Sunday, February 17, 2013

First Sunday of Lent – We called on the Lord



I recently read an article about the so-called ‘fasting diet’, in which people eat next to nothing for one or two days a week but are allowed to eat whatever they like the rest of the time. Opinions differ over how effective or healthy this really is, but what’s interesting is that it doesn’t require you to give up anything for any extended period of time. After a short fast, you can return to your favourite indulgence. By contrast, the Achilles heel of most diets (as with giving up smoking) is that persistent effort is required. Even a brief and minor lapse can bring us rapidly back to our previous habits, and the whole project gets abandoned. 

My point here is not to discuss nutrition, but to reflect on how easy it is for us to give in to temptation. We are still near the beginning of Lent and our Lenten resolutions may already be groaning under the deep-seated desire to enjoy what we want, without restriction.


In today’s Gospel from St Luke, Jesus faces his own period of 40 days in the wilderness. Three times the devil tempts him with the prospect of something intrinsically good: food (if only Jesus would convert a stone to bread), power (if only Jesus would worship the devil) and a radical trust in God (if only Jesus would jump off the Temple parapet). 


But to grasp at these good things in such a distorted way would entail disobedience to God. Creating bread in the desert would be a refusal to live according to God’s providence, of which the Psalmist sings: ‘The eyes of all creatures look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season.’ (Ps. 144:15) Sometimes we feast, sometimes we must fast; but always we must live by the word of the Lord. 

The second temptation, to grasp power, is similarly corrupting: no Faustian bargain could ever satisfy our deepest needs, because power is empty without love. Without a true relationship to our almighty and loving God, we are just deceiving ourselves and effectively cutting ourselves off from the very source of all good things. 

And then the third temptation, which on the surface seems so pious, is again unholy; because deliberately to test God is an act of radical distrust and unbelief, a vain attempt to treat the Almighty as a scientific object rather than as our loving Creator. Real trust in God means doing his will, letting him lead us by the hand; and not imagining we can drag him around to do our will, as though he were some kind of superhuman pet.


The reason Jesus can refuse the devil is quite simple. St Luke tells us from the start of this episode that Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit . Through the Spirit, Jesus humbly accepts his human condition as a frail and contingent being, who in his humanity depends on the bounty of God, the God who creates and sustains all life. Jesus faced the same human temptations as us – and worse. That is why we can look to him as our saviour: the ‘one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet was without sin.’ (Heb. 4:15) 


It would be a mistake to think that Jesus is merely a model human being, who somehow shows us that there is a human way of overcoming our temptations and weaknesses. On the contrary, our bondage to sin is too great for us to survive without divine help. So the point of this episode is Christological: it demonstrates that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who defeats the devil here in the wilderness, the place traditionally understood as the devil’s home turf. 

This all happens at the start of Jesus’ ministry, right after his Baptism and before his public proclamation of the Kingdom of God. And it will lead to the end of his ministry, the final showdown with the forces of evil, on the Cross on Calvary. It is no coincidence that St Luke places the Jerusalem temptation as the third, climactic test, because Jerusalem is where Jesus will suffer, die and rise again.
The victory of Jesus in the wilderness is an early indication that he is the Only-Begotten Son of God. Unlike disobedient Adam, that first son of God who fell from grace, Jesus is the obedient and suffering Servant, whose faithfulness restores humanity to God’s friendship.

But we must accept that gift of faith, if we are to have a share in that sonship. We must make that faith our own, as we place all our trust in God. Our first reading today shows we have a precedent for this faith in the people of Israel: We called on the Lord, the God of our fathers. The Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, our toil and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt... (Deut. 26:7-8) And St Paul, in our second reading, quotes the prophet Joel: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Rom. 10:13; Joel 2:32)

This Lent, let us call on God again: it is prayer that will bring us back to God, prayer that will inspire our fasting, prayer that will get us to attend to those in great need. In faithful prayer we meet our faithful God, who strengthens us against all temptations. As St Paul says elsewhere: ‘God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can bear it.’ (1 Cor. 10:13) That ‘way out’ is Jesus Christ, who abides with us even in our darkest moments, because he has already faced the darkness for us – and returned triumphant.

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