Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Temptation of Christ

The first Sunday in Lent invariably begins with the Temptation of Christ. It seems an appropriate way to begin the season. As we journey again to the cross we are reminded of the cosmic struggle that began in Eden and comes to a titanic clash at Calvary. In Mel Gibson's movie The Passion, there is a scene at the end where the camera pans back away from Satan. As he recedes into the distance below he is screaming. It is the cry of defeat. He has discovered that the cross was his undoing. The one he thought he defeated in death ends up the victor.

In the wilderness just after Jesus' baptism, Satan launched his first attack of a three-year war on the Messiah. I wonder how he reasoned out why Jesus was driven to the desert in the first place. Considering how he worked so hard to get Jesus to abandon the way of suffering and sacrifice for the easier road of cheap glory, I have to think that he understood - at some level - that there was a good reason to keep Jesus from the cross. Or did he? Did Satan understand that the cross would be his undoing? Or did he believe to the end that it was Christ's (only to discover the agony of his own defeat when Christ bowed his head in death)? For if he believed that the cross would be his undoing, why would he manipulate Judas to betray Jesus, a betrayal that contributed directly to His eventual death?

Regardless of what Satan thought, it was clear that suffering or no suffering, he wanted to derail Jesus' mission from the beginning by getting him to compromise on His obedience to the Father. He had to get him to live by a will different from the will of the Father. But did he really believe that he could do that? Did he really think that he could get God in human flesh to compromise on the divine will?

As I think about some of these things, it occurs to me that we give too much credit to Satan. Sure, he is brilliant beyond the minds of mere mortals. But that brilliance is limited. He simply could not grasp the essence of God's will and love. For all of his supernatural power and abilities, it was incomprehensible to him. Why would God want to save his creation? Why would he want to sacrifice His own Son to do so? Why would God want to live among His own as one of them? These things, I believe, escaped Satan. He didn't have an answer. And the evil hatred that filled his blackened mind blinded him from ever coming close to the answer.

Thus, the wilderness temptation. As brilliant as his tactics may be to set up a man for a fall into sin, he couldn't truly understand the power of the One he now attacks, or his single-minded commitment to the mission of the cross. And he couldn't grasp the power of the simple Word Jesus threw back at him. Like so many today he saw it only as a word, a sound, a syllable, a vocable, a sentence. He missed the unlimited dynamic of that Word to unmask evil lies and strengthen the soul in truth.

However, unlike Jesus, our temptation is a different affair. We are far more vulnerable and culpable. We fall more easily for His lies. We chose to see them as he presents them, not as they are. Thus, how we need to live "in Christ" at all times! How much we need to live out the reality of the burial and resurrection of our baptisms each day. Apart from Christ we are sitting targets and easy kill.

Lent is a season when we are reminded that the only life worth living is the one that is lived "in Christ." The Temptation account brings us back to the reality of the spiritual warfare in which we find ourselves at every moment. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm." (Eph. 6:12)

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