When Malcolm Muggeridge was preparing to film a re-enaction of the temptations of Jesus in the desert, he wondered how to portray the presence of the devil on the screen. It’s not as easy as you might think. You don’t really see devils. Here’s what Muggeridge opted for in his own words: “Finally it was decided that the devil’s presence should be conveyed only by a long dark shadow falling across the sand, and lengthening as the colloquy with Jesus proceeded. It may have been Jesus’ own shadow. Dialogues with the devil have a way of turning out to be soliloquies.” Whether Jesus had a conversation with the personification of evil or a conversation with the questioning side of himself is not the issue here. The issue which Luke concentrates on is Jesus’ relationship with his Father and how that relationship of trust is put to the test.
Just before he entered the desert Jesus had his great moment of illumination at his baptism. Coming up out of the water the heavens opened and a voice from heaven declared him as God’s beloved Son. It was now necessary for this special relationship to be tested by fire. And so following the footsteps of his ancestors who spent forty years in the desert, the Spirit led Jesus into the desert. Today we might easily romanticise about the raw beauty of the desert as we speed through it in our four by fours with our numerous mod cons and smart phones. But for Moses and later Jesus the desert was no fun place. For them it was the place of demons. It lacked the most basic necessity of life, namely, water. Here, without any support system whatever, Jesus had to come face to face with his enemy; he had to come face to face with himself.
The devil chooses his moment carefully, just when Jesus was tired and hungry after forty days of fasting. ‘If you are the Son of God . . .” he begins. Now Jesus has two voices to contend with. One is the voice heard at his baptism recognising his unique vocation and special relationship with his Father, and the other voice questioning that relationship, his very self-identity. Jesus has decide which voice to heed. Does he belong to his Father, or does he belong to the evil one? For us with hindsight it might seem a very obvious choice but was it really? Belonging to his Father now meant a real life-changer. It meant forsaking Nazareth forever so as to become an itinerant preacher and walk some lonely roads into an uncertain future where his message of a loving and compassionate God will be received by some but not by others. Was God really asking him to do all this? Would it not be far less hassle simply to slip back into his home village and business as usual? Thankfully, in his moment of temptation, Jesus held fast to his identity as Son of God and Nazareth, with all his friends and acquaintances, became another country.
The season of Lent was originally designed for catechumens preparing for baptism. It was modelled on Moses and his twelve tribes who were formed into God’s chosen over forty years in the wilderness. It also replicates Jesus’ forty days where his relationship with his Father was sorely tested. It was the crunch moment for the catechumen also where he or she had to decide where they wanted to belong to Jesus or not.
As the years passed, Lent became a special time of renewal for all the baptised. The Christians realised that it is all too easy to simply live for this world and forget their true identity as children of God. It is all too easy for all of us to forget that we are spiritual beings on a human journey. We have here no lasting city. Spirituality is a journey, a quest, a path, a way. It is a journey of discovery, a quest for meaning, a path for a fuller life, a way of love and embraced destiny with the Holy One. Lent therefore is a time to pursue this journey of self-discovery and self-realisation, of learning to become who we really are, namely, God’s chosen people.
Temptation is a very important topic because we are tempted every day to negate who we really are and to sell our birth right. Nor do we have to look for a desert in order for our faith to be tested for today’s world with its indifference, forgetfulness and sometimes outright denial of God is desert enough for all of us. Add to this our personal battles with our own weakness. Who hasn’t got demons and addictions to struggle with, be they alcohol, drugs, pornography, a bad temper, low self-esteem or a domineering attitude? Lent is a special time for us to face our own weakness and ask the good Lord for healing.
The good news is that Jesus became human and knows what it is to be tempted and to be faced with the difficult choices between good and evil. As Hebrews puts it: “for it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weakness with us; but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are; though he is without sin.” We can come to Jesus in our daily life, knowing that he has experienced the difficulty of choices. We can sit at his feet and learn from him. He can give us the courage to face our weaknesses. He can give us the strength to resist the temptations that we are vulnerable to. He can give us the grace to grow into who we are, namely, God’s beloved sons and daughters.
Sunday, 14 February 2016