Last week the theme was transfiguration and glory; this week it is wilderness and pain. At the outset of his ministry, like Moses and Elijah, Jesus goes into the wild places to live for a time on the margins of the world. Like Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, Jesus must face forty days of ordeals before he can enter his promised land. Temptation means testing. It is peirasmos, the time of trial we pray to be delivered from. And the test for Jesus is the same as it is in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve when the Lord God comes walking this earth and puts this question to them, to him, to us: where are you? Where are you, where do we stand before the great decisions of life, where is our life leading us? Whose are you? To whom do we owe allegiance? Are we slaves to the illusions and fantasies of power or pleasure or wealth or ambition or whatever other hungers drive us? Or are we free, through the love of God, to exercise the choice to have no other gods but him, free not to be corrupted with idols, free to take up our true humanity, be the men and women God made us to be?
For Israel, for Adam and Eve, the test results in defeat: their stories are of capitulation and failure. And St Matthew’s reason for telling his wilderness story near the outset of the gospel is precisely to demonstrate how Jesus the archetypal Man, the new Israel, is victorious where they once failed. Three times the adversary Satan tries to deflect Jesus from the path of obedience; three times he is thwarted, comprehensively. And this, says Matthew, sets the pattern for his entire ministry: from baptism to resurrection, he demonstrates that he is God’s beloved Son by submitting to his Father’s will and overcoming the evil one.
For Matthew, the wilderness story is by no means just a moment, an episode, of testing after which the ordeal is over. He is careful to point out how all through his ministry Jesus is tempted to turn aside from the path set before him. The temptations set a pattern, for although the devil departs from Jesus for a while, he will soon be back; for Jesus to announce that the kingdom of heaven is near is to assault the very citadel of evil itself. So when Peter tells him he must on no account suffer rejection and death, Jesus vehemently takes up the words with which he had seen off the devil in today’s gospel: ‘Get behind me, Satan’. In Gethsemane, on the way to the cross, his threefold cry, ‘Father, let this cup pass from me’ echoes the threefold ordeal of the desert: in his passion, this garden has become a wilderness, bread is turned to stone. And when the bystanders mock him, ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’, they unconsciously echo Satan’s taunts to Jesus as they are locked together in combat on the temple pinnacle: ‘if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down’.
Each time, says Matthew, there is victory. For the three temptations Jesus resists in this morning’s gospel lead later in the story to some new act of enlargement, of generosity, on God’s part. He will not turn stones into bread, yet he provides loaves to eat for a huge crowd on the mountainside, and more than that, makes bread his own body at the last supper. He will not throw himself off the temple pinnacle, yet in the resurrection he is able to ‘destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days’, for one greater than the temple is here. He will not worship Satan to inherit the kingdoms of the world held out to him on the mountain, yet at the very end of the gospel, on another mountain top, he enters into the promised dominion, and more besides: ‘all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me’.
We need to draw strength and inspiration from this story as we embark on the journey of Lent. These 40 days take us to the paschal mystery of death and resurrection, the very heart of the Christian year, the very heart of Christian faith. In the early church, as we know, Lent was the time when catechumens were prepared for baptism by prayer and fasting before the awesome initiation rites of Easter. Lent was when sinners who had been separated from the fellowship of the church performed acts of penance, kept quarantine before being reconciled and restored to communion at Easter. The history of this holy season tells us what it is really for. It is not an act of discipline for its own sake, denying ourselves because rigour is somehow ‘good for us’. It not really something we do at all. Rather, it is a gift: for as we are drawn into the dying and rising of Jesus, we re-learn what grace is, forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal. We realise like the prodigal son that there can be a homecoming, and life can begin again.
St Paul says that ‘if through baptism we share in a death like his, we shall also share in a resurrection like his’. And this is how I read the temptation story: not simply as a story of the triumph of Jesus, but as a parable about ourselves and our own struggles, how death to self and resurrection to a new life are possibilities held out to all of us here and now. For St Matthew, Jesus is not only the triumphant saviour-king who comes in the name of the Lord, victorious in the desert as he is victorious over death. He is also the perfect disciple, the human being who lives out in his painful ordeal what it means to be made in God’s image. The ashes of last Wednesday point us directly to the new fire of Easter and the flames of Pentecost. In the ashen sign of the cross imprinted on our foreheads in memory of our baptism and in anticipation of our death, we know that we are already more than conquerors through him who loved us.
The simplicity of Lent for me puts a question mark against the easy comforts of conventional religion, suggests the need to look for what is altogether more passionate, more fervent, more real, something felt in the deepest places of the human soul that makes a life-changing difference to us and to our world. Lent is a time to rekindle spiritual longing, re-awaken hope, turn back our disordered appetites and addictions into hunger for God. The temptation story shows us what we can become if we embrace the call to conversion of life, give ourselves once more to this great project of Christian discipleship. Kierkegaard asked the question, what is the truth for which we would both live and die? He answered it with the title of one of his books: ‘Purity of heart is to will one thing’. By purity he meant singleness of heart and mind, shedding whatever distracts us from that focus, a purposeful, intentional following of Jesus wherever he leads us. Lent invites us into this tough but rewarding journey, the path that points forward to resurrection, the golden thread that leads us to Easter. And if we search, or perhaps simply find it in ourselves to want to search, to take the first tentative step of acknowledging our longing and our hunger, then we shall find that Christ is already rising – Eastering – within us.
The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham