Last Sunday was the first Sunday of Lent and as usual the gospel reading was about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.
“Well, Jesus. You’re marooned and alone on your desert island. Well, perhaps not an island but you’re in the desert and on your own. What are your eight pieces of music? What luxury would you like to have? And what book, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare?”
We are all familiar with the concept behind Desert Island Discs [Note – Desert Island discs is a popular long-running radio programme in the UK]. Each week a famous person goes along with the fantasy that they have been marooned all alone on a rather nice hot and sunny desert island somewhere in the tropics with an apparently endless supply of food and clean clothing, a decent bed and toilet facilities. I’m assuming those things are all there since no-one ever seems to ask for them for their luxury. They take part in a discussion about their life, about what has influenced and motivated them. They come up with a list of eight pieces of music they would like to have with them. And they are allowed to choose that one luxury and one book to take with them, as long as the book isn’t the Bible or the works of Shakespeare. And they are on their own – the rules state that you are not allowed to take another human being as your luxury. It’s all a bit of fun.
Jesus is alone in the desert. And this is no fun at all. Eight pieces of music? I’m sure it never even crossed Jesus’ mind. A luxury to take with him? Clearly no luxuries – I think Matthew might have mentioned it. No books either. Certainly no Shakespeare as he wouldn’t be born for a long time. But the one things Jesus had was the Bible – or at least the Jewish Scriptures as they then existed. Not in physical form, but in his head, as we shall see.
Today we hear how Jesus found himself in the desert on his own. He was about to begin his public ministry; he had just been baptised by John the Baptist and had received great confirmation from heaven. But then the Spirit, Matthew tells us, leads him out into the wilderness. And this was no quiet retreat – an opportunity for quiet reflection and prayer away from the crowds – but an extended period of self-denial in an inhospitable place. This was not the fun scenario of Desert Island Discs. This was tough, physically and mentally. The area to which he probably went was known in the Old Testament as “The abandoned place”. It is a devastated area of bare rocks and barren hills. It glows during the day from the fierce heat of the sun and at night the temperature drops to below zero.
It was in this lonely place that Jesus fasted, for a long time and on his own. And this kind of severe fasting takes its toll. You cannot deprive the body of food and drink for a long period without it resulting in severe suffering. In the early stages of the fast there is simply an empty feeling accompanied by bad headaches. This gives way in time to a terrible craving hunger and severe body cramps and spasms. At the same time there can be irrational fears and even hallucinations. If the fasting continues, then a final stage emerges. It is one in which the person finds it difficult to tell reality from illusion. It is a dangerous time. It is a time when the person is utterly vulnerable and yet tempted to believe that there is no way out. It can be the moment of truth.
This was the stage at which Jesus encountered Satan and at which he was tempted most deeply. He was tempted to power, to selfish pride and to greed and compromise. These are things that we are all familiar with. When he was most vulnerable, Jesus was invited to use his power selfishly – just for himself. He was invited to be sensational, to seek the acclaim and attention of others. And above all, it was suggested to him that he use his position to dominate others, to rule over them instead of serving them – in other words to compromise his beliefs, his calling and his very self. It is a familiar picture. You are tired, lonely, and vulnerable. And that’s when the temptations present themselves. Just when the body or the emotions are at their lowest ebb, the powers of evil try to seduce us from what we know to be right. And it can be so subtle. The tempter used passages from Scripture itself to try to lure Jesus away from his path. But he subtly twisted their interpretation so that the words did not reflect the truth of God but the very opposite. It would have been so easy for Jesus to give in.
And that’s the problem we all face. The difficult temptations are not the big ones – it’s easy for most of us to resist the big ones. It’s the little ones that get us – the ones that seem so insignificant that we think they don’t matter, that nobody will notice, or that we don’t even notice ourselves because we are not familiar with God’s word and they seem to be alright, or that are simply the means to an end that seems good. And the temptations that faced Jesus were subtle ones. They were the means to achieve the ends that he wanted. Take the temptation to turn stones into bread. What could be wrong with wanting to feed people? After all, later in his ministry he was to feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fish. The temptations that Jesus faced in the desert were simply shortcuts to an end that he wanted to reach anyway. It’s no wonder that they crossed his mind.
How did Jesus deal with this confrontation? Well – fortunately Jesus knew the Scriptures. He had been brought up to know the Scriptures. What Jesus faced in the desert may have been a far cry from the cosy isolation of Desert Island Discs, but he had his book with him – God’s Word implanted in his memory. He sent Satan packing by invoking the power of God and the power of God’s Word. He reminded Satan of a very simple truth: God is above all. There is no power in existence that is greater than God’s strength or influence. There never will be. That truth is one we must never forget.
We have just begun our six weeks of Lent. This is our time to battle with our sins and with our own selfish needs. It is our time to examine ourselves — the way we live, the things we do and the way we think and pray — and to find God in our lives as we learn to recognise and resist evil. We need to do what Jesus did. We must be prepared to face up to our temptations. It’s no use pretending that we are all righteous and holy – we aren’t. We are assaulted by temptation and we all succumb at some level or another. Every single one of us whether we are prepared to admit it or not. This is something we face up to on Ash Wednesday when we come – or some of us come – to Church to confess our sin and accept the ritual humiliation of being marked with ash as a symbol of our penitence.
And this is the point at which Lent begins. Not today on the 1st Sunday of Lent with a story about Jesus facing his demons in the form of temptations offered by Satan. It begins on Ash Wednesday with us face to face with our own demons. Face to face with the reality of the sin that affects us all. On our knees before God prepared to confess to all the things that are wrong and asking for his forgiveness even though we know we don’t deserve it.
Jesus needed to face his demons in order to embrace the ministry that was to come and in order to accept the cross. Until we confront our own sin and grasp our need of the cross of Jesus we can never live out the sheer joy of the risen life. For we simply do not understand that Jesus has rescued us from the punishment due for our sin. And all too often sin becomes something that other people do and we become like the Pharisees, convinced of our own righteousness.
We need to face our demons, the sin that confronts us, so that we can embrace and understand why that cross was necessary and understand what Jesus did for us there. For until we understand that we cannot understand Easter however much we may think we do.