We hear again of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, forty days and forty nights.
We too have embarked on forty days of self-examination in the desert: it is Lent. Lent is an ancient word related to lengthening (old English: lengten) for, in Europe, this is the time when the days lengthen; it is the beginning of Spring. But not for us.
As we heard, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert to be tested. And this is worth reflecting on. For the Holy Spirit does not always come to us as a peaceable presence, something like a dove, or maybe a holy asprin. No, the Holy Spirit is the activity of God which drives us into the future even through trials. It is the Spirit of unsettlement.
We have received the Spirit of God in baptism, but sooner or later we will have to prove ourselves; our own desert trial will inevitably come. We go just as Jesus went: as one ancient theologian said, “The Lord being baptized by John with water, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be baptized by the fire of temptation.” (Pseudo-Chrysostom). Two baptisms. Two purifications–one by water for the forgiveness of sins, and one by the endurance of trials.
It is these purgative trials that we remember at Lent—a poignant and bitter season.
Aren’t we the ones who stand in desert places, confronted by our sheer emptiness, our poverty and solitude? It is the human condition—in its nakedness, its vulnerability.
And our tendency is always to try to ease our heart-hungers with false satisfactions.
We are tempted to fill up our lack with material possessions, with fantasies of self-sufficiency, with worldly status. And don’t all of them have great charm, great allure?
They tempt us like Satan himself, who is the most beguiling of creatures. The Adversary confronts us. Satan, Satanas, means the Adversary or the Accuser—although we have turned it into something like a personal name.
Today’s story is about the temptations which came to Jesus, and which come to us all–greed, and pride, and worldy ambition.
Greed. The Adversary tempts Jesus to break his fast, and have his fill of bread. But bread cannot satisfy our particular hunger: there is a void deep within, which we fill up with food, with drink, or for that matter houses, cars, or travel. Mostly we put it out of mind. And yet, the more fill ourselves with mere things, the more we want. We become ravenous; we become greedy. Our bellies fill up even to our throats, as I read somewhere, but our hunger remains.
We must learn to still our desire. We are given our daily bread. That is enough for us. Let’s learn to be happy with a sufficiency. Indeed, that is what Israel learnt in the Egyptian desert, when God sent the manna from heaven. Daily they went gathering, each their share and measure; and in their poverty they found a food that quelled their hunger.
Pride. The Adversary takes Jesus to Jerusalem, placing him on the pinnacle of the Temple. Throw yourself down! if you are the Son of God. This symbolic story tells us that we are exalted to high places, above our creaturely capacity, only to be dashed down again.
We are like the Israelites at Massah, who in the face of suffering rose up to stone Moses. They thought they had suffered in vain; and they asked bitterly “is the Lord God among us or not?” (Exodus 17) From now on they would look after themselves.
So in their pride they made trial of God, forgetting that it is God who tries us. All of us live with the weight of pains and limitations; but these trials are for our testing—for our strengthening in the Spirit. We must humbly accept our limitations before God if we are to make it through the desert.
Worldly ambition. And last, the Adversary shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory. They seem to glitter and shine even more than the God of glory—but that is how it is with idols. So it was for Israel, when in the desert they worshipped the golden calf.
And isn’t this the special sin of our own society? The secular city, with its lifeblood called “the economy,” has become just such an idol. Aren’t we too, too anxious for worldly status? Don’t we burden our own children with status anxiety, and call it virtue? Let us, like Jesus, flee from all this. Let us be ambitious not for worldly status but to cultivate our gifts in the service of humanity.
That is what God values, though perhaps we will not succeed in worldly terms.
At Lent we go into the desert. We face our solitude. We face the poverty of our nature. How have we run after false satisfactions? Have we become greedy, proud, or ambitious? Are we utterly exhausted by a desire we cannot seem to quench?
The great teachers of the Church have said that this is the problem at the root of human nature. That is what we mean by original sin. That sin is not the sin of Adam a long, long time ago; indeed many of the ancient theologians did not take that story literally anyway. It is the human inclination to fill up our lack with false satisfactions, to grasp immoderately: it is our struggle now.
As our Articles of Religion of 1539 would have it, “[man] is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth contrary to the spirit… and this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated….”
Yes, trials must come even to us who are baptised. Sooner or later, the Spirit of God drive us into the desert, putting us to the test. Can we quell our desire, the poverty of our nature—resting in God alone? Can we find our joy in simplicity and in solitude? That is really the religious question. Or shall we hunger and thirst without measure?
We are purified once by water, and we are purified again by the trials which will come. This is why the Western Church was wise, I think, to separate baptism from confirmation. Confirmation is for the age of strength, the age of learning and wisdom; it is the great infusion of the Spirit for one who has learnt to withstand the trials of greed, of pride, and of worldly ambition.
We know that if we endure in the Spirit, the angels will come to minister to us.
I’d like to finish with a poetic interpretation of all this:
Forty days and nights you went
Like Zion, desert-wandering,
An errant from all the earth, a tramp,
The Spirit pushing you out
The beasts they bared trapping mouths
And shot out slattern eyes,
The Devil tipping his nightshade darts
To fly the eye of the heart,
But the angels came to minister
In starry circulations,
Round, round with ember threads
They wound, a healing rhythm
Then burst the penitential rock,
Then split the shriving sands,
The Spirit of God, in waves of sight,
In liquid dreams it ran
 In the third century Origen said, “how could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus should be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the devil should show him all the kingdoms of the world … [that is,] the kingdoms of the Persians and Scythians, and Indians? …[O]bserve that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted historically, but which may be accepted [spiritually].” (De Principiis)