Jesus in the wilderness
The First Sunday in Lent Luke 4:1-13
Sunday School children will tell you that the answer to any question is always “Jesus”. The answer to the question “What is the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness about” is no exception. In other words, it’s not about you. Luke is not coaching you about chocolate, card games, red wine or exercise. These may be issues - you’ll simply need to find another text. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading we are observers of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry following his baptism in the river Jordan and as we go through the opening words of the episodes in Mark’s, Matthew’s and Luke’s version of the story we note a subtle difference in language
Mark: The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness…
Matthew: Then Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness…
Luke: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the spirit for forty days in the wilderness….
Matthew and Luke are the only two writers who detail the explicit events of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness – what he came to define or discover or to show about himself and it is fitting that they express this as being at the leading of God’s Spirit.
Two questions could be asked. What happens to Jesus in the wilderness? And what will happen in the story as it continues beyond our reading into the first verse of the next part of Luke’s account - 4:14? Second things first, alors. Beyond the end of our reading Jesus will emerge into his public ministry in the Galilee still very much in the power of God’s Spirit in his words and acts. Whatever happened to him in the desert has not compromised him. It has defined and sharpened his mission. Back to the first question: So what happened in the wilderness?
In the wilderness Jesus lived with gaps – with things that he did not have. He had no bread (hunger). He had no power or public acclaim (solitude). He had no safety (at the mercy of beasts and thieves). The devil offered him solutions to these problems which, on one hand, might seem to better equip him for the public ministry that will follow but for which faith in God could never be credited. Jesus said no. The power of the Spirit remained with him.
It will take an entire Gospel to explain how God expresses his saving power through this Jesus who refuses a crown and speaks the truth powerfully from a standpoint of weakness and want. You’d need to add the letters of Saint Paul to find out how a rag tag collection of early Christians will express that same invitation to God’s friendship. Add to that cloud of witnesses St Francis and St Claire, every missionary to a hostile population, every Christian activist who bore witness to powerful oppressors. It has ever been so.