It was Shrove Tuesday so, there was no question, as one of the helpers at Transformers I was going to have tea with the youngsters. The pancakes were delicious! At the end of the evening we came into church and sat in a circle at the front in the semi darkness of the up-lighters. It makes a great finish to the evening.
At the first session of the term Carolyn asked the youngsters to come up with words that describe what God is like. As you can imagine they came up with a long list. We’ve dipped into that list as the term has unfolded for the God-slot at the end of the evening. I homed in on the word ‘saviour’.
They knew all about Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Lent and the story of the temptations. With one or two prompts from me they told me the story of the temptations. I made a lot of the way we all know what we should do … but sometimes there’s something telling us to do the opposite.
“Go on, it won’t make much difference.” “It’s all right it will only be this once.” And then the little twist in my telling of the tale, and the thing I wanted to get over was that Jesus knows exactly what that’s like. He’s been through it. And it’s great to know that he’s with us to give us that strength we need to do what’s right, and what’s even more wonderful, he’s there to help us and with his forgiveness help us to start all over again.
That, at least was the plan.
But with little ones things don’t always go to plan.
One youngster had his hand in the air as soon as I started asking questions. I was just getting going when I noticed he had his hand in the air again. I turned to him and asked him what he wanted to say … ‘the burning bush’. Was his answer.
Yes, fine, I thought. But not a lot to do with the story of the temptations. I made an attempt at linking us back into my story – that was in the wilderness and a place where God’s presence was so very real – and Jesus felt God’s presence to be very real. It just about worked.
Then I went on with my story. And came to the end when I was getting them to share their responses to my story, when I noticed the same hand in the air once again. I turned to the keenest of all my listeners expecting him by now to have been wrapped up in the story of Jesus and the temptations. But no, he was still caught up in the story of the burning bush and determined to say what happened. The whole point of the story of the burning bush was that we must listen to God.
That’s exactly it, I turned to the rest of the group. Listen to God … not to the voice of temptation. That’s the whole point of the temptation story too!
Isn’t it wonderful, how the message comes over. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings!
I was already planning to stick with the temptation story today.
Reflecting on that time with Transformers and the way the story emerged as together we reflected on it, I have been thinking more and more of the connections there are with the story of the burning bush. That’s the start of the Moses story, the temptations are the start of the Jesus story. That takes place in a wilderness time for Moses, this takes place in the wilderness with Jesus. That takes place at a time of questioning in Moses’ heart, this at a time of questioning thrust upon Jesus. It is in that most unexpected of places that Moses has this profound sense of the presence of God that shaped the rest of his life’s work, so too this wilderness experience for Jesus shapes the rest of his life’s work.
The story of the temptations works at so many different levels.
It’s well worth coming back to.
Reading that story in Matthew 4 once again, I have a feeling much more is at stake here for Jesus than simply the temptation to do the wrong thing.
Notice the things that Jesus is tempted with. At first sight they are in many ways good things. Look again, and they are not just good things, but they are the good things that so many people looked for in the coming Messiah.
In the wilderness turn stones to bread. That’s just the kind of thing that happened in the wilderness with Moses and the manna. People were waiting for a new Moses, the prophet proclaimed by Moses, who would do equally dramatic things delivering people from the modern-day slavery they experienced at the hands of the Romans. The Messiah who would be Prophet.
The next temptation takes Jesus to the highest point on the temple. Don’t think steeples and church towers. It’s more interesting than that. Further along the
from the Western wall where Jewish
people pray, excavations have revealed the incredible destruction wrought on
the temple by the Romans in AD 70. They
tore apart the temple buildings on the temple mount and hurled them over the
walls 30 feet and more to the ground.
The rubble is still there to be seen.
The massive cracks in the Roman roadway that ran alongside the temple
mount are still there. And one massive,
beautifully carved stone has been thrust from the highest point, the pinnacle
of the temple. It is inscribed. And it makes it clear it is the point where
the watchman stood to catch first sight of the rising sun and blow a blast on
the trumpet to announce the start of the Sabbath. Temple Mount
The dramatic action Jesus is tempted to do links him with the high-up people of the temple – such an action would give him a claim to be the High Priest so many looked to and displace the High Priests who had been appointed by the Roman conquerors. This was a massive temptation – to conform to the expectations of the people, scripturally based, The Messiah who would be Priest.
And finally, in Matthew’s telling of the story, up to a very high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. This was the power that the people looked for in their coming Messiah King. A Power that would be instantly seen, that would change the world for ever.
Prophet, Priest, King – this was what Jesus was being tempted with. But Prophet, Priest, King in the way the people expected.
By the age of 12 Jesus was already listening and asking questions of the greatest teachers in the temple. For very nearly 20 more years he had been steeped in the Scriptures going as his custom was to the synagogue. He knew his Scriptures inside out. He knew the kind of all-powerful, all-conquering, Prophet, Priest and King so many of the people were looking for.
