As we heard in the Gospel reading, soon after his baptism by John, Jesus was driven by God into the wilderness to make certain that he could cope with what lay ahead. Jesus is testing his call and God is testing him too. How he responds is both an inspiration and a help for us now.
Today if someone is seen on television in the middle of nowhere commenting on the desolation and emptiness, you know that if the camera turned around you would see several trucks full of equipment and support, with no danger of getting lost or forsaken!
Mark writes that after Jesus’ baptism “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness and he was there for forty days, tempted by Satan”. Matthew and Luke offer us fuller accounts.
Jesus was alone. The question immediately arises: how does this story come to us? It must be something Jesus himself spoke about to his disciples, not to impress them with his personal courage or endurance, but to make the point that these temptations come our way, too, when we seek to follow Jesus. The Gospel record has Jesus spending a lot of his time warning his followers about the dangers facing him, dangers which would eventually face them too.
Looking at the story which we heard, we notice that there are apparently three temptations. Yet really there is only one, and it comes to Jesus in three ways – and to us. Putting it bluntly, do we really trust God to see us through? The alternatives are spelt out and we can look at them in a moment, but beneath it all we are being asked to trust God, God’s method and God’s love, come what may.
So rather than elaborate on the details of the three temptations, I want to reflect briefly on temptation as such.
But first, remember that Jesus was alone, as so many of us have to be with the precautions needed to restrict this wretched virus. So the first thing to say is that he understands isolation and wants to prevent it becoming depression or worse. Actually few of us sharing this service never see another person – and all of us have the consolation of the company of our favourite radio or television or even films. But if you feel trapped by the virus, then remember the wonderful name of Jesus ‘Emmanuel’ and take heart. God is with us.
The second thing to come out of this temptation story is that each of us has to choose. Unless we are in a really bad place we don’t have demons and voices challenging us or even threatening us. Most ministers have known at least one schizophrenic person, convinced that the devil was close by. That’s very rare of course. But even our normal lives have temptations. And by temptations I mean opportunities and choices – like those facing Jesus. How to use our power, in our case the power of citizens or consumers.
You might expect me to mention Fairtrade as we embark on another Fairtrade Fortnight tomorrow. What we buy can change the world a little for the better, if we are thoughtful and loving in our choices. That familiar Fairtrade Mark signifies that we have chosen to support people who otherwise have very limited scope for a decent life.
We have other, less obvious, choices to make about attitudes rather than things. It does matter to God how we treat other people when we are tempted to impatience or rudeness. When we judge people not for what they do but for who they are – as though they were labelled – that’s the root of racism of course and we are all capable of it. But if we first choose to recognise every fellow human being as a child of God, then we can go on to decide whether we like them or approve of what they do. But start by recognising the fellow human being. Jesus famously said ‘judge not, that you be not judged’; prejudice is so unchristlike, the opposite of love.
Choices – the heart of the temptation story. To define what is good as selflessness is the profound message which Jesus taught and lived out. By human standards it makes little sense to love your neighbour as yourself – what Paul calls ‘the foolishness of God’.
And yet even in loneliness we need not be selfish. Every day we have some choices, albeit limited ones. And in choosing we have the temptation to put ourselves first or not. The Jesus who is Emmanuel is one who is with us, willing the very best for us, and defining that very best as love – and forgiving us when we fall short.
Even at the moment of supreme loneliness, facing his execution during the final weeks of the second world war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was able to praise God for being able to love, just as Jesus prayed for his own executioners as he loved us to the end.
We are not in such a dark place of course. But wherever we are, however we feel, we are Christ’s in our own time and place. We are not absolutely alone because whatever we face he faces with us – and as we learn to resist our own selfishness and make the loving choices, he will increase our strength and bring us safely and strongly through any temptations.
Revd Peter Brain