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Temptation

Jesus was tempted in all ways as we are, yet he was without sin. He deliberately chose to live our common life and thus exposed himself to our weaknesses. As Paul said to the Philippians:

It was at the beginning of his ministry that Jesus identified himself with sinners by being baptised by John as a sign of repentance. He who was without sin accepted the role of a sinner, and it was then that he was recognized as the son of God when the Holy Spirit came upon him:

Full of the Holy Spirit

That is the setting for his temptations in the wilderness. Luke says:

It is of the utmost importance that we see how he did this in that special relationship with God that is shown by the presence of the Holy Spirit. As we noted last week, when Jesus separated himself from human company and went into the wilderness, or up on mountain, it was to pray, to be alone with God. Mark put the work of the Holy Spirit in this venture even more strongly: after reporting his acknowledgement as the Son of God, he says,

See that it was immediately after the voice called him `my Son, the Beloved', and that the Spirit drove him: he was impelled out of urgent necessity to go.

Forty days in the wilderness

Not only did he identify himself with ordinary human beings in their exposure to sin, which will be clear when we see what happened in the wilderness, but he identified himself with the great mediators between people and God, Moses and Elijah. The term of forty days and the struggle he had gave him a similar experience to the great holy men who later met with him at the transfiguration: did you realise that the two figures who met with him in the presence of Peter, James and John on the mount of prayer, were the other two who the Bible tells us spent forty day fasting in the wilderness? But is it, really, such a strange thing that the temptations of Jesus are related to those mountain top experiences we were thinking of last week in respect to the meaning of the Transfiguration?

Before he received the ten commandments, Moses spent forty days on the mountain:

Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness on his way to the same mountain:

It is from this period of forty days in the life of Jesus that the old Christian practice of fasting for forty days before Easter gave us the season of Lent. They were forty days except for Sundays. It was observed widely as a discipline of prayer and preparation for the great celebration of Easter. People deprived themselves as they reflected upon their lives in repentance so as to be able more gladly to welcome the risen Lord; and since Sunday is the day of the resurrection there was no fasting on those days. Is this a practice we should revive? We will at least gain some benefit if we realise, by whatever means we can, the spiritual purpose of separating ourselves sufficiently from worldly concerns to be alone with God, as Jesus was when the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.

If you are the Son of God

When we come to the actual temptations that Jesus had to struggle with we see they are directly related to what had just happened at this baptism. You might say that his temptations were different from ours because he was in truth, we believe, the Son of God, but are we not always being tempted to play God in ruling our own lives? The devil begins: If you are the son of God .... What was he to do with the powers he possessed? - powers of which he was now acutely aware since his affirmation by God as his son. Was he to prove himself? The devil's trick was, of course, that by experimenting he was in fact testing God, thus separating himself from God and acting on his own account. As separation from God is the very essence of sin, in the same way we are tested as he was. Was he really to empty himself, taking the form of a servant. Dare we be servants when we could be masters? In the end it became a question of would he march in triumph as a conquering hero or go humbly to a criminal's death? Would his powers be used to build himself up or to heal the sick and raise the dead?

That is an ordinary human desire for a hungry man; but you can also see more to it. It is the Son of God who gives us the bread of life: [John 6, recalling the gift of manna in the wilderness].

Stones and bread were compared another time in the gospels:

The gift of bread is the gift of the gospel and it is the act of the caring father. If the raven fed Elijah in the wilderness, it might not have been out of character for God to feed his Son in the same situation. So it was not eating bread that was the question: it was, `If you are the Son of God ...', so the devil then tackles this more directly [here in Luke in the third temptation, in Matthew's account in the second]:

This mental experiment, done in the imagination, tested Jesus to make a direct demonstration of his sonship. See how subtle the devil is, Jesus had quoted scripture in reply to the first temptation:

The quote is from Deuteronomy 8

Now the devil shows that he can quote scripture too (you might need to remember that sometime): it is written he says, and quotes from the psalm read today,

Jesus replies from the old law,

though he could also have quoted the psalms,

So that psalm became one of the most frequently used parts of the liturgy. We need to be continually reminded that it is an affront to the love of God to put him to the test. Even in ordinary human relationship, to put your loved one's love to the test is already an act of betrayed as a lack of trust. So again, although this temptation was especially pointed for Jesus, as he was indeed the Messiah, we also are tempted by the idea of putting God to the test. It is a breach of any relationship of trust. Again the devil is trying to separate Jesus from the love of God, so it is of fundamental importance that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. That was his only protection, and it tells us something of where we should look for strength and guidance.

A question of allegiance

He was like us in that regard. Here we begin to see the real nature of temptation. At first it seems that his temptations are special: `If you are the son of God ..', yet it comes down a question that is the same for us: it is a question of loyalty to God and of trust in him. Whose side are you on? So the power of evil is represented as an adversary as in the Old Testament:

In later Judaism `Satan is the one who seeks to destroy the relation between God and men, especially between God and Israel'. That is exactly the same for us. It is a question of relationships, of love and loyalty.

We might note in passing that the Hollywood notion of temptation is basically wrong and silly. Temptation is often represented in popular entertainment as enticement, like presenting a person with something attractive and the prospect of pleasure, as if pleasure were in itself forbidden. `Enticement' is a word that comes from a Latin word that refers to a firebrand, the idea being to inflame, so to arouse; but that is a gift of God in creation, not wrong in itself; where wrong might be done is in when we allow it happen and what we decide to do about it. Sin is a matter of will. It always confronts us with the question of how we chose, of whose side we are on.

So the devil revealed his true character when he put the challenge directly to Jesus: Chose my side, give your allegiance to me,

There you have it If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours. Not many people have the challenge put to them as openly and strongly as that, but it is what is always involved in temptation, for sin is essentially to give oneself to evil rather than to God.

It was part of the Jesus' humanity that he had to struggle with this question as we do. Yet it was put to him as the Messiah who had indeed been promised all the nations of the earth:

It was a promise to the Messiah. So Jesus was tempted in his essential character. The powers of evil are most destructive at that point which matters most, in our very identity; and as with Jesus, so with us, our identity is a matter of relationships, most importantly of who we are in relation to God. That is a question of service, of loyalty to God, of good doing for others, and of worship. So Jesus quoted the old scriptures again:

God alone can rightly claim our love and loyalty, for we belong to him and realise our true character, our real identity in relationship to him. Jesus won the first battle, and we are called as his disciples to take the same side. That is what it means to act in the name of Christ, to do something in his cause, to be on his side; and as he is on our side we are able to win. Or rather, he will win in and for us. Remember that not even Jesus went alone into battle against the power of evil, he went in the power of the Holy Spirit, and so do we as we live in faith trusting God. In the power of the same Spirit, God can accomplish a great victory over evil in the lives of believers; and so we have the ascription praise:-

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