During my first sabbatical, I went on a creative writing course. The timing was rather iffy – it was a couple of weeks before Debbie was due to give birth to our daughter, our first-born. I was allowed to sit in the seminars with my mobile phone on the desk, switched on. The one occasion it rang was on a morning when I knew Debbie was seeing the midwife, and I rushed out to answer the call. Other participants on the course said I was as white as a sheet – although surely budding writers could have come up with a more original image!
Fortunately, baby Rebekah was too busy inside the womb enjoying Debbie’s cravings for Cadbury’s Crème Eggs to consider a minor inconvenience like birth. And so I got through the whole week, learning from writers who specialised in a wide range of fields, from journalism and radio to – er – romantic fiction. (Not quite my favourite genre of literature.)
But it was the romantic novelist whose input stayed most with me, and I say this not only as a man (who would not like such books) but also as someone who rebelled against the teaching of English Literature at school. Far too girly and nothing like as useful as science, I thought then.
No: the romantic novelist taught us some important elements about how to tell a story well. You had to have an introduction which got you into the problem that the story was to solve. Most of the book was about the tension of trying to resolve the problem. Finally, it is resolved and at that point you finish the story quickly rather than stringing it out. She also introduced us to the ‘back story’ – that is, the lives of the characters before their appearance in the story.
I share all this, because when we come as we always do at the beginning of Lent to the account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, we often speak of it as a story in its own right. However, it is not. The signs are there at the beginning and end of our reading. We begin with Jesus returning from the Jordan (verse 1), which tells us this is following on from what we have just read, and we end with the devil departing from Jesus ‘until an opportune time’ (verse 13).
In other words, this is an episode, not the whole story, and it has clear connections with what surrounds it. So this morning I want to explore the temptations within the big story of Jesus and the Gospel. We’ll take four key elements of the episode and set them in a bigger context.
Firstly, I want us to consider the role of the Holy Spirit in the episode and the bigger story. Our reading begins with Jesus ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ yet ‘led by the Spirit in the wilderness’. Is that what we expect the Spirit-filled life to look like – a wilderness time? The relationship so far between Jesus and the Spirit has been warm. He has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and he has just been baptised in the Jordan, where the Spirit has descended upon him. Yet for all these positive experiences of the Holy Spirit, now Jesus finds that the same Spirit leads him in the wilderness, that is, in a bleak and parched place.
What’s more, Luke’s language is forceful. ‘Led by the Spirit’ is a rather weak translation, and it makes us think of the sometimes fuzzy or sentimental ways in which Christians say they ‘feel led’ to do something. But the word Luke uses means ‘to be thrown out’. It conjures up the hurling of a ball – say, like a cricketer fielding on the boundary and vigorously flinging the ball back to the wicket-keeper. Jesus is ‘flung’ by the Spirit in the wilderness.
How can this be so? How can the wilderness be in the purposes of God? Isn’t the Holy Spirit the ‘Comforter’? Don’t we just expect warm, glowing experiences of God when the Spirit is present in fullness?
Apparently not. Wilderness experiences can be just as much a part of the Christian pilgrimage as the dizzy, thin-air ecstasies of the mountain-top. To get the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land required a time in the wilderness. When Israel rebels some centuries later and is unfaithful to the Lord by worshipping idols, the prophet Hosea says that God will woo his people in the wilderness. It can be in the wilderness seasons of our lives that God strips things away from us so that our devotion to him is renewed. The comfortable things on which we rely, the good things which we have elevated too highly in our lives – these he puts aside for a season so that we may remember who our first love is.
Perhaps that is one of the purposes of a Lenten exercise – to consider again the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as being worthy of devotion before and above all else. How dangerous it is when faith becomes corrupted into a hobby.
And that leads us to our second theme, namely that of self-denial, seen in the way Jesus fasted during the forty days (verse 2). Those of you with good memories will remember the days of an annual event in churches called ‘Self Denial Week’. For one week, we lived differently. Now I think those events can be helpful, but only if they are signs and symbols of a wider commitment to self-denial. Jesus didn’t simply fast for forty days and then think, “Great, now I can get back to self-indulgence.” Nothing of the sort. He rebuffs the first temptation to turn stones into bread (verse 4). He refuses to worship the devil (verse 8), because that will subvert all he has come to do. He will not go for the spectacular show-off event of diving off the Temple like a religious stuntman (verse 12).
Why? Because all three temptations go against his core mission, which is based around denying himself in order to love and serve others. This is what he came to do. Oh, we see plenty of evidence that Jesus enjoyed life. Religious killjoys can take no true inspiration from him. However, from the Incarnation to the Cross, his is a life and ministry of self-giving.
