The Wilderness and the Borderlands: 1st Week of Lent

Each one of the synoptic Gospels chronicles the story of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  Following his baptism by John, Jesus steals away to the wilderness, not for meaningless solitude but to prepare himself for the task set before him. Jesus will bring in the Kingdom or reign of God, but how? Toward the end of his fast Jesus is tempted by Satan, not by a guy in a red suit holding a pitchfork but he is tempted the same way Satan comes to us–subtle, hidden, camouflaged in our deepest desires, disguised as a good idea. It wasn’t about being tempted on the last day of his fast but more about derailing Jesus’ ministry to be about bread, circuses and empire–the dark trilogy of satanic temptations.

At the end of his fast Jesus was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread. Was this merely a temptation to satisfy Jesus’ hunger? I think much more is at work here. Jesus is thinking about his ministry, how would he go about it and how would he get more people to follow him. Ah, here’s a thought:  base ministry on meeting people’s material needs. It makes sense because supplying people with bread has long been a common path to power. Give people want they want and they’ll love you.  When Jesus detects the darkness to Satan’s good idea he replies with, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Bread is good, but the idea that all man needs for a meaningful existence is enough bread is not good. We are prone to sell our souls for a morsel of bread and become easily manipulated by the powers that be. Later Jesus will supply bread for people but on his own terms. Through the miracle of feeding the multitude Jesus multiplied fish and bread. But what happened? The people wanted to make Jesus a king by force and he declined. Why? Jesus had already addressed that temptation in the wilderness–he would not be made king for the wrong reason. Jesus resisted the dark temptation to build his kingdom around material prosperity.temptation-of-christ

In the second temptation, Jesus thinks about another way to establish his kingdom or new society. This time he imagines himself on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. When a large crowd was gathered–perhaps during one of the festivals–he could leap from the temple in the sight of all and then be caught mid-fall by angels in an overawing display of divinity. After all, the Scriptures promised an angelic protection from the righteous. But he responds, “again it is written, do not put the Lord your God to the test”. Jesus saw the temptation of the pinnacle as tantamount to making God prove himself. Why wouldn’t Jesus do this? Wouldn’t this convince every atheist, agnostic and skeptic of his divinity or more importantly his existence? Belief in Christ would require a leap of faith and not empirical evidence. The saving faith would be found on one essential sign–the resurrection.

The third temptation would be the most seductive:  the temptation of empire itself. Jesus was shown “the kingdom of world and their splendor” and an offer was made: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me”. As Jesus thought about how to establish his kingdom he would not do it in the way of the pharaohs and Ceasers. And this was the temptation; to become a king in the way kingdoms were established in the past. The temptation that presented itself to Jesus was to become a righteous king through the anticipated and accepted means of violence. If Jesus had grabbed the ring of power that Satan offered it would have corrupted the Christ. So was Jesus refusing to be a savior, a liberator, a king? No. Jesus would become a king and liberate Israel; Jesus would establish the king of God and conquer the world, but it would be by the cross and not by the sword.

This Lenten reflection on the temptation of Christ is an indictment on world empires that have been wooed by the seductions of bread, circuses and world domination. Jesus won’t establish his kingdom by appealing to the material needs of the populace in order to gain their approval just for a seat at the table. Jesus won’t use miraculous signs to manipulate the people into following. Neither would he use the violence of pharaoh to establish peace in the world, rather his kingdom would be established on an axis of love. Jesus refuses what entices America and America refuses what pleases Jesus–peace.

pierrePierre Keys is a 3rd year seminarian at Mccormick. He is also a preacher and Director of Christian Education Rock of Ages Baptist in Maywood, IL and social justice pastor at CityPoint Community Church in the South Loop. Pierre is a member of We Charge Genocide, a grassroots group that tackles police brutality in Chicago. His passion for social justice and preaching shapes both his theological and spiritual formation.