Psalm 91.1-2, 91.9-16
What story are you in? ©Suzanne Grimmett
In so many stories the hero undergoes a test or a trial before their adventure can begin. We tell these stories like that because we know they are true. We sense that who we really are and the best of who we can become is only revealed after we have been tried. Many of us will have had an experience of only discovering what we are capable of after a significant challenge.
We surely have no end of challenges coming at us in recent times. After some decades of comparative stability, the world is facing climate change, an ongoing global pandemic and now an invasion in Ukraine and nuclear tensions. Australia has seen fires and now is dealing once again with the heartbreaking devastation of floods.
These external events in themselves are traumatic and so painful to witness and experience, but the real testing is what goes on within us, both individually and corporately, in response to these and other less dramatic trials. We always have before us paths to choose that will be easier, broader, more comfortable….and infinitely less true to ourselves and who we would like to become. If given the choice, most of us will not choose a path full of difficulty. Sometimes our path has become harder because of previous choices we have made. Yet there is a spiritual depth possible only when we respond in faith to trials, troubles and temptations, and begin to choose the story we wish to live. To live by faith is to live into the story you really want to be telling with your life- a story worth your life and even worth dying for because it is strong and good and true.
Lent is a season where we are invited to be more deeply intentional about the story we are telling with our life. It is a time of facing challenges and being strengthened by them, of refusing the easy path where we close our hearts to those around us. Lent is most certainly about waking up to all that tempts us to that road, leading us away from the self that is hidden in Christ and waiting to be born anew. In this way, Lent may be a time of giving things up which get in the way, but even moreso it is a time of intentional receptivity to God’s grace so that false selves may die and the real life within us grow in freedom and truth.
Today the lectionary has returned us in the Gospel to the time immediately after Jesus’ baptism. At that moment in the Jordan the voice from heaven proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). This naming is followed by Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to discover what these words mean for his life. The fact that this time of testing in the wilderness was not just a day or two but forty days reminds us that life can be full of difficulty that is protracted and involve multiple challenges and temptations. Indeed, the temptations Jesus faces will not stop at the end of the forty days but rather we can see signs of him resisting them throughout his ministry for the sake of living the story he was born to live and faithfully aligning his life with God’s perfect will. We can learn so much about who God is by the roads Jesus chooses not to travel.
Martin L Smith describes two basic and, on the surface, contradictory yearnings in every human spirit. One is to be joined with others… included with them. The other is a yearning to be distinct and unique, ‘with an individual identity and integrity all of one’s own’. The tension of these two positions marks us all but can be seen in sharp focus in the life of Jesus.
It would be hard to imagine a greater affirmation of individual and powerful uniqueness than is heard at Jesus’ baptism. But if he is the Holy One of God, how can Jesus also be in solidarity with the frailty of everyday humanity? These kinds of competing callings cannot be resolved amongst crowds and busyness, but need space to retreat and look into the depths of one’s being. Jesus is led into the silence of the desert.
A bit of hunger can make us irritable or “hangry” as we often term it, (particularly when faced with a young child acting out and you suddenly realise they just need a feed!) But real hunger can make us desperate. We need food to sustain life. When Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, it is a temptation to escape the human condition that is perpetually vulnerable and dependent on where the next meal is coming from- something that we can be forgetful of in our affluence. Perhaps Jesus, the Son of God, also need not worry as he could make bread, even in a wilderness. But to do that would be to turn his back on his solidarity with the precariousness of the human condition. Jesus’ response affirms that he, too, is dependent on God for sustaining him in life at each moment.
A quick and easy way to bring about the kind of rule you want on earth is to simply seize power, showing yourself to be above the common masses, whether by a display of glory or the fear of destructive power from above. It is the way humanity has brought in new regimes throughout history, wielding terror through military might from ages past to the present atrocities. This temptation to simply take power is played out in Jesus’ life not just here, but again and again through his ministry as the crowds seek to elevate him to kingship. All the way to the cross, Jesus will affirm that he is not a ruler over, but a servant at one with all of God’s suffering children.
Finally, if Jesus were to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, imagine the response? The victory could be so easily won as the story of such a sensational miracle swept through the people of Jerusalem, humbling the proud oppressors and surely bringing swift liberation to the downtrodden. Yet Jesus, in accepting his oneness with humanity, is called to place simple trust in God, and not try to force the Divine hand to action. It is a temptation common to us, as well, if we think about it. We are ever tempted to manipulate others to action, and even our prayers can sometimes reflect an effort to tell God how to act. In the days before Jesus’ crucifixion, there is arguably another attempt to force God’s hand to either miraculous action or armed revolt. Judas, who hands Jesus over to his enemies, may well have been responding to that same tempter’s voice and we might imagine Judas thinking, “The Holy One of God will not be allowed to perish. I will give him over to these puppet rulers and then we will see the power of God in action.”
And of course Judas did see the power of God in action…though he did not recognise it. He could not comprehend that God had intervened in the world not to sweep away injustice with a display of might but to enact a surrender and to die. This was a surrender that revealed the ultimate powerlessness of evil and systems of violence and oppression.
Jesus is confronted by all the old voices that would urge him to proclaim just how special he was and lure him to set up a kingdom based just as much on division and exclusion as any human ruler before him. In resisting these temptations both in this prolonged time in the desert and in his ministry to come, Jesus, the Beloved Son, becomes a servant, declaring his wholehearted commitment to a different story; one based on love, forgiveness and the inclusion of all creation.
There are cravings in our own heart to be special, to dominate, to control, to be invulnerable. As we witness Jesus’ own temptation, may we hold the tension of our own uniqueness together with the love and belonging we share where no one is more important than any other, and no one is excluded. May we know ourselves as God’s beloved…forgiven and free…so that as we face trials, we will have the strength to choose a path of love and courage. May our story be joined with the One who came not to be served but to serve, proclaiming our eternal belonging in the family of things.
 Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, (Canterbury Press, Norwich: 2013) p 11