Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Temptation comes more than once; notice this ending of: “until an opportune time.” We’re overly familiar with temptation, are we not? A time of misunderstanding and frustration brings a deep rift to a relationship and unforgiveness becomes normal to us perhaps. But, more often for most of us, temptations slide gently into and out of our routines. We can be a little less than absolutely honest here, we can be a bit less generous there, we can turn a bit nastier with that person. Temptation is the tug that slightly shifts our lives away from God; give in often enough and we’re set upon a different course altogether. God loves us to be free. Freedom means we have choices. Choices can go wrong.
No sooner has Jesus rejoiced in heaven opened and the Spirit descending with a word from God, then that same Spirit sends him into a place of temptation. Isn’t that worth noticing? Jesus doesn’t stumble upon the wilderness by accident. His time of temptation and testing is as much the work and will of God as his baptism. Maybe there are times when God is refining us through putting us in places where we have choices to make. Maybe a new phase of discipleship brings temptations to trust in our own skills and strength, even to become arrogant in our serving? Maybe you find yourself in such a wilderness right now.
But God doesn’t leave Jesus defenceless. He has his deep knowledge of the purpose and love of God revealed to him in Hebrew scripture as protection. He knows God’s character and call. His bible is his companion even as the waves of temptation break, offering the true direction amidst the ways of power and glory the devil offers. Temptation need not turn us after all.
In the midst of it all, when our guard is down, does a little voice whisper? Does a word come an act unfold a choice approach? Dear God, hear us when temptation hovers, lead us when temptation loiters. In the footsteps of Jesus Christ, in the wild wilderness where choices churn, give us courage, grant us strength, guide us into wisdom. Help us. In Jesus’ name we beg you. In the Spirit’s power we trust you. Amen.
The Rev’d Neil Thorogood, Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge