“Jesus was Tempted in the Desert” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, March 6, 2022

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Church always presents us with the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. The desert, in Jesus’ time, was considered the abode of demons, so it is an appropriate setting for the story of Jesus’ encounter with the chief of demons, Satan. The word “Satan” means, literally, “adversary”. The devil is the one who seeks to turn us into adversaries, or opponents, of God’s will. Jesus is tempted in three specific ways to reject God’s ways and follow Satan’s. These three specific temptations are directed towards Jesus’ mission, which is to carry out God’s plan of salvation.

Each of us will have our own specific temptations to face, temptations that we have had to struggle with all our lives.  The basic temptation, by the way, for us as it was for Jesus, is to go our own way in life rather than God’s.  (Well, we think it is our way, but, if it is not God’s way, it is Satan’s way, there is no other option, no third way , no neutral areas in which we can safely and comfortably operate.) The difference in the season of Lent is that now we are choosing to face our temptations head –on.  We are determined to deal with our own “demons”, our specific areas of weakness, and face them down, so they no longer dominate or control us. These temptations relate to areas in our lives where Satan has a foothold. If you do not already know the areas in your lives where the devil concentrates his attacks, you are in serious danger. As St Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:11 “Do not be ignorant of Satan’s plans, or you will be outwitted by him”. As the wise old saying has it:” If you do not know you are in a war, you have already lost.” Interestingly, St Paul, in that quotation I just gave you, is referring specifically to unforgiveness. If you are looking for ways in which Satan has already infiltrated your defenses, see if there is someone in your life whom you have not forgiven. It is a very useful place to start.

As I said earlier, the three areas where Jesus is tempted by Satan are specific to God’s plan for his mission on earth. Note how Satan begins two of the three temptations with the words “If you are the Son of God”. Jesus, remember, has , just before being led into the desert, received baptism in the Jordan, during which he had an intensely powerful experience of God sending the Holy Spirit upon him and saying to him in unmistakable terms :”You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 4 :22). You cannot get a clearer affirmation of God’s love and delight in you than that. Incidentally, I hope you and I realize that, when we are baptized, the same thing happens for us. God sends his Holy Spirit upon us and speaks through him into our hearts, the same words: “You are my beloved son or daughter. I take great delight in you”. Somehow, along the way, we lose sight of that incredible affirmation, and we begin to doubt whether it is true or not. Doubt is the devil’s favorite playground. 

We see that, in the story of our first parents fall into the original sin, when Satan says to Eve:” Did God really say: “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” (Genesis 3: 1). Eve correctly responds, “No, he didn’t say that he only said we were not to eat from a specific tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because we will die if we do”But the devil then, having twisted God’s actual words to Eve, proceeds to twist his motivation. “No, you will not die. God doesn’t want you to eat from that particular tree, because if you do, you will become gods yourselves , and he doesn’t want that, he is threatened by that “ You see, the original sin of Adam and Eve is not really disobedience to God’s commands, nor is it the sin of pride so much, as it is to doubt that God can really be trusted, that he really cares for our well-being, that somehow he has something up his sleeve, that he is not really telling us. If we examine the root of all our temptations, we will see that fundamentally, we are being tempted to doubt God’s love and will too be good for us. We are tempted to doubt that God really has our best interests at heart, that he is really on our side.

It is why so many turn away from explicit faith in God, and from practice of that faith. If God really cannot be trusted to lead us in the way of what is the best course for our lives, why should we bother listening to him, or obeying him, or following him? We may as well forge our own path for our lives, because surely we know better than God where our true good lies. The path from the initial doubt in God’s goodness leads step by step to rejection of his lordship over our lives. That is why St Paul says in our second reading that the path to salvation lies in confessing that “Jesus is Lord”. This is not a matter of reciting a simple formula of words, but of actively seeking to make Jesus Lord of all our lives, our minds, hearts, words, actions, life-style. The fundamental twist in Satan’s character is his determination “I will not serve God, not ever, not at all”. He is hell-bent, and I mean that literally, he is hell-bent on dragging us down into hell with him, by leading us to first doubt in God’s desire to save us for life with him in heaven, and then leading us to concrete, active resistance and rejection of his lordship over our lives.

Back to Jesus and his particular temptations. Satan wants Jesus to doubt that he correctly heard from God at his baptism, that he is God’s beloved Son. He tries to persuade Jesus that he must have heard wrong, or that God was lying to him. So Satan tries to drive a wedge between Jesus and his heavenly Father, which incidentally what the devil always tries to do with us. Maybe Jesus isn’t really God’s beloved Son, maybe he should get God to prove it, by letting him turn stones into bread, or by flinging himself from the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, to see if God really will send his angels to catch him as his Word promises.  Maybe the best way to win people to God, which is Jesus’ mission on earth, is by feeding their basic material needs, or doing spectacular feats of magic? Satan’s most undisguised attempt to deflect Jesus away from doing his Father’s will and fulfilling his mission by a life of total sacrifice and immolation on the cross is shown by tempting Jesus to worship Satan, rather than God. In return , Jesus  is promised that he will receive world domination and glory, because , surely, that is what we all want, endless power and fame  That is what took down Adam and Eve, it was so , so easy for Satan to fool them with that one. It is so, so easy for him to do the same for many of us, by focusing on our sensual appetites to please ourselves, to comfort ourselves, because deep down there is an unmet need for love, for God’s love, and we have already been deceived into believing that God doesn’t really love us, so we will have to make up for that by “loving “ ourselves, in other words, comforting ourselves, fulfilling ourselves, using material and sensual  pleasures to fill that gaping hole within us, which is ultimately the hole that only God’s love can fill, as St Augustine said so well, so wisely centuries ago :”You have made us for yourselves, O God, and we will find no rest until we learn to rest in your and your love.”

And so, every first Sunday of Lent we hear the timeless story of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, because Satan’s temptations are timeless, in the sense that they have stood the test of time. They always work, which is why the devil keeps on using the same tactics always, always, always. Number one, locate the areas of weakness within us human beings, and zoom in on what lies beneath them, an aching need to know and experience God’s love for me personally. Second, sow doubt into the human’s mind and heart that God really cares about me personally, that he is really on my side, and wants the best for me. Third, suggest ways in which we humans can test out whether God really loves us or not. Let me ask him for something I really , really want, not perhaps need, but really want – a car, a good job, a lovely house, a wife, a husband, children , financial security – and , if God does not come up with the goods, then I know he is lying when he says he loves me . Fourth, persuade humans that their best interests lie in following their own base inclinations, settling for second best, because we cannot wait around long enough to find out whether God will give us his best or not, and, anyway, we no longer believe God wants to do that for us at all. Fifthly, gradually wean humans away from even wanting to communicate with God on any level, persuade them that, since God is not even listening to us, it doesn’t matter what we decide to do, we are all going to end up dead and buried and forgotten anyway. Sixthly, welcome the human being to Hell for all eternity. 

That is basically the same six=point plan that Satan has been trying on the human race with great success since the very beginning of human history, and continues to do so. However, God has his own plan to thwart and confound Satan and all his works, and that plan has a seventh component, because seven, after all, is the biblical number of perfection. That seventh component is the endless presence and work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in our lives, given us in our baptism, and never withdrawn from us, unless and until we finally and definitively say to God: “No, you will never be Lord of my life”. Hopefully, none of us here have ever come to that point of utter desolation and loss. Of course not, otherwise we would not be here at all, here in this place, or at home watching this, and determined that , this year, we will make this our best Lent ever, and once and for all, put Satan in his place, which is beneath Jesus’ feet. And ours. Let us pray.