What's Lent got to do with the temptation of Jesus?

2020 has come and gone. By anyone’s assessment, it was a plague year. It certainly felt as if a locust army marched and munched through it pretty thoroughly!

And it seems the locusts have marched straight on into 2021, hungry as ever.

We can’t pretend that we have it all together at the beginning of this new year: individually, socially or politically. It can even feel, at times, as if there won’t be anything left to rebuild at the end of it all.

But is that right? We are heading into Lent, the 40 days before Easter where Christian believers prepare their hearts and minds for this occasion – often by fasting, praying, reading the Bible and, in some traditions, carrying out good works.

Perhaps this season might be a good time to think on our “new normal” wasteland. Can we get our bearings in this pandemic “wilderness” and even try to (re)build some hope?

Helpfully, we do have some biblical 2020 hindsight. We know that Jesus grows up after the Christmas events. We know that God spoke up – or rather, that he spoke down – to offer us his pleased recognition of Jesus, his beloved grown-up Son. The voice from heaven brings together all the star-beckonings, angelic choruses, dreams, oracles, and precious pearls of thought from the Christmas season, and reverberates across the water with one declaration: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The theologian Walter Brueggemann encourages us to use Lent to remember our own baptism and our own “glad identity’ in Christ. Lent is also a time to remember that, as soon as the glad voice proclaimed Jesus’ identity, Jesus went to the wilderness to undergo trial and temptation (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13).

Lent is a great time to remember that Jesus’ was exactly the right kind of son.

The devil knows Jesus’ “glad identity” and provokes him with the opener, “If you are the Son of God …” at the outset of their famous 40 day showdown in the wilderness.

Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, says that the devil can’t challenge Jesus’ sonship, but instead is attempting to tempt Jesus to be the wrong kind of son.

The 40 days of Lent is a great time to (gladly) remember that Jesus’ was exactly the right kind of son: He would not be diverted from his mission to rescue us. He would not recapitulate Israel’s rebellion. He would not accept any satanic quick fixes or boosts to his power.

Jesus would be a perfectly obedient son. He wouldn’t be shaken from his purpose, even by an evil one intent on shaking the kingdoms of the world and leaving a whole ruinous wasteland in his wake (Isaiah 14:16-17).

The three temptations

The devil’s invitation for Jesus to turn a stone to bread is an invitation for Jesus to depart from a faithful dependence on God’s provision for his physical needs. Jesus’ way of dealing with hunger “proved” that he walked in God’s law (Exodus 16:4), unlike the Israelites. Jesus wasn’t asserting that he could do without food, just that he would rely on God for it in the wilderness.

You might want to chew on such fierce dependence upon God’s provision, as you consider letting some things go for Lent this year.

The devil’s second challenge to Jesus in the wilderness involves an offer: he offers Jesus all the “authority and splendour” if he would worship him.

As Messiah, this was Jesus’ due. However, if he accepted it from the devil now, there would be no opportunity for him to offer us salvation through the substitutionary atonement of the cross. Jesus is not willing to fast-forward past the cross.

And finally, in the third temptation, the devil throws down a challenge: prove yourself to be the Son of God by throwing yourself from the highest point of the temple.

The devil purports to speak in God’s own voice, promising the angelic protection referred to in Psalm 91.  But, thankfully, Jesus knows his Father’s voice, which had spoken so clearly and publicly at his baptism, and he is able to sidestep this challenge.

Game on

You can imagine the archenemy grinding his teeth in frustration at this point, impatient for the hour he will have to show himself to everyone as the “power of darkness” (Luke 22:53).

From now, it is game on.  All hell mobilises.

Jesus is not going to claim power by a reckless leap of faith from a dazzling high point. Instead, Jesus will show his power over his archenemy by choosing to plunge into death and darkness and overcoming it all at the very lowest point. He will go to the scary place “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13), to the wilderness edges, to rescue us, to stop us stumbling towards a precipice in the dark. This is a zoom-forward to the crucifixion and resurrection.

Also, it is the best 2020 hindsight we have as Christians! Why? Because the kingdom of God – ruled by Jesus – continues to shine light into the wilderness.

Jesus the shepherd continues to search and find lost sheep who struggle and straggle and get stuck in difficult places (Luke 15:4). Like the man tended by the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable (Luke 10:25-37), we all are rescued, unexpectedly, in the wilderness of this life’s existence.

Jesus himself feed us and tends our wounds.

However, it is still “game on” as far as the archenemy is concerned. So Christians should not be surprised by struggle, including the turmoil and ongoing strain caused by the pandemic.

Christians should not be surprised at the challenge posed by dark forces who take on their glad identity as God’s children.

As Jesus went on to reveal after the 40 day showdown, he gave us a prayer-filled way to overcome temptation. He shows us a humble, dependent way, not a triumphalist way. The way of putting on “full armour of God” against the “devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:10-18).

But Jesus is also the King who suffers with us and for us, who searches for us, and finds us, his wilderness foundlings, when we abandon ourselves.

And that’s the gladdest thing for us to remember at Lent.

Danielle Terceiro is an English high school teacher at a school in Sydney’s western suburbs. She is married to Michael and they have four school-aged children. They go to New Life Christian Reformed Church, Blacktown. Danielle has always loved stories, and loves thinking about how God has told us his Big Story of love and redemption through Jesus.