Welcome to this podcast on the first Sunday of Lent. I am Robert Jones, Archdeacon of Worcester, and it’s good to be sharing some thoughts with you about today’s text, the familiar story, common to all three of the Synoptic gospels, of Jesus’ wilderness temptations. It’s this event in the life of Jesus which gives us the 40 days of Lent we have just begun.
Jesus encounters the devil, who puts three tests to him, and three times he says ‘no’. You might read that as saying that the Christian life is all about being strong enough not to give in to temptation. In terms of pass or fail, Jesus passes the test, and we should learn to do likewise. And now we’ve got 40 days to try and prove ourselves to God as we give up this or that.
Maybe that’s one reading, but it doesn’t convince me. It makes God look like someone sitting there simply trying to catch us out, and it makes the faith look as though it’s all about our efforts to be good enough.
So let’s have another look at the start of the story. Notice this: in the first verse Jesus is described as being ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ and being ‘led by the Holy Spirit into the desert’. He goes into the desert because God sends him there. God is in control of all of this, no one else, not even the devil who seems like the main player in the story.
And let’s have a look at what happens either side of this story. Often we pluck a biblical story out of its context and decide what it means for us. But Luke is a seasoned story-teller and a thoughtful gospel-writer. He has placed this story very carefully between two other key events in Jesus’ life.
Just before we have the story of Jesus’ baptism. He hears these words from heaven: ‘you are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ God claims Jesus as his own, as he does each one of us at our baptism. Jesus goes into the temptations knowing full well that he is loved by God: this is his identity, whatever happens, and, we might add, however he responds to temptation. If anything, his wilderness experience confirms this: the devil has done him a favour.
This is so important for us to grasp unless we’re going to live with a constant fear of not pleasing God enough. He loves us, He loves you – this is the greatest truth about you however you respond to whatever life throws at you. Jesus goes from his baptism into his desert, filled with the Spirit, led by the Spirit. His status as a much beloved child trumps everything else, even this wilderness experience.
And what comes after our story? Jesus goes to Nazareth into the synagogue and proclaims; ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ It is the start of his ministry, and Luke signals that at its heart is love for the poor and his love for the oppressed. Jesus tells the people of his hometown who he is and what he’s about.
Baptism, wilderness, ministry. It seems that the desert experience is all part of the package. Many of the saints experienced what one of them described as their ‘dark night of the soul’. Maybe you know these dry seasons in your life of faith too. In it all, hold on to the claims made for you at baptism: you are my child, you are beloved, with you I am well-pleased.
I am writing and recording this in the days after Russia has invaded Ukraine. In truth it seems a little strange to be looking at biblical texts at such a time as this when people are clinging on for their existence and livelihoods. And yet it’s not so far away from the world in which Jesus lived. The temptation to have authority over all the nations, which is offered to him by the devil, must have been temptation indeed when his own country was occupied by a foreign power. Ukraine doesn’t seem so far away at all.
Whatever else did change in Jesus’ life circumstances, one thing which never changed was his status as a much beloved child. This bedrock identity was vital for him and is vital for us all. And whatever else didn’t change was his commitment to the poor and oppressed in his day – and it is pretty clear to see who are the poor and oppressed in our day.
Knowing we are loved by God, knowing we are called to love others with that same love, holds true in today’s wildernesses every bit as much as it did for Jesus in his.