Brothers and sisters in Christ: we are presented today in our Gospel reading with a very well known passage of scripture, the Temptation of Christ in the wilderness. It is a particularly relevant passage at this time, the first Sunday of this holy and penitential season of Lent, because, of course, our forty days of discipline and self-denial is modeled on the 40 days that our Lord spent fasting and praying in the desert.
It might be said that there is something of a mystery about this passage of scripture … we find it in three of the Gospels, that of Matthew, Mark, & Luke, the ones we call the Synoptic Gospels … and the mystery to which I refer is what might the source of this episode in the life of Christ be? In almost all other cases we can presume that the source are Jesus' disciples or others who present when the incident recounted took place; but to whom may we look to for as the source for this passage of scripture?
Well, if we consider for a moment what the passage tells us: we know that during those 40 days there were present Jesus, the angels who attended him, and the devil. In theory any of those three might be the source. Satan, I think, is to be rejected out of hand; he would never have made it known to anyone of his attempt and failure to tempt Christ. The angels are a possibility, as we have recounted in scripture many encounters between angels and human beings; however, I would consider their being the source unlikely, as in all other cases of their passing on information to people it is always mentioned that they are the source of this information. Which leaves our final and most likely source: Christ himself.
Now, it is easy to imagine Christ recounting this story to his disciples during the years they spent together; perhaps as they traveled along the duty roads of the Holy Land as they walked from town to town; or around the fire one night in the house in Capernaum; or maybe even during one of the many voyages by boat they took together crossing from one side to the other of the Sea of Galilee. There was no doubt a lot of time for conversation during these intimate and relatively private times. The actual setting is of less importance than the fact that he told them. And that leaves us with the question as to why he told them.
I think we must presume both from the fact not only that he shared with them this story but also the fact that three of the evangelists included it in their Gospels that this was something that Jesus thought important for his disciples to know … indeed, something vitally important for them to know. So what is at the heart of this episode? What might we see as being it's core message?
Our task here might be seen as being a little difficult, given that all three accounts have some variation … St Mark gives a very bare bones account with very little detail; St Luke and St Matthew put some flesh on it, detailing what the temptations consisted of, but with subtle differences and in a different order; and St Luke, alone of the three, ends the episode with the enigmatic and somewhat chilling: 'when the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.'
However, I think we could agree that St Mark's very succinct account contains all the details that the three versions we are given have in common. As it is only two verses long, I will quote it in full:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
This gives us 40 days, alone, driven by the Spirit … a time of intense prayer and fasting in the wilderness … enduring and overcoming temptations in the process … ending with being affirmed in his calling by being attended by angels, the holy messengers of God.
So why might Jesus have thought it so important for his disciples to know that he had had this experience? Well, one reason is probably that he thought his disciples should know that he needed that time of prayer and fasting in order to prepare himself for what was to come … and that if he, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, fully man and fully divine, indeed the only perfect human being that has ever lived, needed it … then how much more might his disciples, weak and imperfect as they were, also need to strengthen themselves spiritually from time to time with periods of intense prayer and fasting?
Of course we, his followers, are not preparing ourselves for what Jesus was preparing himself for: his years of ministry which would end with his death on the cross; but we are all called to something with distinct parallels … spending all our days in this life answering the individual call that God has for each one of us, attempting to lead a life that not only daily brings us closer and closer to him, but also helps to advance the mission his Son left his Church, of making disciples of all people; of carrying our own cross daily in the hope that our journey through this life will take us through the gates of death to eternal life with the Father in heaven. And if Christ, the perfect man, needed a time of prayer and self-denial in order to prepare himself for what this life held for him; how much more do we, who will not only face temptations like he did, but unlike him will often yield to them and sin?
Jesus told his disciples about his time in the wilderness, I think, as yet another gift to them .. so that they would learn from his example and do likewise … and from it gain the grace and strength to travel through this life to eternal life … a grace & strength, my brothers and sisters, I pray you will receive as you make your pilgrim journey through this Lent; a grace & strength that I ask you will pray that I also receive; in the name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon 17 Feb 2013 (1st Sunday of Lent)