Day 35: Christ in the wilderness
For the next few days, we are going to explore episodes in the Christian Bible associated with the number forty, which are also traditionally associated with Lent.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread. Jesus answered, It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. If you are the Son of God, he said, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ Jesus answered him, It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. All this I will give you, he said, if you will bow down and worship me. Jesus said to him, Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
We all struggle to answer the question, Who am I? Perhaps Jesus struggled to answer this question as well. That’s not to suggest that he didn’t know, simply that he had to struggle in order to fully uncover his identity and mission. This, I think, is really what the temptation of Christ is all about: Jesus figuring out which Jesus he was meant to be.
Remember that this is core Christian doctrine. Even though Jesus was God-made-flesh he came into the world and lived a fully human existence. He set aside the better part of his divinity, and limited his divine understanding, power, and privileges. Jesus, based on the supernatural events surrounding his birth and the witness and testimony of both his mother and his cousin, knew he was the Messiah and he knew that he was God’s own son. But he still had to determine how we would fulfill his destiny. In order for his humanity to have been anything other than a farce, Jesus had to have the ability to actually sin. That means the possibility always existed that he could have accepted Satan’s offer. Jesus could have decided to be the Military Messiah, or the Political Messiah, or the Magic Messiah, but he endured his temptation and accepted the role his Father had prepared for him to be the Suffering Servant – the Messiah who would give up his life as a ransom for many.
In The Sandman comics (Issue #54, The Golden Boy), author Neil Gaiman tells of a messiah in a parallel universe who gives in to the temptations of Satan (though in that universe, Satan appears as “Boss Smiley,” a suit-wearing smiley face called “the Prince of this World”). Prez Rickard, the messiah in question, rose to early political prominence, becoming president of the USA at 18, and was courted by lobbyists and superheroes alike. Prez was frustrated with his inability to affect real change in the world, however. He thought that by accepting Boss Smiley’s offer that change would be guaranteed. Yet, even though everyone loved him, and even though he worked incredible change into both the domestic and international polity, Prez could never find a way to affect changes that truly matter. He couldn’t get people to stop hating one another, killing, or somehow serving Boss Smiley instead of himself. Despairing, Prez left office abruptly and became a vagabond and a traveling salesman before finally succumbing to his death under mysterious circumstances.
I love that story. Gaiman, who does not profess or pretend to be a Christ-follower, has stumbled onto a powerful truth: the devil’s offer to Jesus is based on smoke and mirrors. Even had Jesus accepted the offer to become self-sustaining, famous, or powerful, Boss Smiley would have found a way to limit his ability to bring real transformation into the lives of real people.
Satan was not tempting Christ to give up being Messiah. He was tempting Christ to take on a lesser form of messianic identity.
Christ was tempted with relevance:
Turn these stones into bread.
Feed all the hungry people around you.
Be everything they need you to be;
be an endless supply of nourishment.
No need for this metaphorical bread of life when you could just feed
them for real, right?
He was tempted with spectacle:
Jump from this high place.
Show the world you’re the king of all kings.
Show them you control the angels.
Show them they ought to obey
and be mesmerized in their lack of rebellion.
Teach them the wonders of your mighty hand
and of your incredible wisdom.
Wouldn’t they benefit from it?
He was tempted with power:
I will give you the kingdoms of this world,
for they are mine to give.
I am the prince of this world.
I control these countries like fiefdoms,
and I will happily give you limitless exercise of your power
if you just throw me a bone,
say something nice,
give a little credit where credit is due.
Wouldn’t it all be better
if we could sort out our little power struggles without casualty?
I am tempted with these same things. I’m tempted to be the solution to everyone else’s problems. I’m tempted to pretend I know how they’re feeling and what they need, or what they should do when they find themselves in a bind. I’m tempted to think my advice or perspective will somehow set them free instead of enslaving them to another set of opinions, when what they really need is to hear from God’s Spirit.
I’m tempted to dazzle and amaze, to think that my abilities will somehow convince people I should be listened to, followed, or loved.
I’m tempted to compromise on my ideals and my allegiance, to trade away little bits of my godly desires and beliefs in an effort to keep the peace and make everyone happy.
Christ’s temptations are really my temptations; his test is mine too. And the way forward for me is the same as it was for him. He refused to be defined and identified by anything other than his identity in the Father: Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.
That’s who he was: God, co-eternal with the Father. Christ found his identity, his true self, his mission and purpose in the Father’s will.
And so do we. That’s why the answer to that great question, Who am I? is the same for every one of us, once properly understood. In fact, to better answer it, we may be better off to just tweak it a little and ask instead: Whose am I?
I am God’s.
This post is from Seasons of Christian Spirituality.