Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
When we hear the word, “temptation”, chances are we think of moral lapses. Things related to sex and money often, maybe things that are illegal, or even relatively trivial things like eating too much chocolate. But when we turn our attention to the episode we call the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, we are looking at an entirely different category. Here we see Jesus battling the most serious temptation of all: the temptation to compromise his call and disempower himself before he even gets started.
This story happens early in the adult life of Jesus. It follows immediately after his baptism by John in the River Jordan. There, he had a vision of a dove alighting upon him and a heavenly voice calling him Beloved. Heady stuff. Enough to turn someone’s head with pride and self-importance. Certainly it would be something that would have had a profound impact on Jesus as he seeks his way, as he continues to explore the “why’ of his life and what will be the purpose of his life’s work.
He does a wise thing for so young a man. He doesn’t immediately jump on his horse and ride off in all directions. He takes time to reflect on the meaning of this vision and this voice. He takes time to sort out how he will proceed in order to be faithful to so high a calling. He finds an out-of-the-way place to fast and pray and prepare himself to answer this call: a time apart to wrestle his demons to the ground, to face the temptations he senses are stirring within him. He recognizes that he could end up doing more harm than good if he doesn’t get it right; or simply be ineffectual and just one more do-gooder who did not do much good at all; or, even worse, someone who let the lure of personal success thoroughly corrupt him.
I think the underlying temptation in this story is just that: the temptation to be successful. Each of the three temptations offers him some assurance of success. Turn stones into bread and feed the poor and people will come flocking. Do something sensational like surviving a jump off the top of the Temple and the fans will swarm around you. Give your allegiance to me and I will give you supreme power over all the world and everyone will be your subject. Do these things and you will be successful. You will get a reputation. People will idolize you; even better, they will fear you. You won’t be able to count high enough to number your followers. You will be able to do anything you want. And, you can have anything you want for yourself.
Jesus must have felt temptations such as these or this story wouldn’t be there. He realized he had to face them directly and not pretend they weren’t there in order to get himself on the right track from the beginning. He knew God’s way was a different way: a way of trust, humility, servanthood, compassion, prayer, sacrifice, and even apparent weakness. And unless he was faithful to that way, no matter what he did – even if he had some initial success following the other way – it would all amount to nothing lasting or authentic in the long run. So, having taken the time to sort all of this out, he left his place of retreat, returned to the rough and tumble world, and got down to work. But, from beginning to end, in the Way God was leading him, not in the more glittery way his temptations tried to lead him astray.
And note this especially – and we will come back to it later: It was only because of a lifetime of spiritual practice – immersion in the Spirit through scripture and prayer – that Jesus was able to negotiate through the tricky ways of the Tempter to keep his eye fixed on God’s distinct path.
Over and over again, the people of God face and fall to temptations to abandon the unique way of God to use other means to gain their ends.
In the Old Testament passage this morning, we read of one such incident. Israel is demanding a king because they think they will be more secure and successful as a nation that way. They want to be “like the other nations”, so the story goes. Samuel tries to warn the people that it won’t work but they are adamant and Samuel gives in. It sounds like God gives approval to their scheme for success; but not because God agrees with them. Maybe God lets them face the consequences of giving in to such a temptation as a way of calling them back to faithfulness to the way of trust. Israel does get their king. But eventually it leads, not to their success, but to their demise as a nation.
In the 4th century after Jesus, the church faces and falls into another temptation to be successful. This time they are offered a deal by the Roman Emperor of the day. Up to then, the church has been an illegal body, facing persecution and martyrdom, living on the edges of society as a thorn in the side of the dominant powers. The Emperor, Constantine, offers them the chance to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, with all the privileges and perks that go with that new status. And the church accepts the offer, with all the compromises that required on their side of the bargain. Yes, they get power and prestige, they get out from under the pressures of persecution, they get to have a say in civil affairs, they get to build cathedrals and wear fancy robes and engage in impressive public rituals. But they also have the heart and soul of their message and witness severely compromised; so that the church becomes a domesticated agent of the state in keeping people in their place.
Down through the ages since, with that new status as part of the social establishment, the church has tended to mirror the society around it rather than critique it and help to reshape it according to the unique model of the Kingdom of God. When the European Empires began to force their way into the new worlds of the Americas and Africa and Asia, the church too adopted the way of imperialism, rode on the coattails of the invading armies, and began to expand its own empires throughout the world. In our own era, a church struggling against decline and irrelevancy has begun to adopt the culture of consumerism which dominates our age and to use techniques of marketing and advertising to keep its numbers up and claim success.
Each time the mainstream people of God has yielded to these temptations to ease and success, there has emerged in the shadows a counter-cultural movement to recover God’s original vision and way. In the time of the Kings in Israel, it was the prophets. In the time following Constantine, it was the monastic movement.
In our times, it is a barely distinguishable, eclectic network of local experiments that some observers have called the new monasticism and the emergent church and other such names. Independent, non-aligned house churches, meeting informally as gatherings of friends to worship, study, pray, and support each other. Two or three individuals or families who move into the most forgotten and feared parts of town, finding cheap abandoned spaces to meet in, and trying to be a presence and a witness for Christ to the people who live there. People who sense a common call and gather together around that call in support of refugees, or street people, or inmates, or persons with disabilities, or the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or anywhere that brokenness breaks the heart of God and calls forth the compassion of Christ. The spread of alternative prayer and worship groups such as Centering Prayer Groups and Taize Worship Groups and Celtic Spirituality Groups and others that I am not even aware of.
I had hoped that maybe we here in Prince Albert could use the opportunity God gave us to break with the prestigious but domesticated church of our times and to find a way to be one of these vital grassroots experiments that help return us to the uncompromised Way of Jesus. I still hope that might happen in the wake of the closing of St. Paul’s through the movement of the Spirit that is still at the heart of the people – you people – and waiting to be reawakened.
You see, it has nothing to do with what our culture looks for as signs of success. It doesn’t take a lot of people, or people of a certain age, just 2 or 3 – young or old or in-between – when Jesus is in the midst of them. It doesn’t take an impressive building; anywhere will do, so long as it is the Spirit that is calling the people to gather. It doesn’t take money; for where there is a passion that comes from God, God will provide the means.
But it does take one thing – the thing that Jesus had and which most of the church has neglected at least since the time of Constantine. And that is a disciplined spirituality at the heart of our life together. The diligent practice of personal spiritual formation. Regular times spent with scripture and in prayer that help us to keep our eyes fixed on God when the Tempter invades our imaginations with more tantalizing pictures. A hunger and a thirst for God that is more necessary for us to satisfy than our stomachs or our cravings for any of the world’s glittery trinkets.
I use the word prayer as an umbrella term for all the different means we have available to nurture ourselves spiritually. Perhaps the biggest temptation we all face – and to which the church as a whole has yielded again and again – is the temptation to neglect prayer. Friends, we do so at our peril. For any church we build without a foundation of disciplined spiritual practice is a pale imitation of what Christ came out of the wilderness to dedicate his life to and ended up giving his life for.
The Rev. Ted Hicks