Staying True to Our Calling
What gets to you most? I don’t just mean what most gets your goat; I’m thinking about what goes to the heart of who you are. Who are you when everything is stripped away?
That’s what faces Jesus in today’s Gospel. The temptations he fends off in the wilderness come from deep inside him and strike at the heart of who he is. After the very public high of his baptism, at which the Holy Spirit has descended on him, at which his identity as God’s Beloved Son has been proclaimed by the voice of God the Father, Jesus is sent by the Spirit into the desert to grapple with his identity and calling.
The question behind our Gospel passage is: what sort of Son is Jesus going to be? How is he going to live out his calling? For, each of the three temptations is an enticement to Jesus to become a false version of who he is; to be untrue to his calling not by rejecting it but by allowing it to be twisted subtly out of shape; to become fake good news.
The first and third temptations begin with, ‘If you are the Son of God …’. Scholars tell us that this would be better translated ‘Since you are the Son of God …’. Satan, the plausible but lying voice inside, is not trying to deny Jesus’ Sonship but to twist it out of shape.
We too face the temptation to be untrue to our identities as children of God and to our calling to be part of God’s redemptive mission, the temptation to allow the pattern of Christ in us to be twisted out of shape. Every day for us brings the question: what sort of children are we going to be? So what does the text tell us about the temptations that we, along with Jesus, face and how to withstand them?
The first temptation flung at Jesus is to turn stones into bread. For a famished Jesus to make bread from stones seems like a good idea. And if he can accomplish that, he can easily feed the hungry masses. But it is a temptation to accept and be false sustenance — a quick fix, a spiritual fast food that addresses the wrong need. Jesus will, indeed, satisfy the hungry with bread, not just in the feeding of the 5,000, but in the bread that is his body broken on the Cross. A far cry from desert rocks transmogrified as if in a Hogwarts classroom.
Next, Jesus is tempted with the power and glory of all the world’s kingdoms. But this is false glory and power on offer. The issue is whether Jesus will become the kind of king the world already knows too well: one who rules by might and force of ego. But for him to do that would be to turn away from the servanthood he came to model, to reject the way of the Cross and, ultimately, to forgo the joy, glory and power of the Resurrection.
This temptation is, however, also a cloak for a deeper, more subtle one: the enticement to worship the false gods of status, influence and ego. Satan shows his hand here when he tells Jesus, ‘If you will worship me, it will all be yours’. It surprises me how many commentators seem to take at face value Satan’s claim that the kingdoms are his to give away. I mean, we’re talking about a character who is described in the Gospel of John as ‘a liar and the father of all lies’. Jesus knows this voice is faking it and that to turn away from the God who called and named him is to turn away from truth.
Finally, having failed to tempt Jesus away from worshipping the true God, Satan tries to get him to put God to the test. This is a temptation to false faith, a lure to risk everything in order to prove God in a way God hasn’t called him to do. Instead of this swift, dramatic spectacle, Jesus chooses the long, hard road to the Cross and the hope of Easter morning.
Through all these temptations, Jesus remains true to his identity and calling. To the long way round. To the way that looks crazy but leads to life.
Like him, we encounter voices from within that entice us to be untrue to our identity and calling. What sort of children will we be? Will we run after quick fixes instead of walking the long road to Jerusalem with Jesus? Will we get wrapped up in budgets and finance instead of being bread broken for the world? Will we get caught up in seeking influence instead of looking to serve our communities? Will we be enticed by dramatic ideas or be willing to lay down our lives quietly in service?
The question is how we keep true to our calling. First, like Jesus, we should remember whose we are. At his baptism, Jesus was declared the Beloved Son; our baptisms likewise proclaim that we are Beloved of God. We need to hold on to this identity before all others.
Secondly, we need to listen to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is filled with the Spirit at his baptism, led into the desert by the Spirit and filled with the Spirit when he leaves the desert to begin his preaching ministry. Likewise, we are given the Spirit at our baptism and filled with the Spirit as we open ourselves to God through regular spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading and worship.
And this points us to another resource we have, and the most obvious one from the text: Scripture. Jesus doesn’t argue with the temptations; he simply refutes them with Scripture: the wisdom and strength of his tradition. It’s interesting that he uses desert Scriptures — verses from Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. He learns as much from Israel’s failures as from its faithfulness. If Jesus needs that, how much more do we need to steep ourselves in Scripture. It is the memory book of our tradition, showing us how God has spoken in the past, showing us patterns to follow and develop, showing us how to pattern ourselves after Christ.
As we move through our own 40 days in the wilderness, I encourage you to take something up for Lent: reflect on the temptations. Make them into a form of prayer. Perhaps ask yourself, at the end of each day:
- What has sustained me and how have I sustained others today?
- What did my words and actions today say about who or what I worship?
- How did the way I lived today show my trust in God?
As you ask yourself this, listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit calling you ever deeper into life, ever deeper into your identity as a beloved child of God.