“Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God,
And him only shalt thou serve”
For centuries upon centuries, the story of the temptations of Christ has been read on the First Sunday in Lent. But what are the temptations of Christ? They are our temptations brought to clarity in Jesus Christ. We are inclined, perhaps, to have a negative view of temptation. But in truth, there is something altogether positive about the fact of temptations. They are a necessary feature of our humanity. At issue is how we understand and respond to the temptations.
The temptations of Christ are about two things: the naming of the three forms of temptation which embrace every temptation; and the threefold overcoming of temptation. The critical lesson for us, in the Christian understanding, is that temptation is properly named and overcome only by Christ and by Christ in us; the grace that is given is not given in vain provided we act upon it.
In the Gospels, the account of the temptations of Christ follows the baptism of Christ. The baptism of Christ is an epiphany – a making known of his essential divine identity: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” What immediately follows is that Christ is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark’s word ‘driven’ is more intense than the word ‘led’ used by Matthew and Luke; it, literally, is about being cast out or thrown into the wilderness and suggests the alienating and violent aspects of sin as well as the divine determination to achieve our reconciliation; after all, it is the Holy Spirit who drives or leads Jesus into the wilderness. The temptations belong to the intensity of the pageant of Christ’s passion.
The wilderness is the place of spiritual combat. It is also the place of spiritual refreshment and renewal. There is a struggle, a conflict, an agone that is more intense than the Olympics. The conflict is within. It is the conflict of wills within us. We are divided against ourselves in every temptation. It is a question about our fundamental identity. What really defines us?
In our Christian identity we are defined by our baptism. Our baptisms involve renunciations and affirmations. There is our saying no, resoundingly, to the things which stand between us and God. There is our saying yes, resoundingly, to the things which God wants for us in our identity with him. The saying no means our renunciation of “the world, the flesh and the devil.”
The temptations of Christ would remind us that this is the constant struggle of our lives even as our baptisms remind us that the victory is solely in him. It can only be in us through him. It is a matter of his victory in us. Living that out is the constant struggle of our lives. “That ye receive not the grace of God in vain” requires that we be steadfast in the face of whatever trials befall us. We have to work with the grace that is given.
The temptations of Christ are, surely, the temptations of the flesh. Will we be defined by our sensual appetites alone? The temptations of Christ are, surely, the temptations of the world. Will we be defined by the desire for vain glory and spectacle and show? The temptations of Christ are, surely, the temptations of the devil. Will we be defined by the very principle in person who denies and stands in opposition to God? In short, the temptations of Christ are all about our identity in faith. They are about the denial or the acceptance of God. They are about what we honour; in short, what we worship. In other words, what we love.
These are questions about our fundamental allegiances, questions about who we are and what we are called to be. The temptations are about the struggle within us against appetite, entertainment and the desire for total control.
There is and there must be the constant struggle to prove the goodness and the truth of God against the immediacy of our sensual appetites – as if we were merely consumers. There is and there must be the constant struggle against the imagination of our hearts for vain glory, entertainment and show – as if everything was simply there for our amusement. (This is, it seems to me, the dark side of Romanticism, namely the demand that reality speak to my emotions and feelings. But it is also the demand of the contemporary culture of illusion.) There is and there must be the constant struggle against the tyranny of our desire to be God – as if we were not creatures who find ourselves in a world which we did not make and do not rule.
What the temptations of Christ call into question – and it is a necessary question – is our identity with God in Christ. They call into question the truth of our humanity. Look at the temptations of Christ and see in them what belongs to your baptismal profession both in renunciation and in affirmation. Look at the temptations of Christ and see in them the question about your primary allegiances, that is to say, about what you honour and worship, what you love.
That “man shall not live by bread alone” does not mean that bread, signifying the things which belong to our natural, physical and sensual sustenance and life, doesn’t have its place. It does but only as from the hand of the God. There is no bread of life apart from the God of life. That “thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” does not mean that God cannot and does not do wondrous and marvellous things for us in our lives. He does. But that does not mean that God is the plaything of our whims and fancies. He is not there for our entertainment and amusement.
That “thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve” does not mean that we don’t have other duties and obligations, responsibilities and powers with respect to the world and to one another. We do. It means that all these things come under and are found within this primary and absolute requirement: God first without whom there is, after all, nothing else. Everything has to be brought into this primary relationship. Everything has to be brought into the primacy of worship and service. This is further emphasized by Jesus’ adding to the Deuteronomy passage that he is quoting the little word “only”.
The answers of Christ are not pat formulas easily and conveniently trotted out. By no means. They are borne out of the struggle, the agone. They comprise within themselves an entire commentary on the age-old, biblical struggle between sin and grace. They are the clarifying words of Christ which should be emblazoned upon our souls and imprinted on our consciences. They belong to our daily struggle in faith to make visible the truth and the glory of Christ.
They come down to the matter of our baptismal profession “which is, to follow our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him; that as he died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin and rise again unto righteousness, continually mortifying all evil desires and daily increasing in all virtue and godliness of living” (BCP, p.530). In a way, the lessons of this day all come down to this primary affirmation, the primacy of worship which is about the love without which all our doings are nothing worth.
“Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God
and him only shalt thou serve.”
Fr. David Curry
Lent I, 2010