In our Gospel reading today we find Jesus at the beginning of his public life undergoing what must have been a lifelong temptation to abandon the role God had marked out for him. The three separate experiences described by St Luke combine to show the scale of the struggle he had not to choose an easier and more popular life. He had to battle hard to stay obedient to God’s will rather than give in to the natural temptation to use his power or authority for his own selfish ends.
Each of the three replies Jesus makes to Satan are texts from the Book of Deuteronomy. These are his considered responses to the testing experience which he underwent, we are told, in a ‘wilderness’ where he was ‘tempted by the devil for forty days’. (Luke 4:1-13)
In those days the wilderness or desert was believed to be the haunt of evil spirits which were responsible, it was said, for much of the sickness and torment that people suffered. Their leader had the name of Satan who was understood to be a fallen angel from heaven, described in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ who felt it ‘better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven’.
Many people no longer believe in the Devil or Satan as such. Yet, there is no getting away from the reality all around us today of the evils that the Devil represents or personifies. Right now, the evil of war is in the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, crushing and destroying the lives of millions of innocent people. Putin, to quote Milton, ‘is reigning in hell’ and, surely, he and his henchmen are the public face of the evil personified by Satan? Evil also thrives in the trafficking of children and adults for money or sexual exploitation; it’s in the drug trade which also destroys countless lives; in the modern-day slavery taking place under our noses that provide us with low-cost goods, including cheap cast-off clothing; it’s alive in the poverty, starvation and the malnutrition suffered by two-thirds of the world’s population while the most impoverished have governments that spend more and more on armaments (even supplied by our elected governments) …
The Gospels present the life of Jesus as a drama in which he was confronting the evils of his day, principally poverty, sickness and disease. These were seen to be the work of Satan, the personification of all evil. Perhaps, as some suggest, Satan’s greatest achievement in our time is to have convinced us that he does not exist?
The greatest temptation Jesus faced throughout his life and described in his confrontation was to abandon the work God asked him to do – to challenge and overcome the greatest evil of all, eternal death. He knew it would involve rejection, suffering and death. His human instinct was to reject it and take instead the road to a life of political power and popularity. Looking out from atop the Temple, he could see all that would be his – just as Putin looks out from the Kremlin at all he wishes to grab. But in his response to these urgings, Jesus chooses to accept a different way, the way of the Cross and at great personal cost – for our sakes and not his own.
From time to time, we can find ourselves, like Jesus, in a wildernesses of our own, a place of darkness, where personal demons assail us in periods of trial, doubt, guilt and even desperation. Then we try to remember that in such times we are not alone, that Jesus is in our wilderness and in solidarity with us. When we have reason to doubt God’s ways, as he did, it is tempting for us, like him, to choose a less demanding way.
In Lent we have the opportunity, especially through acts of self-sacrifice, to reflect on and appreciate anew what Jesus went through for us and, hopefully, draw strength from his experience. When our own demons assail us, may he come to us with his comforting and strengthening presence. And through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, may we stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and against the forces of a Satan oppressing them.
Holy Name, Jesmond
6 March 2022