean doing some special service. It may mean giving up something - not just as a punishment, but to act as a trigger, to help us realise that material things should not be the sole reason for our existence: to remind us to focus on what is really important in our lives.

And so we have the second question.

2. What temptations will you have to face during this time ?

What demon thoughts will go around and around in your head ? Perhaps Jesus’ temptations are still yours.

1) If I am the son or the daughter of God why can’t I do miracles ? Why can’t I heal the sick ? If that happened then I would know that I am close to God and I would be really good.

2) If I am the son or the daughter of God then why don’t I have a better job, a bigger house, a bigger car ? Or why don’t I just give everything I own to the poor and trust in God’s providence ?

3) If I am the son or the daughter of God why do bad things happen to me ? Why do bad things happen to good people ? Why do those I love die ? Why are they sick ? Why do I lose my job ?

We are all in a different place. You may very well have other questions, other temptations to deal with. Take time to face them but do so in a quiet, relaxed manner by first recalling that God loves you. Try to see why you are asking these questions; why, here and now, they are a problem for you and then ask the Spirit, who has brought you into the wilderness in the first place, to help you answer them. Some members of our congregation, who shall remain nameless, have been looking forward to this time of Lent with eager expectation. I believe we would all do well to follow their example and then, like Lorna we might learn to refocus our priorities and to dance again to the music of God’s love. Amen.

Kieran O’Cuneen.
Perth. February 2010.