Temptations of egotism and self-sufficiency

Peter Seal, 10 March 2019

Romans 10: 8b–13; Luke 4: 1–13

Almost still wet from his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus goes into the wilderness. At his baptism Jesus had heard the one voice that matters, that of his heavenly Father: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.

But now other voices come in to seek to tempt him away from his orientation of spirit, which gives truth to his ministry. He has been proclaimed as God’s beloved Son but now has to practise what has been proclaimed.

Jesus goes into the wilderness. At various times in our lives, we find ourselves in a ‘wilderness’ situation – a time perhaps of confusion, fear, anxiety or doubt. Today we can be encouraged by noticing a few simple words at the beginning of our gospel passage, words that are easily missed on first hearing. It’s the statement, ‘Jesus … was led by the Spirit in the wilderness’.

These words can be encouraging because they tell us two things about the way God sometimes works.

First: if our Lord was led by the Spirit at this point in his life, it tells us that our periods of wilderness can be times for the leading of God’s Holy Spirit. Indeed, they may even have been given to us for this purpose.

Secondly: these words suggest that the Holy Spirit is already in the wilderness before we even get there! You could say God is in the wilderness waiting for us.

These two insights remind us that every aspect and element and experience of our lives has its place within the ambit of God’s greater purpose for each of us. Quite often when we’re in the middle of our own wilderness, we feel lost, and can’t see a way out. It’s often only later – sometimes much later – that we see what was happening in a new light, and that good has come out of what seemed so dark and hard at the time.

The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.
The Holy Spirit was already in the wilderness.

It’s worth noting, ‘For forty days he was tempted by the devil’. Forty days means ‘a long time’. There’s a truth here: not every problem in our lives can be solved quickly and easily. There are times when we have, as it were, to bow our heads, face the possibility of a long haul and plod through, reaching for all the resources we can find.

Forty days is also biblical shorthand for a period of time that separates two epochs. We capture something of this when people talk about being ‘in transition’.

Today’s gospel speaks of the devil tempting Jesus. We absolutely don’t need to have a literalist interpretation of the devil, picturing perhaps a large dark figure with horns and cloven feet. What we know from personal experience is that there are dark influences, occasionally evil influences, that we can be affected by. There are temptations we need to resist because they have a malign influence upon us: their effect is to distance us from our loving heavenly Father, and thereby from our truer selves.

There are temptations we need to resist because they have a malign influence upon us: their effect is to distance us from our loving heavenly Father, and thereby from our truer selves.

So in the three temptations that Luke records for us, it’s interesting how the devil repeats the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’, probably said with a sneering tone of voice.

We may be seeing our Lord wrestle with something we know very well – self-doubt. Questions like: Who am I? Am I really the person I think and hope I am? Can I be what I think I am called to be? We have all heard these voices whispering in our ear.

It’s interesting to note that each temptation makes an appeal to the ego as being self-sufficient. In every case the devil is saying, ‘You can do this. You can be this.’

‘Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Here is the temptation to attract followers through bribery, by producing what they want and need. Our Lord refuses.

And then, the second temptation: ‘The devil … showed him … all the kingdoms of the world’. And said: ‘To you I will give their glory’. This temptation is to get people to follow by the use of naked power. If you don’t want to bribe them, then dominate them. Again our Lord refuses.

A third temptation: ‘Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple’. Here Jesus is being tempted with the possibility of impressing people so much that they will be mesmerised by spectacle, and follow him. Jesus once again refuses.

So, three temptations and three refusals. Notice the basis on which Jesus always refuses. Each temptation is an appeal to his human ego and, very importantly, in each case Jesus points to a reference beyond himself. He defers to a will that is higher than his own – that is, God’s will for his life and ministry. Jesus says to the devil by way of response:

One does not live by bread alone.
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

So our Lord refuses the methods of the devil. What does he do at the end of his wilderness days? He returns to Galilee, walks down the shoreline of the lake and calls his first disciples. He has chosen not the way of the solitary ego, but the way of community; sharing; relationship.

Our Lord refuses the methods of the devil. He has chosen not the way of the solitary ego, but the way of community; sharing; relationship.

Luke ends today’s gospel passage with a line that is haunting, and that expresses a universal truth about our lives. ‘When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.’ The devil does not depart permanently, even from Jesus. There will be other encounters, other struggles.

But we know something else – because of the risen life of our Lord, there is grace for us in all our temptations.

So in conclusion: Lent begins. That long period of time, forty days, plus Sundays. The purpose is to give us time to prepare ourselves again to observe with great devotion the time of Jesus’ suffering, dying and resurrection. The keeping of a holy Lent can include prayer, fasting, self-denial, as well as reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

Lent is a gift to us. It reminds us to take the long view in the midst of our lives which are often dominated by the immediate, ephemeral and superficial. Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let’s join together again in taking the long view, with eyes set ahead on Jesus: both his dying and his new life, which we call resurrection.