Tag Archives: Temptation

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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Imagined power

The mother of the Zebedee brothers came with her two sons and knelt before Jesus with a request. She said, “Give your word that these two sons of mine will be awarded the highest places of honour in your kingdom, one at your right hand, one at your left hand.” Jesus responded, “You have no idea what you are asking…..awarding places of honour is not my business. My Father is taking care of that. Matthew 20: 20-24 (The Message)

Did mother and sons imagine their ambitious plot would secure for her boys a special place at Jesus’ side – were they power seekers? Jesus assured them that what they had in mind did not come within the orbit of his God-given role. He tells them that he does not consider that they have understood the consequences of heading for Jerusalem. He asks if they are able to share with him his “cup of suffering”. Their expectation was a victor’s crown!

Regular readers will recall our earlier encounter with the two ambitious smart guys when we asked what was wrong with ambition. The question now is – What is wrong with power? Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton). History is littered with despots and all sorts misusing and abusing power. Think Hitler, Mugabe, Assad and you get the picture. What’s wrong with power? Like ambition, there is nothing wrong with power of the right kind.

The Temptation of Christ, 1854

The Temptation of Christ, 1854 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jesus had to face the attraction, the lure, of power and come to terms with it. He chose a desert place at the outset of his ministry “away from the maddening maze of things” to sort it out. There he sought to know what his ministry would be; what his method would be; what the consequences were likely to be. For 40 days, led by the Spirit, Jesus lived alone in this wilderness and it was as though a devil tempted him. As usual, we don’t know everything that happened or all that was said during the time Jesus engaged in battle with the power of evil – only a summary. And it is about power: Jesus contemplating how to manage power. “If you are the Son of God”, the Tempter mockingly addressed Jesus, “then you have been given a place of privilege in the work of your God’s kingdom and with it the gift of a special power”. Jesus knew that and for 40 days he was seeking to shape his ministry accordingly, And despite the allure of the Tempter He chose not to use his God-given power to alleviate hunger by turning stones into bread; rejected using his power to bring the kingdoms of the world under his control and the glory that goes with it; and he was not going to be a stunt man performing spectacular circus feats to win the applause and approval of the masses. What a difference it would have made had he succumbed to the Devil’s guile and charm! But it was a misuse of power.

Back we go our two “mummy’s boys”. Could it be that James and John harboured in their minds, and by their behaviour (canvassing Jesus,) a tentative hope and a prayer that they were marching to Jerusalem as a mighty army to conquer in the pursuit of God’s kingdom? If they could “bend his ear” they could be at the head of it ; the Master leading, his trusted and loyal lieutenants at his side; if only Jesus would listen and not be so stubbornly opposed to the fulfilment of their dreams (top places). What an opportunity – a big crowd was there to welcome him, to go with him. That would be an encouraging sight for James and John. But much to the mob’s consternation and anger, in spite of their attempt to take him by force and compel him to use the power he rejected, he was not for turning. Their idea of the role of Messiah was very different from the way he was to shape his ministry and mission. The bold duo, or maybe they were not so bold, hence their mother’s part in the interview with Jesus, would be disappointed with Jesus’ response: “You do not know what you ask. You’re not up to it yet! Can you drink the cup I must drink?”

Disappointed and deflated they might have been – the amazing thing is, that at the end of day they still believed in Jesus. The remarkable thing is they still followed and remained loyal to the Galilean carpenter who was facing imminent execution. Misguided as James and John may be, their hearts were in the right place and we have a story that takes us back to the time of Jesus; a story that reveals something of the character of two of Jesus’ friends and not in very good light! Above all, a story to encourage and assure us it was with people like ourselves, with our doubts, our failures and our misunderstandings, that Jesus set out to change the world – and did!