Word & word. 1st Sunday of Lent ’16

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

from the Gospel according to Luke 4:1-13

Are there times when good and evil somehow cooperate with one another?

It is fascinating that ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and ‘led,’ (or as it is sometimes translated ‘driven’) by the Spirit, Jesus is moved following his baptism directly into a place of loneliness and privation.  But even more than that, he is driven directly into the sights of the devil who stands ready and eager to engage him in conversation.

Rather than this being a kind of instance of cooperation between good and evil, it might be better seen as a moment in which the devil unwittingly is co-opted by the Spirit for the sake of good.  The devil believes, alone with Jesus whom he testifies in effect is indeed ‘the Son of God,’ that he [Satan] is in charge and setting the agenda as he puts one temptation after the other in Jesus’ way.

But there is deeper agency here.  Underneath the devil’s promptings the Spirit of God, the Spirit that animates and moves Jesus, can be seen using the devil to bring the Son of God to a point of readiness to open his ministry.  Jesus is brought by these 40 days of hunger and temptation in the desert to the perfect expression of self-offering to what the Father asks of him, not what Satan asks of him, nor what his own humanity might choose.

Jesus chooses to trust the Father in the Spirit to nourish him, to give him what he needs to carry out his mission, to protect him from ultimate harm, even when ultimate harm will indeed be visited upon him.

There is great hope here as Lent begins for we who live on this same earth of deserts and hungers and temptations today. Evil still goes about doing its harm, planning its triumph. It does not realize even yet that its power is illusory and that Another is guiding all things to the good (Romans 8).  Every day the news we hear is full of the apparent advance of the agenda of disunity, of violence, of heartbreak, and death.

Through it all, we are being polished bright, burnished by the wing of the Spirit to shine in the world, to reflect the everlasting light of the good God who will not allow anything less than the full-throated shout of joy to be the final word of this creation and the first and lasting word of a new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1-7).

Botticelli, detail 2
Three Temptations of Christ, detail (1481-82) fresco by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Sistine Chapel, the Vatican
  • JP McGinty