According to a prayer on Ash Wednesday, we are beginning “[a] campaign of Christian service”. We “take up battle…armed with the weapons of self-restraint”. Lent, to coin a phrase, is “a special military operation”, aimed not at self-created enemies, but at our true enemies, at what St Paul calls “the schemes of the devil… [and] the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:11,12). Lent is an epitome of the whole of life, and life is a battle.
Today’s readings, especially the first and the last, are reports from this battlefield.
I’d like to ask three questions: what is happening when our Lord encounters the devil? Then, what are the temptations that beset us? And last, how does Jesus help us in the fight?
So first, what is this strange episode set in a desert? There’s nothing else like it in the Gospels. Jesus says St Matthew, “was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”. First, he fasts for forty days, strengthened by prayer but weakened by hunger. And the Tempter approaches him. The gloves are off. The holy and the hideous face off, in naked combat, one to one, David and Goliath. Christ has just begun his public ministry. He has started the journey that will take him, step by step, to the Cross and death, and beyond to Resurrection and glory. He has just accepted the baptism of John. And now, with the Spirit upon him and his divine sonship announced by the Father, he is setting out on the Father’s mission, on the work of redemption. As a new or second Adam, as St Paul calls him, he is carrying us all. He wants to take on our human experience, an experience that includes our vulnerability to evil, includes temptation and testing and trial. Genesis tells us that it was ever so, has “aye been”. Our first parents were freshly-minted, as it were, straight from the hand of God, clothed with his grace, children of God. And almost immediately, they faced the test of their freedom, the choice between obedience and life, disobedience and death. They stood on the threshold of the human journey. And they succumbed to the lie of the serpent. The rest, as they say, is history. In the desert, our Lord launches a new beginning and faces the old assault. He fights the battle again, reverses the result, and turns defeat into victory. He is not deflected. In the Exodus, the same pattern recurs. The people of Israel had just been baptised, as it were, in the Red Sea, and been declared God’s son and made his people at Mt Sinai. They were beginning too. And in the wilderness, fresh from grace, test and temptation fell on them – ten times the Bible says. And they failed so often that the first generation of Exodites never made it to the Promised Land. Jesus, new Adam for all of us, is also the new Israel for his people. Jesus shares their experience too, relives it and sets it right. He rights the wrong of his Israelite ancestors. As Son of God in the fullest sense, beginning his public story, he passes the test. He replaces disobedience with obedience. He shows himself the faithful Son of his Father. He opens a new way for humanity and the people of God. He’s already suggesting the Resurrection. The angels appeared, says St Matthew, and “by one man’s obedience”, says St Paul, “many will be made righteous”. A new journey can begin and the story be different.
And what are the temptations that beset us, and that Christ overcame for us? Let’s try to name them: pleasure, possessions and power. These are the three great dark riders that roam through the world, that hiss their proposals into our ears and leave wreckage behind: pleasure unbridled, that is, the unrestrained pursuit of wealth and possessions, the love of influence, aggrandizement and power for their own sake. We see these in Scripture, we know them in life. But behind them is something profounder. Always a lie, and a lie the purpose of which is to subvert our journey, rewrite our humanity, to replace God’s plan for us with our own, to undermine especially our trust in God and delete our sense of sonship. We see this happening in the conversation of the serpent with Eve, slipping in the thought of God as our enemy. We see it in the devil’s attempt to make Jesus redesign his mission as Messiah, to opt for short-term satisfaction and stunts and power. We see it, in another shape, in the lies behind the invasion of Ukraine, in the lie, closer to home, that gender is simply something we choose in our own heads.
Our Lord, though, has been there. He has put these things behind him and behind us. He has reopened the way to being human as our Father intends. The Preface puts it poetically: “by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent, [he] taught us to cast out the leaven of malice.” And here’s the last thought. How did he overcome the Tempter’s temptations? Very simply. By Scripture. Three times he rebuts Satan by words from the book of Deuteronomy. In our desert, in our battles, we have food and a weapon. We have the Bible, we have the Gospels. Just to read the daily readings will let Christ’s strength into our lives, counter the lies, and give us the victory. This is a gift of Lent. Choose a book of the Bible or a book that will open the Bible. “Be off, Satan!”
“Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit”.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 26 February 2023