Lent I: The true nature of Jesus’ Sonship revealed
Romans 10.8b–13; Luke 4.1–13
As we hear again the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, I suspect that this can so easily bring to mind our own times of wilderness where we have been or are tempted – times when we feel particularly vulnerable, alone or fearful and really have to struggle. Times when we may not have fasted as such for forty days but nonetheless feel absolutely drained and with no reserves to carry on. Times when we are just so unsure about everything and where we are going or what lies ahead of us. However, I think it is a misinterpretation to see this gospel of Luke as simply in some way addressing our own personal struggles or wilderness experiences – [although that is not to say it does not have an impact on them].
What is really significant about this gospel is that it deals with what might best described as the big picture – something that goes far beyond personal or individual challenges to the struggle between God and all the forces in humanity and creation that are against God – what we call evil or is often personified as the devil.
The encounter between Jesus and the devil as described powerfully in this narrative is really about power – who is in charge or who wants to be in charge. The devil [in this drama either would like to be in charge or thinks that he is already in charge and now decides to put this to the test – perhaps because he perceives or suspects in this Jesus – he is not in charge. And so he put God on trial so to speak in challenging Jesus – and in so doing questions God’s plan for humanity. But Jesus will not allow it. He will not play the game. Interestingly in this encounter or confrontation, Jesus’ own identity as God’s Son is not questioned and Luke’s early theme of Jesus’ anointing and preparation for ministry [as confirmed in his baptism] reaches its climax here with Jesus’ refusal to forsake that very identity as God’s son. By this refusal, what we learn is that Jesus is the true instrument of God’s kingdom, obedient to the one who commissioned him so that in all he does, God is with him and revealed through him.
Of course in the background of this encounter between God and evil – between the forces within and / or outside humanity is that of God’s people Israel who wandered in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years and repeatedly put God to the test by longing for a more pleasurable past or demanding a more secure future. However, at the same time this was God’s way of testing the people, to know what was in their heart and whether they would or could keep God’s commandments or not. Would they, could they remain faithful and trust in their God? What the people cannot do or fulfill, we hear see Jesus accomplish so completely that he is revealed as the one, who is truly an obedient Son. In the wilderness, where no one could observe and where the inner dispositions are laid bare and powerfully challenged by real depravation and hunger, Jesus chose not self but service of God. Jesus quotes back at the Devil from the Torah to assert first that human life is defined by reference to more than just physical subsistence and second, that service is owed only to God the creator – the ultimate source of life.
As we follow this encounter, we learn the good news that Jesus related to God, despite all difficulties or temptations, that Jesus triumphed over evil in such a way that God’s ultimate power is demonstrated beyond doubt over all that tempts and oppresses humanity. Indeed, the final verse of the gospel When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. Implicitly, this recalls the time of Jesus’ passion, where he brought God’s plan for the salvation of humanity to realization – despite the assembled forces of evil, which continued to seek to thwart God’s saving work.
So what is the meaning of all this for Luke and his audience and for us as we begin this holy season of Lent? For Luke’s audience it is about choice and the realization of the kind of Messiah Jesus is and the kingdom that he lived and proclaimed. Against the first century Palestinian background of political upheaval and popular messianic expectation of some great military king after the pattern of David, Luke reveals a Jesus who chooses a path other than a violent way to be Messiah, who rejected power over nature to serve his appetite, power over humans for the sake of glory, power over God for his own survival, in favour of the path of peace – and life – in the Isaiah pattern of servant and prophet.
What this means for us as a church, as a parish or as individuals who follow and confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour, as Paul in our second reading proclaims, is that we start this season of Lent – this time of wilderness or not, this journey of faith [ no matter where we are along it] we start I believe from a position of real strength and confidence because we know that God in his Son Jesus is triumphant – that Jesus is faithful – that God is faithful in and through his Son – and that whether in our struggles or amidst a myriad of temptations – this is ultimately not dependent upon us – upon our success or failure but rather on Christ.
So as a Parish community for example, as we struggle and strive in ministry – as we come up against set backs – obstacles – questions and problems for living and proclaiming the gospel as well as we give thanks for what we have and can achieve, I trust we will do so with a real sense of trust and confidence that in Christ we can do much for the Kingdom – especially amidst the inevitable times of slow progress, rejection, doubts and frustration – when all the signs seem to be pointing in the direction of failure we are to remain steadfast and faithful, not so much in any particular program, project or even in the church as a whole but rather in Christ and what our gospel this morning bears witness to in Jesus’ utter faithfulness and obedience all the way to the cross.