Who do you think you are? First Sunday of Lent 2019
The TV programme ‘Who do you think you are?’ can be fun to watch. It can be interesting seeing someone trace their ancestry back several generations. You can learn a lot from uncovering your ancestors but probably the one thing you never learn much about is who you are! I am not sure how much we learnt about Alexander Armstrong or Danny Dyer as people from the fact that they can claim William the Conqueror as an ancestor. And for that matter I am not sure how much you can learn about me from knowing that one of my great great grandfathers was a bigamous American sea captain. He had a wife in Boston, Massachusetts and a wife in Liverpool. I have to stress that even if that sort of thing did run in the genes, he is only one of 16 of my great grandparents.
There is much more to who we are than any single aspect of our ancestry. How we are brought up, what we do and say, and how we relate to other people tell us much more about us.
At the end of chapter 3 of Luke’s gospel, just before today’s reading, Luke had given us Jesus’ ancestry. Jesus’ family tree begins with Adam, son of God. Luke was telling us that Jesus is in fact Son of God. The ancestry confirms the words of God at Jesus’ baptism: ‘You are my Son, the beloved’. Our reading today tells us so much more about Jesus than his family tree does. Today’s reading shows us an important event before Jesus can start his ministry and teaching. Our reading shows Jesus facing the key question: What does it mean to be God’s Son?
Tom Wright says we can see the three temptations, or the three tests, as possible answers to this question, What does it mean to be God’s Son? Unlike the depiction of this story in medieval art, Luke doesn’t show us Jesus engaged in conversation with a visible figure. In Tom Wright’s words, the devil’s voice appears as a string of natural ideas in his own head, plausible and attractive. They make a lot of sense. There is even support from scripture for them. Surely God doesn’t want his son to go hungry? Surely, if God wants Jesus to become sovereign over all the world, then why not go for it in one easy step? Surely, if Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, why not prove it by calling on God to put on a spectacular display of power?
Jesus had been offered a very plausible vision of an easy life, calling on God’s power to make life easier for him and to establish his status and reign. The test, the challenge was about whether he should use his power for his own ends.
Nikos Kazantzakis’ book, the Last Temptation of Christ, made into a controversial film by Martin Scorsese, dramatized this crucial test and placed it on the cross. In Kazantzkakis’ words: ‘Before the fainted eyes of the Crucified, the spirit of the Evil One, in an instantaneous flash, unfolded the deceptive vision of a calm and happy life. It seemed to Christ that he had taken the smooth and easy road of men, He had married and fathered children. People loved and respected him… This was the Last Temptation which came in the space of a lightning flash to trouble the Saviour’s final moments.’ This was the devil’s test – the offer of an easy and satisfying version of what it meant to be Son of God. A version that Jesus decisively rejected in the book and film just as he rejected it in Luke’s Gospel.
The tests were there to establish Jesus’ nature as the Son of God. Instead of going the way of ease and power, he showed that the way of the Son of God was simple, faithful obedience. And he was then ready to begin his ministry and teaching, leading to his last journey to Jerusalem, his journey to the cross.
It is highly unlikely that Luke wrote his account of the tests as a model for believers facing temptation. However we should always look to Jesus’ words and actions to help us in our journey of faith and there are things we can learn from the account. Here are three.
Firstly, we shouldn’t trivialise the idea of temptation. The word testing is probably a better word. When we use the term temptation in the modern world it has connotations of naughty but nice, of a cheeky Nando’s or a cheeky gin and tonic. The testing that Jesus faced in the wilderness was not trivial. It was existential. It was to establish what he was really like. The temptations we should be concerned about aren’t those that test our willpower to refrain from another biscuit, but those that test and show who we really are.
Secondly, Jesus’ testing in the wilderness prepared him for the final test, the test of his passion and crucifixion. Whatever we do in Lent, may not have immediate results, but may prepare us for situations that might arise in the future. Margaret Silf tells the story of a guru who taught his followers spiritual practices and methods of prayer and meditation and the followers spent much time trying to put these techniques into practice. One day a student asked the guru ‘What can I do to achieve enlightenment?’ The guru replied: ‘What can you do to make the sun rise?’ The student, surprised, said ‘There is nothing I can do to make the sun rise’. The guru smiled and ‘And there is nothing you can do to achieve enlightenment.’ Frustrated the student asked: ‘So why are you teaching us all these meditation techniques?’ ‘So that you will be awake when the sun rises’ replied the guru.
Finally, we have begun our own time in the wilderness, our observance of the season of Lent. Whatever we do in Lent, we can each use our own time in this wilderness to clear away some of the clutter that gets between us and God, and make room for the person we are to show through, the person that God always wanted us to be all along. Not who we think we are, but who we really are.