By Archbishop Philip Freier
22 February 2023
I’ve always found the first verse of Matthew 4 confronting: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit to be tested by the devil.” At one level it might sound procedural, the Spirit leading Jesus to a place of testing where the outcome was already well assured. Something like a confident and well-prepared student approaching their end of year examinations. We quickly reach the second verse and see that Jesus does not approach what is to come from a point of physical strength – quite the opposite, he is depleted in a way that few of us could imagine. “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished.” It was then that the tempter came to him offering all of the sweet promises of satisfaction, power and adoration that the world has. Jesus’ answers are plain and, at each point, reject the success and pleasure that is offered from the world.
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Taking his cue from Jesus’ answer to the first temptation by quoting from Scripture, “it is written”, the tempter quotes those words and verses of Scripture back to Jesus in the second temptation. So it continues, until Jesus brings the whole event to an end by saying, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Angelic relief follows the silencing and departure of the devil.
It is clear that we cannot expect to emulate the arduous physical and spiritual ordeal of Jesus’ journey through these trials in the wilderness. We can, however, apply the principles of his wilderness time of temptation in our own Lenten pilgrimage. Some of you are seasoned observers of this time of physical and spiritual discipline, and I know find each Lent a time of more intense prayer and reliance on God. Others may be new to this way of thinking, of using the liturgical year as a scaffolding for personal and corporate spiritual practice. Lenten studies have a long heritage of fostering corporate spiritual practice and studying Scripture as we approach the great three days of Easter.
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However we think and act in response to the season of Lent, the time of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness stands out as an exemplar of God’s abiding faithfulness to those who follow him and have been incorporated by baptism into his spiritual body, the Church. It often seems that the world around us is so deeply set in a yearning for the power and the pleasure the world offers that the spiritual claim upon life is dismissed. This is a profound irony and evocative of the distorted reasoning that Jesus confronted in the Judean wilderness so long ago.
Psalm 71 is one that I recommend to you as you confront the spiritual powers that compete with God the Holy Trinity for attention and allegiance. I find a repeated reading of this Psalm a good framework for reflection on these things. I also recommend this prayer to you as a response to your reflection, “Faithful Lord, living Saviour, in youth and old age, from the womb to the grave, may we know your protection and proclaim your great salvation to the Glory of God the Father.”
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