Today's Gospel passage begins with an incredible contrast. Luke tells us that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit, and then he is led into the emptiness of the wilderness. Remember, in Luke's account, Jesus has just been baptized. We read that this Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice from heaven announced, "You are my Son." These few verses paint an astonishing image for us. Jesus is singled out by John the Baptist as one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus is then the focus of an epiphany: the heavens open up, the Spirit takes the form of a dove, and God speaks. Many people saw, heard, and wondered. But this isn't the end of the story. Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led into the wilderness, the empty place. He quickly goes from one extreme to another.
The Middle Eastern wilderness is a vast and harsh place: rocky, desolate, and dry. It could be a frightening place for a person alone who'd really have to do battle physically and emotionally just to survive in that rough environment. Jesus was led into this wilderness very much alone: no human companionship, no food. Luke says that Jesus ate nothing at all during those 40 days in the wilderness, and that he was tempted in very specific ways by the devil.
This is one of those passages in Scripture that almost immediately make us picture a movie scene in our minds. We've all probably seen one of the many Hollywood Bible movies that show us a devil looking very much like a human dragon with horns and a tail, taking Jesus, who really doesn't look the worse for wear after 40 days of no food, on fantastic journeys. This devil seems to tempt Jesus to be a magician, to turn stones into bread. He lets Jesus see all the kingdoms of the world, Luke writes, and then he takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, "Throw yourself down, your angels will catch you." No one in Jerusalem would have trouble believing in Jesus if they had seen him carried by angels from the top of the temple!
These are very vivid images, and we might be tempted to think, "What a great story and didn't Jesus give very clever answers, but what could this passage really say to us?" We might be tempted to wonder if we're ever really full of the Holy Spirit, and we might not be able to imagine ever being offered a look at all the kingdoms of the world in an instant. So, what does this passage have to offer us?
Actually, quite a lot, because the realities of fullness and emptiness, grace and temptation, are very much a part of all our lives. Jesus' wilderness experience wasn't a Hollywood movie scene; it was an intensely personal time of soul-searching. In Luke's words we hear Jesus acknowledge who he is, and we also hear that the devil departed from him until an opportune time. There will be other times of temptation and aloneness for Jesus.
It's the same for us. Each of us is filled with the Holy Spirit at our baptism, and we are full just as Jesus was full. In the Prayer for the Candidates we pray, "Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit." At the signing with chrism, the celebrant says, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever." We are filled as Jesus was filled.
But even filled with the Spirit, we can be led into our own wilderness. We need those times in our lives when we come face to face with who we are. In today's Gospel, the devil presented idols to Jesus. We're faced with idols in our own lives, those things that cause us to act in ways that turn us from living a godly life. Taking Jesus as our model, we can use these wilderness times to go deep inside ourselves, quietly and reflectively, so that we can confront our temptations and rid ourselves of whatever it is that makes us act contrary to the promises we made at our baptism.
One of the reasons we're given a Gospel passage on the temptation of Jesus at the beginning of each Lent is to remind us that the church encourages us to use Lent as a time to do this kind of reflection. In the early church, the 40 days of Lent were used by the catechumens (people preparing for baptism) to think about their coming baptism and to prepare for the commitment they would make for sharing in the life of the church. Those of us who are already baptized have made that commitment, so we should meditate on how these promises have informed our lives.
It's not always easy. It's not easy to admit our failings. It's often even harder to repent and begin anew. But we find the good news in the first verse we read today. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit didn't leave him to face the desert alone. We're also filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit doesn't leave us when the going gets rough. The Holy Spirit goes with us into the desert, helps us confront the hard times, and supports us as we turn again to living the life God calls us to live.
Let us pray: Renew in us, your servants, the covenant you made with us at our Baptism. Send us forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 309)