The other day, we commemorated the Baptism of Jesus, a truly powerful moment in the life of Jesus and a paradigm for our own life of faith. Unfortunately, our Sunday lectionary readings this year skip what happens next: Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. I say ‘unfortunately,’ because it feels like this part of the story is of particular relevance right now. And so, I’m going to spend a few minutes here today to reflect on this.
“Immediately” after the theophany at Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness. We don’t know why the Spirit does this, but we do know that it was a formative, initiatory experience for Jesus. He has just been publicly identified as God’s own Beloved Son. Now, he is put in a position where he must demonstrate what that means, or more precisely, what that does not mean.
In the wilderness, he is tempted by “the devil.” Regardless what we may or may not believe about the devil, one thing that is true is that most of our ideas and images of this character are fueled far more by ancient and medieval speculation and fears surrounding the occult than they are by the Scriptures. Most often, the devil of our Scriptures is presented not as the “King of Demons” and “Master of Hell” we imagine, but more like a trickster figure. This doesn’t make him any less dangerous — perhaps even more so, because it means he traffics in trickery and half-truths, seeking to sow confusion and doubt. And this is the guise of the devil in this story.
He comes to Jesus three times, each time tempting him to an action that would demonstrate his status as God’s Son. First, he tempts him to resolve his hunger by turning stones into bread. Then, he tempts him to jump off the Temple and let angels catch him. And last, he offers Jesus a deal: Jesus can rule all the world’s kingdoms if he just bows down to him.
Jesus sees through these temptations, knowing that, as the maxim from depth psychology would have it, “It’s not about what it’s about.” It’s not really a question of bread, but a question of trust. It’s not really a question of demonstrating God’s care, but a question of entitlement. It’s not really a question of ruling (for he is the King anyway), but of the nature of his Kingdom. The thing that is so beguiling about temptation is that so often it’s not temptation to do something bad, but to do something good in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.
We see in this story, and throughout the Scriptures, that Jesus is always struggling against the “principalities and powers,” all the forces in the world which draw us away from God. Here it’s entitlement and the way of Empire. Elsewhere it’s money, the “Temple Industrial Complex,” hypocritical Torah observance, and questions of political revolution. The Gospel stories tell us that Jesus was not in denial about the temptations of easy answers and self-justification, but was not drawn in by them either. Rather, he met them head on; “the Sabbath is made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath;” “Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s;” “You cannot serve both God and Money;” and most importantly of all, “Peter, put away your sword.” Jesus refuses to manipulate nature to serve his own needs. He refuses to show off his special status. He refuses to be king according to Empire’s rules. He refuses the idea that “good” violence can drive out “bad” violence.
Any Jesus preached in any church that does not look and sound like this is a false Jesus, literally an ‘Anti-Christ’ and must be rejected.
Traditional Christian baptismal liturgies include a vow to “renounce Satan.” (I particularly like the Orthodox version, which says “renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his worship, and all his angels, and all his pomp” — it’s a reminder that what can draw us away from God often comes in messages, whispers, and what is shiny and glamorous.) If we are truly following Jesus, we will renounce half-truths and comfortable lies. We will renounce the old ways of injustice, selfish entitlement, hoarding of wealth, violence of heart and mind, hypocrisy, and self-justification.
In biblical imagination, the whole world is our ‘desert’ — a place, yes, created as good and beautiful by God, but corrupted from within by our sin, which spreads like a contagion throughout the world. And so we, like Jesus, are tempted to do the right thing in the wrong way, to justify using power plays and revenge to pursue our goals. Like him, we are called to withstand temptation; unlike him, more often than we care to admit, we allow ourselves to fall for those half-truths and easy lies, and stumble into those traps of self-justification.
We must daily renounce the principalities and powers of this world and their false gods and anti-christs, which seek to distract us, sow suspicion and doubt, and stoke the fires of anger. And, when we stumble, we must get up again in repentance: to wake up, turn around, be renewed in our perceptions of God and the world, so we can stand another day.
When we do this, and especially when we do this together in community and as a society, the world begins to look less like a desert and more a Promised Land, as the great and open vistas of our good, humble, peace-making, just, and holy God, who is Love, spread wide before us.