Conflict in the wilderness

Temptations of Christ (San Marco)

Temptation of Christ (mosaic in basilica di San Marco)
By anonimus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Journey by car on the minor roads and we may still come across them. Set against a dykeside, often covered in moss with an inscription not easy to read, old-fashioned stone milestones indicating how far we have come on our journey; how far we have still to go. Likewise there are different kinds of milestones that touch on the life of every one of us, events of personal significance, highlights of our journey, thus far, along life’s highway. For some people the moment most cherished – the day they set out on a career. For another the most poignant moment – at the altar at which one stood to be wed. For another the most outstanding event – becoming a member of the church. For another being given a call to preach or to the ordained ministry. And there was the time when we made our response to the invitation from Jesus “to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly, day by day.” In fact, for most of us, there is more than just one milestone: life is enhanced by a host of memorable occasions. It was true in the life of Jesus.

In the Temple at 12 years of age came the realisation that God was his father in an extraordinary and special way. A way that did not make Joseph, his human father, redundant. Between that milestone and the next, his baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus must have given thought to what this unique relationship meant for him. Imagine him in early youth in the market-place, in the carpenter’s shop or in the synagogue, listening to friends and neighbours and the religious teachers talking about their hopes and fears, pondering the great question, “what will happen when messiah comes?” Some anticipated a glorious day when everyone would have everything they wanted. Others pictured messiah leading the nation to battle against their oppressors. The distant voices of a variety of people proclaiming their various prophecies would ring in Jesus’ ears. Aware that all of this would have some impact on his life, as he stepped out to go public, he had to be sure that he was working in harmony within God’s scheme of things. Hence to another milestone in his life, so the writers of the gospels tell us,“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1) They go on to tell how the devil went about his evil intent to discredit Jesus by tempting him to abandon his loyalty to the way of his father God. Instead, for him to surrender to Satan’s devious cunning, was a losing battle. Satan was not as clever as he thought and Jesus not the softie he might have imagined Him to be. “Get out of my sight, Satan” Jesus ordered. How do we know this since he was alone in the wilderness? We are informed that the only assistance to come his way was from the Angels! At some point Jesus must have told the disciples all about it. I like the language The Message ascribes to Jesus in his dismissal of the devil: “Satan, push off – Satan, beat it!” Does that not suggest our language in presenting the gospel might be a little more robust?

Even so, as it is told in the synoptic gospels, we are left to imagine the mental anguish, the physical exhaustion, the sweat, the tears, the praying – a contest fought in the heart, mind and soul. An experience of such intensity there are times when one can almost see the tempter. On one memorable occasion the vision of Satan was so real to Martin Luther, he sent his ink-pot crashing against the wall in his room when he threw it at the devil. The writer to the Hebrews (2: 18) assures us, “Because Jesus himself was tempted and suffered, he can help those who are tempted.” This is at the heart and centre of our faith – for all times.

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