It’s a pretty familiar story, isn’t it? The story of how the Savior of the world was subjected to the perils of the wilderness: extreme isolation and exposure, hunger, thirst and exhaustion… and the insidious machinations of the Tempter, a fallen angel bent on diminishing or destroying him.
You know, there are a lot of New Testament scholars—very smart people—who grapple with this story: Jesus in all of his humanness… beset by a supernatural and immensely powerful antagonist—the very personification of cosmic evil—tested to the limits of his ability. And he comes out on top, but at great cost, it seems. Certainly, it was no cakewalk. What was going on here? Why was it so hard? This is Jesus… the Christ, the Messiah we’re talking about here… the Son of God. Was he just getting up to speed? Or was he going through a rough patch? Or did the fact that Jesus had taken on mortal flesh mean that he could, just possibly, have failed the test? And if you’re looking to me for definitive answers to these questions, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
But I wonder… You know, the purpose of the Gospels was to spread the Good News of God’s salvation, reflected in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Each of the Gospel accounts provides a fairly-detailed description of Jesus’ three years of active ministry in Galilee and Judea, beginning with his baptism by John in the Jordan. Matthew and Luke add a birth narrative… and Luke recounts the story of boy Jesus in the Temple… but even in these more-comprehensive accounts of the life of God’s Son, there’s a big gap between the beginning of the story and its end. And so, we are left to wonder just exactly what Jesus was up to during all of the intervening years between his childhood and his death and resurrection. And I guess we’ll likely never know… certainly there are some apocryphal gospels in circulation that purport to fill in some of the blanks from those “lost years,” but they just don’t seem to have the “ring of truth” for many of us. And they apparently weren’t convincing enough to merit inclusion in the official canon of Christian Scripture established by the earliest Church fathers, who lived much closer to the time that all of this took place. So, we just don’t know as many of the details as we’d like. And maybe that’s on purpose… maybe we don’t need to know. God is pretty good at giving us what we need, don’t you think?
In any case, here’s what I do know: if the Word was present at the beginning of everything… and if the Word was with God and the Word was God… and that same Word became flesh and lived among us for a season (John 1:1-18), and if an angel of God told Mary that she would be “overshadowed” by the Most High and conceive a son who would be holy… and be called the Son of God (Luke 1:26-38), then there was never a time when Jesus wasn’t God. There was never a time when Jesus didn’t know how to be God. If Jesus ever had any doubts about anything (and I’m not convinced he ever did), it was whether or not he would be able to get his message across to all of his thick-headed disciples. Including us. Jesus had been going around all his life being Jesus… and God… all wrapped up into one inscrutable package. I believe we’ll come to understand how all of that works one day, but not today.
So, we’re left with the question: what was up with Jesus being tempted by Satan in wilderness? We have been told that we, ourselves, will never be tested beyond our ability to withstand (1 Corinthians 10:13). And if Jesus was Immanuel: God with us, (cf. Isaiah 7:14 and Matt. 1:23) and I believe that he was, this is not a story about a test that could have taxed Jesus beyond his ability to endure. What then? As we read the Gospels, it’s pretty clear that Jesus was always working… always teaching… and preaching… and healing the sick in body, mind and spirit. Everything Jesus said and did had a purpose. And with that in mind, I propose that, although the themes of wilderness and temptation loom large in today’s Gospel passage, we should also be thinking about what it means to trust God to sustain us no matter the difficulties that beset us… no matter how weak and fragile and flawed me may consider ourselves to be. Jesus didn’t come to show us how it worked to be both God and human. We don’t need to understand that… because it’s way over our heads. We’ll never be God. We can and we should be working to become more like God—that’s the reason we’re here—though we’ll never be anything more than human… not in this lifetime… and that’s plenty. But Jesus came to show how we can be fully-human. Jesus took on mortal flesh so that he could set an example for us of what it means to be fully at-one with God. I know you’ve heard me talk about “at-one-ment,” which is the root of atonement, before, but I don’t think the concept can be overemphasized. Especially during Lent. There should never be a day under the sun when we are not examining our lives minutely to discern new ways in which we can live more-fully for God. There should never be a rock we leave unturned in our quest to find… and root out… those attitudes and behaviors that separate us from God. These are not exclusively Lenten practices. These are for every day. Lent just gives us a chance to redouble our efforts and begin anew our lifelong vocation of learning how to become fully human… in accordance with the example set for us by the Savior of the world: God with us.
Jesus knows we’ll be tempted. And Jesus knows we’ll stumble. It’s in our nature. But our Gospel story today demonstrates that Jesus will stop at nothing to show us that putting our trust in God, completely and without reservation, is the first step on the straight and narrow way to salvation. Forget food, forget clothing, forget all of the trappings and idols of daily living. Instead, hold fast to God’s holy Word. You won’t be disappointed. Set aside your earthly strivings: your lust for wealth and power and position and put yourself at the disposal of the Most High. Nothing feels as good as being “at-one” with God. You can argue with God… you can even seek to bargain with God. But never forget that, in the end, God is God, and you are not. There is great comfort and liberation in praying from the heart: “Thy will be done.” Jesus endured forty days in the wilderness to show us that, in the end, there is no wilderness that can isolate us from God. There is no trial we cannot endure—if we allow God to share the burden with us—and there is no need that God cannot satisfy if we’ll put our trust in him.
Dear friends in Christ: I wish you a holy and productive Lent.