Of the various seasons of the church, Lent is probably the least exciting to some people. It is famous as a time of somber reflection and (probably more notably) a time to give up something you enjoy, supposing somehow that it is good for you to go without, to fast, for awhile. We take our cue from Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness without food or water, a time where he was subjected to temptation prior to beginning his ministry. The text on Sunday was from Luke 4:1-13. We are told three specific temptations Jesus is faced with at the end of his fast, when he’s at his weakest. Each of these temptations is a literary foreshadowing of events in Jesus’ life when he will be tempted again to acheive victory through normal understandings of power. I love John Milton’s Paradise Regained which offers some neat insights and imaginative understandings of the text. Milton sees the temptations of Jesus as the crucial point in his ministry, where Jesus comes to know fully his own divinity; everything after that flows from this full knowledge of who he truly is and what he is called to do.
Temptation #1: The temptation to turn stones into bread. Here, the temptation for Jesus is to relieve not only his own hunger, but as some people have interpreted, the temptation to use his divinity to cure others’ hunger as well in order to win their favor. As Milton tells it (from Book I)
“But, if thou be the Son of God, command
That out of these hard stones be made thee bread;
So shalt thou save thyself, and us relieve
With food, whereof we wretched seldom taste.”
And (from Book II)
“What followers, what retin’ue canst thou gain,
Or at thy heels the dizzy multitude,
Longer than thou canst feed them on thy cost?”
Later on in Luke 9, Jesus sees this temptation again in the form of the feeding of the 5000. For me, the neat thing is that Jesus distributes the food through the disciples, using them as the instruments for feeding the world. It’s an example of God’s economy, Jesus using little to accomplish something that seems impossible. Perfect divine power. Jesus doesn’t use the opportunity to take over, or let others try to convince him to do the same. Satan, in the Milton example, is trying to convince Jesus what he needs to do in order to keep people following and listening to him. But we see in the end that even feeding them does not convince them to stay with him.
Temptation #2: The offer of the kingdoms of the world. Jesus is here offered the chance to take over the government and thereby bring God’s kingdom to earth in an authoritative way. The parallel for the church is obvious, that we are offered and tempted for the chance to reform the empire as a means to achieve God’s work in the world. But just as Jesus rejected the kingdoms offered to him, we the church must also reject the temptation to believe that we can bring the kingdom of God through the government. Jesus’ way is the way of death, of weakness and rejection. We must take up that cross daily (the word “daily” is added in Luke’s Gospel from Mark’s). Milton sees this temptation as the temptation to overthrow Rome on behalf of the Jewish people. The fascinating thing about Milton is that his Satan is acutely aware that the restoration and salvation of Israel from Roman Empire is an important part of Jesus’ mission, but his temptations are temptations to not use his divine power (the way of weakness) to achieve the ends. Luke’s answer to this temptation is in Jesus’ anti-triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, where Jesus creates almost a farce of a coup d’etat, coming in on a donkey.
Milton’s Version: (Book IV, “monster” refers to the Emperor of Rome)
With what ease,
Endued with regal virtues as thou art,
Appearing, and beginning noble deeds,
Might’st thou expel this monster from his throne,
Now made a sty, and, in his place ascending,
A victor-people free from servile yoke!
And with my help thou may’st; to me the power
Is given, and by that right I give it thee.
Aim, therefore, at no less than all the world;
Aim at the highest; without the highest attained,
Will be for thee no sitting, or not long,
On David’s throne, be prophesied what will.”
Temptation #3: Jesus taken to the temple and tempted to jump off and be saved by the angels. Again Milton’s theme that the temptations are really about Jesus coming to know his own Messiah-ship appears.
There stand, if thou wilt stand; to stand upright
Will ask thee skill. I to thy Father’s house
Have brought thee, and highest placed: highest is best.
Now shew thy progeny; if not to stand,
Cast thyself down. Safely, if Son of God;
For it is written, ‘He will give command
Concerning thee to his Angels; in their hands
They shall uplift thee, lest at any time
Thou chance to dash thy foot against a stone.
To whom thus Jesus: also it is written,
Tempt not the Lord thy God. He said, and stood;
But Satan, smitten with amazement, fell.
Milton makes the drama about whether or not Jesus can stand at the very top of the temple. For Satan, Jesus seems trapped. Either he falls and forces Jesus to put God to the test and is therefore saved, or Jesus dies/isn’t saved and his own faith in who he is called to be is in jeopardy. But Jesus does the miraculous thing and stands on the pinnacle of the temple, a tiny point. Luke re-visits this temptation when Jesus hangs on the cross and is jeered to save himself as to prove who he really is. And here too is our challenge, for how many of us have given in to the compromising culture around us. As a church, we’ve married the state, we’ve given in to the temptation not to bear our cross, to die with Christ.
And so, Lent is a witness for us about the way of Jesus. It is a witness to the world that we begin the journey to life (Easter) through death. It is no mere 40 days of giving up a pleasure, but a radical outward symbol of the type of discipleship we are called to. Lent is an inward journey as much as an outward journey. The death to self, culture, and all other temptations is given the promise of new life with Christ. For us to know our true identity in Christ is to face ongoing temptation to believe that salvation is found elsewhere, that life is found elsewhere, just like Satan attempts to cause Jesus to doubt his own Sonship in Paradise Regained. Jesus’ nonviolent, subversive, seemingly-weak-but-divinely-powerful way of being and doing in the world is the major theme and lesson for us during Lent.