As we begin Lent it comes as no surprise to find that the first Gospel reading of the season is the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness. As we consider this, we might also recall these words from Hebrews 4:15, ‘For we don’t have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin’.
I suspect that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew about the temptations Jesus went through and wanted us to acknowledge that we can take solace that when we are tempted, Jesus knows what it feels like because he has been tempted too. The problem with that theory is that I find myself wondering just what exactly it is about Jesus’s temptations that bears any resemblance to what I am tempted to?
In this passage we see Jesus tempted to make bread out of stones; throw himself off a tall building so that the angels would catch him, and then worship the devil so that he can become the king of the world. Is that your experience of temptation, because it isn’t mine. What help is that for the woman whose husband has become distant when she is being chatted up by a friendly and warm man?
How does that help the self-employed person who discovers they could do a little work on the side for cash to avoid tax, or the student who realises that they can download work off the internet and pass it off as their own? Is there actually anything about the temptations that Jesus went through that have any bearing whatsoever on our own lives?
I think the answer is yes, this story is most definitely applicable to us, but not perhaps in the way we might think. It’s rather deeper than simply that Jesus understands because he’s been through it too. I think it’s there to tell us something very important about Jesus and about the New Covenant that God makes with humanity.
Now a covenant is a promise between two parties that has terms and conditions attached. In the Old Covenant God promised his people that he would be their God and protect them; that was God’s side of the covenant. In exchange God’s people would keep their terms which were essentially to keep the commandments. Much of the rest of the Old Testament is about how they failed to do that.
Specifically we have the example of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years during which they succumb to temptation and break the commandments, and doubt God. In short they were unable to keep the ten commandments, and so they were unable to keep their side of the covenant.
And so God sends Jesus, but there is something truly unique about Jesus. I had a conversation with some friends a couple of nights back about why I believe in the virgin birth. The reason is basically this, that it is necessary that Jesus was conceived by God and a woman so that his nature would be both divine and human. This is vital for the new covenant and to understanding what this journey into the wilderness really means.
So when Jesus comes to us he comes as a representative of God the Father to offer again a holy covenant, that God promises to be our God and to offer us resurrection life. That is the divine side of the New Covenant. The human side is pretty much as it has always been, that we keep God’s commandments, which are summarised by Jesus into Love God and love your neighbour.
This is all well and good except on the face of it, nothing has changed. We know that in our heart of hearts we’re still not able to keep these commandments. We want to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. But we keep being distracted by pretty shiny things.
And we want to love our neighbour as ourselves, but sometimes they can be so annoying that despite our best intentions, we don’t and we can’t. So we’re still not able to keep God’s commandments. What, then, has been changed by Jesus?
Well it is simply this, that Jesus comes from God as God’s representative because he is divine, but he also comes from Mary as our human representative because he is one of us as well. This is why the virgin birth is important. And where we fail to keep the commandments, Jesus succeeds, and this is exactly what we see when he faces the temptations in the wilderness.
Jesus is in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. The intention of Matthew is that we equate that period with the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness. The key difference is that where they failed to keep God’s commandments, Jesus succeeds. Jesus defeats the temptations.
And that’s what makes it so important for us. As humans we fail to do as God commands, but Jesus succeeds. We often talk about how Christians are ‘in Christ’, and this is what it means; that even though we fail to keep the commandments, in Christ we succeed because he represents us and he has managed to do what we cannot do. He triumphs in keeping the commandments where we fail.
So when we come back to the specific temptations, what we find is that on each occasion Jesus is simply being tempted to compromise, to not put God first, and that’s something we can all identify with. Jesus is hungry so the devil tempts him to do a self-serving miracle, but Jesus quotes scripture at him that it is God’s word that fills him. No compromises.
Then the devil tempts him to do eye catching miracles that draw attention to himself, but again Jesus won’t compromise, and over and over again in the scriptures we see how Jesus tells the recipients of miraculous healings not to tell anyone.
Thirdly he is tempted to worship the devil, not instead of God but as well as. In other words, to compromise, and again Jesus says no; no compromises. God first. Always.
We, on the other hand, we do compromise. We do get things wrong. We do put ourselves first. Despite our best intentions we break the commandments over and over again. And God forgives us because when he looks at us who are in Christ, what he sees is Christ succeeding where we have failed.
I think, therefore, that as we start our journey through Lent, we should be beginning from the perspective of gratitude. We live under God’s grace and forgiveness because Jesus speaks for us. He beat temptation on our behalf, so when we fail, and we do, we can be forgiven because Jesus did not fail.