“Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River profoundly symbolized Jesus’ intimate identification with Mankind’s sinful state. That identification at his baptism then released Jesus to begin his all-out assault against Satan and the Kingdom of Darkness. Note the sequence: he fasted. He was baptized and prayed. He was tempted by Satan and he decisively and definitively overcame the temptation.”
Father Edward Meeks
We had readings yesterday at Church, about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. We were led to think over again, the logistics and what was at stake. It made me wonder how things would have been if Jesus had succumbed to the Devil’s overtures. He was offered the temporal illusion of power, plenty, and status. If that sounds facile, think of this: that when Jesus rebuked the Devil’s efforts, Satan “left him until an opportune season”. The Devil was not done with Jesus. It wasn’t a once and for all battle, it was only a skirmish in a larger war. You can see how hard this went against Jesus’ humanity when things were getting real and Jesus fell down on the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane praying “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” So intense was the impending reality of his crucifixion that he sweated drops of blood.
Hebrews 4:15 reminds us “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
Jesus was tempted. It’s something to think about. All of his life, until his death, he had the Devil on his trail. The Bible puts this down to basic jealousy. The Devil did not have what Jesus had, but he desired the false appearance that would validate the same end. Illicit power, prestige, and material abundance gotten by a conditional clause in a contract.
We have at the heart of all this, the basics of human dignity: the power to choose mixed with the realization that how we arrive at the end matters. Human being who feel things, regard and observe things, and make choices about how to get where we want to go.
I spent some time in the desert, specifically on a kibbutz near Gaza in the southern region of Israel. The desert was an interesting departure for me, a bit of an escape to a place where life and its issues were spare and basic. I had to learn things like checking my boots in the morning. They could be a good place for a scorpion to curl up overnight. I had to find out close up, how hot the desert can be in the day, and in the absence of any atmospheric moisture, how the heat can escape during the night. The desert can be as cold at night as it can be hot in the day. It’s a place of extremes, set into a capricious balance.
If you are wandering in the middle of all this, you cannot escape the narrowed lens by which you are forced to see life. There is a stark beauty in the desert. I got lost on the Dead Sea Plain for three days at one point, and remember overnighting in a rocky gully, where I lay my head on a stone and looked up at the infinite blackness, set against a glow of stars. A flock of bats would swoop and swerve against this glow, as the nocturnal inhabitants razed the sky seeking any form of airborne insect to ingest. The basics of life and death played out in this stark theatre, set against a velvet curtain of infinity.
It would have been easy for Jesus, wandering in such a setting, to take the easy route. His biggest temptation, to circumvent the Cross by doing the unthinkable, to worship the enemy of both God and Man. The basics of this arrangement come down to what even the disciples suggested, that Jesus should claim an earthy throne and call it a day.
But Jesus chose the hard route. He did not scorn the suffering of Cross, but invited instead, that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Set up against the stark backdrop, Jesus was not fooled by baubles and distractions. The paradox, that the road that embraces suffering is the road that leads to life. I just can’t shake the all-too-human image of Jesus, with the Devil on his tail, from birth to the Cross. Yes, the Devil “left him”, but only until the next convenient opportunity.