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The news in recent days has carried stories of unexpected events in the lives of famous individuals. South Africa’s “bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius has been arrested and charged with shooting his girlfriend dead. Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement – the first papal resignation for nearly 600 years. The last one was in 1415. These two stories are so different that they seem to have little in common. We can only speculate or read the media speculation about the back stories of these things. Of course one is an undoubted tragedy and possibly a crime of passion. The other, many people say, is a courageous and selfless decision. But perhaps both also remind us of human frailty. In one case the weaknesses and passions that can lead to crime; in the other case, recognising the signs of age and being willing to let others take over.

Human in Every way except
The Bible tells us that Jesus was human in every way except that he did not sin. Today’s gospel reading reminds us that part of Jesus’ humanity included being tempted – but the difference was that he did not give in to temptation. These days, because of our culture which values the individual and which encourages us to understand ourselves in highly psychological ways, we can tend to interpret the story of the temptation in the wilderness in a highly personal way. Jesus was hungry after fasting for 40 days. The first temptation is to satisfy his cravings by using his miraculous powers. The second temptation is to grasp at worldly power but comes at the cost of losing his integrity. The third temptation is to court popularity by creating a spectacle but was a highly risky thing – a bit like doing a tightrope act without safety nets. If we look at these temptations in a personal way like this, then it leads to interpretations which are highly personal. We should not misuse our power to satisfy only ourselves; we should not try to gain power by selling out to devilish ways; we should not try to gain popularity or influence by making a risky spectacle of ourselves. Whilst this kind of interpretation is not wrong, it is limited. This kind of interpretation doesn’t take into account the wider story Luke is telling and is based on a psychological way of understanding Jesus.

Part of Christ’s Mission
In order to take a wider view of this story we need to take good notice of the way Luke starts and finishes this episode in Jesus’ life. In some ways it is not to be taken as a stand-alone story for it is part of the whole story of Jesus. Luke has just described Jesus’ baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus. He has mentioned the voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the beloved Son of God. He began all of that by saying that Jesus started his ministry when he was 30 years old. At the end of the temptations story Luke then connects it to what he is going to tell us next: that although this occasion of temptation was over, the devil had not left him completely alone – he waited for other “opportune” times to come back. Luke is flagging up that Jesus continued to suffer temptations during his ministry. All of this should help us to realise that we are to understand the wilderness temptations within the wider context of Jesus’ mission.

In C S Lewis Screwtape Letters the more senior demon advises a younger demon that Christians can sometimes be more successfully tempted with spiritual things rather than fleshly suggestions of pleasure. In a slightly more profound way T S Eliot portrayed Thomas a Becket being tempted “to the right thing for the wrong reason”. Temptation can therefore be very subtle. Temptation for Jesus was not to indulge himself. After all, he had shown how self-disciplined he could be by fasting for almost 6 weeks. The temptations Jesus’ suffered both in the wilderness and then throughout his ministry were temptations to do with his mission.

Shortcuts to completion
In other words, Jesus was tempted to take shortcuts to fulfil his mission and recognised that would ultimately mean failure. His mission was to feed the hungry and did use his miraculous powers to do so. But Luke and the other gospel writers try to show how these miracles were not about how he was going to save the world from starvation or get many to follow him. They were meant to be signs of the Kingdom of Heaven – signs pointing to Jesus who was the bread of life. Jesus was to call people to put faith in God through him, not in his ability to fill their bellies. Immediate satisfaction is no substitute for eternal nourishment. Jesus would leave the Church not only to feed the hungry whenever or wherever they were to be found, but to challenge the unjust structures of this world which mean that millions starve whilst others have plenty.

Jesus mission was to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to the kingdoms of this world. But, as he said to Pilate, his kingdom was not of this world, and he was not to be an earthly ruler. Yes, one day Jesus will be King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but his mission was not going to be fulfilled by grabbing that role for himself at the cost of taking it from the devil’s hand. The people of God had tried to make their kingdom a place where salvation and knowing God was all about belonging to an earthly kingdom – about being Israel. But Jesus came to bring in a way of living under God that transcended belonging to one particular people or one contained geographical place. The gospel was to spread throughout the world and time and touch all human lives and hearts. The only way Jesus could fulfil that mission was to die on the cross – to sacrifice himself in order to liberate creation and humanity.

Jesus mission was to teach people about the Kingdom of Heaven. Many people flocked to hear him and he was clearly popular as a preacher. He had a common touch which he combined with a profound sense of authority. He could make people laugh and then ask questions which led them on into the truth. Together his miracles and his message were a powerful crowd puller. He certainly wouldn’t need to dive from a high point on the Temple only to land softly with the help of angels who might have been forced to the rescue! But crowds can be fickle, and those who chase popularity soon fall from their pedestals. Jesus’ real mission was to call people to repentance and faith. His message was good news to the poor and powerless but didn’t go down too well with the rich and powerful. Gaining a following is not the same as announcing God’s judgement and mercy.

The Church’s Mission
These temptations can certainly be understood in personal ways. It is not wrong to take a lesson from them and be warned against seeking our individual prosperity, power and popularity. God knows we’re greedy enough, misuse the money and prestige we have and live in a society that is consumed with ideas of popularity in the form of celebrities. But the challenge is to see the wider picture and be concerned with what matters the most. The subtle temptation for us is to narrow down the way in which we understand Christ’s temptations in the wilderness.

Jesus called his disciples to follow him and when he left them with the promise of the Holy Spirit it was to continue fulfilling his mission. The Church was founded not so that we could feel better about ourselves, but so that Christ's mission to the world could be continued. We face, as the Church, similar temptations to Jesus, temptations to take shortcuts in our mission or to miss the point of our existence altogether.

We find satisfaction in church. We are nourished spiritually with bread, wine and Word. We find friendship and fellowship which sates some of our hunger for company. But to keep it to ourselves is like changing the stones into bread. We value the Church’s place of privilege in society, especially that of, say, the C of E, and its position in English culture. Many still turn to us for special times in their lives: baptism, marriage and death. But to keep it to ourselves and to mistake this for successful mission, is to gain the kingdoms of this world at the expense of our integrity. We are glad when we are noticed as a church, but to be satisfied that we’re popular at Christmas or in the news when a new Archbishop is appointed is not the same as announcing the Gospel to the world. These temptations face us repeatedly as we seek to be faithful to Christ. The thing that helped Christ refocus on his true mission was the word of God. That word came to his heart in the affirming declaration at his baptism: you are beloved of God! It came to him also as he recalled the written Scriptures which he knew so well. Pray that the Spirit will renew that inner affirmation in your heart: you are beloved of God, especially through your baptism! Read and remember the Scriptures so that God’s truth may sink deeper into your consciousness! As we respond to God then we will resist temptation. Let that twofold word: the Spirit in our hearts and the Scriptures in our minds rest more deeply in our lives as we seek to follow Christ and be faithful both as individuals and as the whole Church of God!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith