This morning I would like to begin by asking you a question: ‘Do you find Lent easy or difficult?’ I certainly struggle at times with prayer, fasting, and charity, and if we’re honest, I suspect that most of us do. We make resolutions, and often we don’t manage to keep them. Every one of us, left to our own devices and relying solely upon willpower, will fail at some point. We need the support of a loving Christian community and, most of all, we need to rely upon God to help us. Only with God’s help can we be transformed. One of the secrets of the spiritual life is that it is not about what we can do, but rather about letting God transform us.

Our first reading this morning takes us right back to the start of the problem of humans turning away from God, which began with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent to do what God has told them not to do. Instead of obeying their creator, Adam and Eve prefer to trust the serpent, who promises that they will become like God. They are disobedient: they do not listen to what God says, and act in accordance with it. However, rather than knowing good and evil, all they learn is that they are naked, and so they act to cover their nakedness. Instead of improving their lives, the knowledge they gain makes them less happy and content. The serpent makes empty promises, and they are taken in by them. Such is the power of lies. 

Having heard how humans first turned away from God, we hear in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (today’s second reading), how disobedience is countered by the obedience of Jesus Christ. It is obedience that leads to Our Lord’s death on the Cross for us. There Christ bears the burden of our disobedience, to pay the debt which we cannot. This is what we are preparing to celebrate: a single act of righteousness that, ‘leads to justification and life for all men’ (Rom 5:18). To be justified is to be declared righteous in the sight of God. We are blameworthy, yet God declares us innocent. We deserve punishment, and yet are rewarded. It is remarkable. Such is God’s love for us that our slate is wiped clean. Each and every one of us deserves to be cast aside, for our misdeeds, like those of Adam and Eve, which separate us from God and each other. Yet God did not leave us in slavery to sin, but sent His Son, so that we might have life in and through Him. This is the Good News of the Gospel.

If today’s Old Testament Reading is concerned with disobedience, then the Gospel is, at its heart, a story of obedience. Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, into to a deserted, barren place, both to be close to God, and to be tempted by the Devil. It is a harsh, dry, landscape, and after forty days of fasting and prayer, it is no surprise that Our Lord is hungry. 

And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Mt 4: 3)

The Devil is cunning. He asks Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God by performing a miracle. This temptation works on several levels. By doubting that Jesus is God, and asking Him to prove it, the devil is continuing to mock the God whom he refuses to serve. It is a temptation to be relevant. Jesus is hungry and needs to eat, but is being tempted to use the creative power of God simply to serve an appetite. The world tempts us to be relevant, and to conform ourselves to it, rather than let the world be conformed to the will of God. But Our Lord performs miracles not for His own sake, but for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Kingdom. Conjuring up fresh bread is spectacular, but the miracle would not be done to glorify God. Jesus, therefore, replies as follows:

But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Mt 4:4)

Human life requires both physical nourishment, as well as spiritual nourishment. Unless we feed both body and soul, then we are not truly alive. This is a profound truth, which reminds us that as Christians, we are fed by Word and Sacrament, sustained by God so that we may grow in faith, and hope, and love.

The devil tries to tempt Jesus a second time:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you’, and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (Mt 4:5-6)

Jerusalem is the most important place for the Jewish people, with the Temple at its heart, the holy centre of their faith. Again, the devil doubts who Jesus is, and tries to get Our Lord to prove His divinity by doing something spectacular. This is rooted in a doubt as to whether God will act to save His Son. The tempter quotes Scripture to reinforce his point, but Jesus refuses him.

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Mt 4:7)

For the second time, Our Lord uses the Scriptures to reinforce His obedience to God. The devil, however, tempts Jesus for a third time:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Mt 4:8-9)

Power and earthly glory are tempting. Politicians and rulers are often seduced by them. But what the devil is proposing is the ultimate reversal. An angel, albeit a fallen one, is saying to the Son of God, ‘Bow down and worship me’. Worship is , however, due to God alone, and not to His creatures. The devil is seeking to turn the order of things full circle by inviting the Creator to worship a creature. This is wrong, and Jesus will have nothing to do with it:

Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Mt 4:10-11)

Our Lord dismisses Satan and, just like He does in the two previous temptations, He quotes Scripture from the Book of Exodus. The two are linked. Jesus goes through water in Baptism, like Israel at the Red Sea. He spends forty days in the desert, paralleling Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. However, whereas Israel bows down before a false God (the Golden Calf), Our Lord resists temptation. Later, Jesus will be tempted again, during His Crucifixion, when He is mocked:

And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Mt 27:39-43)

Jesus cannot come down from the Cross, because He has to die, to reconcile God and humanity. The mocking tone is the same as before, and the crowd uses the same words as Satan: ‘If you are the Son of God do this’. At both His Temptation and in His Passion and Death, Our Lord is obedient to the will of the Father.

The Temptations of Jesus teach us that we have to be weak, powerless and vulnerable, utterly reliant upon God, so that God can be at work in us. Such weakness may be perceived as foolish in worldly terms, but that is the point. As Christians, we are not meant to be conformed to the world. In seeking to grow in faith, humility, and obedience, we allow God to be at work in us — taking us and transforming us into His likeness. Therefore, as we undertake to follow Christ in our Lenten pilgrimage we do so in the knowledge of our weakness, and in reliance upon God alone. We look forward joyfully, knowing that Christ’s victory — which we will celebrate at Easter — is total and complete. Let us pray that we may receive the grace to follow Christ into the wilderness. As we prepare to celebrate His Death and Resurrection, let us sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – Jesus tempted in the wilderness (Brooklyn Museum)

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