And he was convinced that he had something totally different to offer. He wasn’t with those who craved such power. He was with John the Baptist who spoke truth to power. And he had gone down to the
, lined himself up with
John’s movement in baptism. And that had
been such a wonderful moment in his life.
The heavens had opened, he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and alighting on him. And a voice from
heaven said, This my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased. Jordan
This was it. The time had come. His life’s work about to begin. Jesus knew his Scriptures. What kind of Son would he make. What kind of Messiah would it be.
In the wilderness Jesus is not being faced just with temptations to do the wrong thing.
He is confronting the biggest question of all. The thing that would completely shape all that he did. The nature of his life’s work.
This is what the temptation is about. This is where the humanity of Jesus is right to the fore. Jesus experiences what everyone experiences. That moment of deep, dark questioning. What course of action should he take?
Yes, we can read the temptation story as a story about temptation. But it is much more than that. I have a feeling it reminds us that we have to face at some point or other the really big question. What are we going to do with our life. Not just what is life about. What is my life about? Where do we belong? Who do we belong to?
The challenge of a choice. The choice for Jesus.
But there is an insight here that we need to face up to.
Choose Jesus – belong to Jesus and we are likely to face a time of testing just as he did. The promise Paul holds on to is that we will never be tested beyond a point at which we can endure. But there can be no escaping the bleakness of a time of testing. And those times can come back to.
As we face that prospect we need to be aware of what we are facing. We too have the kind of choice that Jesus was confronted with. And we face the same kind of circumstances too.
Who is it doing the tempting?
Put aside all pictures you have of a devilish creature dressed in red and black with pointed ears and a trident.
Put aside that dualistic idea of some philosophical thinking of God and all good, and an equal and opposite force for evil – the Devil and all bad.
The whole of this story is set within the sphere of God. God is always seen as greater.
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
That’s interesting. A wilderness experience is inside God’s greater love. A time of testing and temptation is inside God’s greater love.
So who is the devil? Try to avoid the pictures. Try to avoid the philosophising. That sense of darkness, that sense of foreboding. That sense of things spiralling out of control. That sense of powers beyond our ability to influence and shape that cut across the goodness of God. The sheer brute awfulness of so much that happens in the world is that there is a reality of evil out there, and sometimes very close to hand too. It’s there.
The story of the Devil in the Bible is a fascinating one. Because God is always greater. God always has the last word. The world of God’s creation is a world where awful things happen – that’s the reality we cannot escape.
God in some way can use even the most awful of things to bring something greater out. What defuses the power of the devil, is holding on to the greater good of God. That’s what Jesus does. He draws on the Word of God that he is so steeped in. He holds his ground, drawing on the deep source of strengthening his life-time of living the word of God has brought him –
It is written, it is written, it is written …
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.
That’s the key.
- Immerse yourself in God’s word,
- however much you feel tempted tested, torn apart don’t put God to the test,
- worship him, serve him.
Hold on to these key things.
And face off the time of tempting. See it instead, as the word can be translated, as a time of testing.
You go all through Matthew’s account and come to the end. And at the very end it is as if Jesus sees the Devil for who he is. Not the all-powerful force of evil standing over against God. But the Satan – who in the story of Job is the one who tests Job’s faith.
Later in his ministry Jesus was to encounter such testing again – You are the Messiah, the son of the living God – and when Jesus starts to speak of being a suffering servant messiah, Peter says we will never allow you to suffer at all. And Jesus says, Get behind me Satan.
On the cross three times if you are the son of God save yourself. But he holds firm. Goes through the suffering and into the resurrection victory.
When Jesus is facing arrest, he warns Peter that he will have to face big questions about his allegiance to Jesus – Satan will sift him. And Peter succumbs and denies Jesus.
But Jesus sticks with Peter.
And Peter comes to the point of realising that the faith that really counts that makes a life of difference is the faith that has been tried and tested and has stood the test of the refiner’s fire.
So what is the big question for us?
First, there is a choice. Jesus challenges us to make a choice to follow him. That’s a big turn-around. And it calls for our allegiance.
To sign up for Jesus, however, then means that we will each of us face a time, and maybe like Jesus, times of testing. They can be times of very real darkness. Times when it seems as if the power of the darkness of the world takes away our faith.
Don’t ever think the devil has the last word. Remember the Satan who sifts. It’s a testing, a time of trial. Hold on to the word of God. Don’t put God to the test. Worship God. Serve God.
And then just as Jesus did you too will emerge from that time of testing.
For the final part of the temptation story is a wonderful thing to hold on to.
Jesus stands his ground. And suddenly angels came and waited on him.
From the darkness of that awful experience to the tangible presence of the glory of God, what a transformation. But don’t believe that that is then when all your troubles cease. That’s only the beginning – for now with the arrest of John, Jesus’ life-time work is just beginning! So too with us!