St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Lent I : Fr Tony Hogg

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 In the fourth century, a powerful and influential movement began which has profoundly affected Christianity. Individuals and groups of Christians began to feel called to live out a life of extreme asceticism, often in the inhospitable desert. These desert fathers and mothers, as they are known, starved themselves of food, drink and companionship. They saw themselves as warriors on the front line of conflict between good and evil, and they trained themselves, through these feats of asceticism, to be dependent on the strength of God alone.
They did not set out to influence the rest of the Church or society. They lived lives of poverty, withdrawn from the centres of influence at court or cathedral. But somehow their witness energised even those who knew they could never imitate this hard calling. The battle in the wilderness brought victories not just for those directly involved, but for others, too.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all know about the temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness, though only Matthew and Luke have the details. All of them place it directly after Jesus’ baptism and as the start of his public ministry. So Jesus goes into the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit, with God’s words of love and affirmation at the River Jordan ringing in his ears. But the wilderness is where he has to discover what it means to be the beloved Son of God.
It may seem an odd way to prepare for leadership, by starving oneself, alone in the desert. Jesus prepares for his ministry by making himself weak and utterly vulnerable, as though this is the only way in which he can be sure that the ministry he will exercise comes from God, and not just from his own strengths. He does not spend the time drawing up mission statements and identifying key people and setting targets. Instead, he reduces himself to barest essentials, leaving his character and instincts starkly exposed, with no externals to buttress them.
So when the devil comes to tempt Jesus, it is on these essentials of his being that the attack focuses. First, the devil suggests that Jesus should do a very simple, harmless miracle, of turning stones into bread. There is no one else there; it won’t be showing off; it is just a practical suggestion. For the rest of his ministry, his miracles are to be one of the most characteristic things about Jesus. But here in the wilderness Jesus learns that miracles are tools, not vital parts of himself.
Next, the devil tempts Jesus to set limits to what God can demand of him. “Test how much God loves you,” the devil suggests. “Test whether his love will keep you safe.” Here, at the very start of his ministry, Jesus relinquishes that option, and so opens the way to the cross. He will not ask for personal security from God. He will make no bargains with God, but rely on God totally.
Finally, the devil offers Jesus power. As he goes about preaching, teaching and healing, one of the things that will most strike people about Jesus is his natural authority. He clearly has strong leadership qualities, and people yearn to follow him to battle, to victory. But because of this unseen victory in the desert, Jesus will not be tempted to build a personal army to put him on any throne. Instead, he will win God’s victory for all of us, against sin and death.
What was being tested in the wilderness was the core of Jesus’ being, stripped of all other defences. That core proved to be total dependence on God, his Father.
We are not all called to go and live lives of harsh asceticism in the desert, like the desert fathers and mothers. But in Lent we are offered this challenge – what is at the heart and core of our lives? What would the devil offer to us to tempt us away from God? Do we even know what is essential to us and what is peripheral? Have we ever even tried to live without some of the props of comfort and security that seem to us so necessary?
Thanks to Jesus, we do not have to battle with the devil in the wilderness on our own. We are the body of Christ, and so share what he has already done, without any help from us. But perhaps occasionally we might be called to do our own bit of fighting against evil, for our sake and for others.
So may you be given peace, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the power of His Body and Blood, to keep a good and happy Lent, as you go forward from strength to strength each and every day.


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