Does this have an application for us? Although people are having to be more careful financially in the last five years, it is apparent that our culture is based not on self-denial but on self-fulfilment. We are our own gods. Our politicians encourage our belief that the economy must always grow. As one Christian website put it the other day,
Every day, we are bombarded with the message that equates the “good life” with the “goods life.”
And whatever difficulties we are facing, the fact remains that we live in the wealthiest county in this country. At my first staff meeting in this circuit, one of my colleagues asked this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Because it might be. And it might be that part of our witness involves self-denial.
Thirdly, I want us to dwell on that repeated title for Jesus, Son of God. Twice the devil begins a temptation with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’ (verses 3 and 9). If? Jesus has just had a profound experience of the Holy Spirit at his baptism where he has heard a voice from heaven referring to him as God’s Son. The work of the Spirit in his conception is a sign that he is the Son of God, according to Gabriel at the Annunciation. If he is the Son of God? He is the Son of God! The wider, big story is there in those words!
Yet here is the attempt to undermine the core of the story. If. It’s like the snake in Eden asking, “Did God really say …?” Here is an attempt to slice the ground from under the feet of Jesus, just as the enemy does with us. Just enough of a voice to make us disbelieve what God has said and done. That’s all it takes.
Now for us it can’t come in terms of ‘If you are the Son of God’, because none of us can be Son of God in the unique way Jesus is. But the devil can do it in a way relevant to us. ‘If you are a child of God’; ‘If you are a Christian’, and so on. It can be in the form of, ‘Are you really a child of God? Are you sure that God loves you? Someone like you? If you were a real Christian, you wouldn’t have done that.’ Does that sound familiar? Subtly we have been switched from focussing on the love and grace of God to majoring on our failures.
So beware of that voice – not a still, small voice but a quiet, insidious voice. Jesus at his baptism had not simply been reminded of his unique divine status, he had been reminded that he was loved with an everlasting love before he had even set out to begin the ministry for which he had come. And God wants each one of us to know that we too are loved with no strings attached. He loves us first. He loves us because he loves us. This is the foundation of anything and everything that we can do in a spiritually healthy way as Christians: knowing that we are loved unconditionally by the Father.
Fourthly and finally, battle is joined over the Scriptures. Every time Jesus is tempted, he squashes the attack with his Hebrew Bible: ‘It is written’ (verse 4); ‘It is written’ (verse 8); ‘It is said’ (verse 12). The devil cottons onto this, and even tries quoting Scripture in the final temptation (verses 10 and 11).
Again, we need to see this as a thread in this episode that is seen in the bigger story. The early chapters of Luke’s Gospel have been stuffed full of quotations and allusions from the Hebrew Bible. The coming of Jesus the Messiah is the central event in the biggest story of them all, the story of God’s redeeming love. Not only that, I believe Jesus is very intentional about the particular verses he quotes in response to the temptations. I don’t think he sits there simply thinking, “What verse would be good to use here?” Every verse he cites comes from Deuteronomy, a book centred on Israel’s own wilderness experience. He sees the temptations in the framework of the bigger story, too. It’s the devil who can’t quote anything that parallels the big story that is going on here. His quotations come from elsewhere in the Scriptures, they are random quotations, fine in their place, but irrelevant to notion of God’s people and God’s Son in the wilderness.
Perhaps this illustrates the dilemma we can face as Christians. We know the Bible is our source book, our supreme insight into God’s ultimate authority in Jesus Christ. Yet we also know how it can be misused, and have probably done so ourselves, unwittingly at times. Sometimes we have been Pharisees, quoting Scripture rigidly, and hurting people with it.
I believe that if we set ourselves to follow not only a disciplined, regular reading of Scripture but also disciplined methods of doing so, we shall have more of a chance of using Scripture spiritually and responsibly. It will not be for everyone to use the academic disciplines that preachers and ministers deploy, but there are age-old, tried and tested methods known in Christ’s church. Yesterday at Addlestone we had a half-day of prayer, and during that time I taught two of them. One is called Ignatian Bible Reading, which involves a sanctified use of the senses and the imagination. The other is called Lectio Divina, where we read the text, meditate on it, pray through what it is saying to us and then seek to live out the text. The great spiritual writer Eugene Peterson has said of Lectio Divina that it is
A way of reading that intends the fusion of the entire biblical story and my story.
And if indeed the temptations of Jesus are an episode in the bigger story of redemption, then would it not be good in all that we do this Lent to seek to find where our story fits into the big story of God’s saving love in Christ?