The Real Deal – Jesus and the struggle with temptation

14 February 2013

I was in my mid 20s when I read that one of my heroes had not been all that I had previously imagined. Even allowing for some FBI spin, though a phrase not in use at the time it was still a well-used method to discredit a person who threatened the status quo, Martin Luther King was still a man whose relationships were said to be at least a little dubious.

Did that diminish his dazzling oratorical skills, his extraordinary capacity for leadership and underpinning it all his remarkable ability to interpret scripture in the context of 1960’s America? I think not. But did it make everything in his life that much edgier? Surely.

And what of others?

Do I find some of Elgar’s works deeply moving because many of those particular pieces came out of depressive bouts? For me those pieces resonate more than those that were not written during or after such times.

And Churchill was he the leader that he was because of what he termed ‘the black dog’?

There is something about wrestling with dilemma and doubt, tossing and turning throughout the long, dark night. To misquote Tennyson ‘more things are wrought by insomniacs than this world this dreams of.’

We have not sufficiently pondered the statement ‘he was tempted in all points as we are’ to appreciate what a staggering claim that is. Instead we have almost done Jesus a disservice by rushing into ‘yet without sin;’ a disservice because all too often we have overlooked the struggle and as a consequence undervalued the cost and the achievement.

A world in economic turmoil, a Church in crisis and individuals simply trying to make sense of life could do worse than look afresh at the temptations episode and ask if there is a message for today – I believe there is.

If I were to reflect on those whom I have personally known over the course of almost thirty years of ministry the certain have tended to give me most concern; whereas those who are most likely to have made a positive impression upon me are the ones who experienced the darkness, who struggled with dilemma and were often filled with doubt. For example in the presence of Holocaust survivors I have sensed that time has been spanned and the darkest moments in human history are still present but that somehow, on occasions, to coin a phrase, the darkness has never overcome the light.

Martin Luther King frequently used the metaphor of stars at night. Coming out only at night they shine most brightly on the darkest of nights he would say.

For those who have experienced the darkness, light, no matter how small the flicker can be enough to guide our spirits safely home.

And for those who are certain that such darkness could never envelop them, or worse still for those who seem to believe that Christian faith is somehow an insurance against such an experience, think again.

The temptations incident concludes ‘When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.’

This provides a second thought.

We never quite know what is round the corner.

As Mark Twain said ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.’

Or as someone else commented ‘A good forecaster is not smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organised’ (Anon).

We don’t have to wait too long to read of an ‘opportune time’. Luke records that a lawyer ‘stood up to test Jesus’. The very same verb as mntioned above.

For some it is as if Jesus in the wilderness meant that the testing, the trials, the temptations were over and done with, done and dusted, finito. They were not. There were more to come even if they are only hinted at in the Gospel accounts.

Whether Jesus knew what was round the corner may have exercised the minds of many; I err on the side of not knowing for sure. Having a good idea of what may happen is different to knowing for certain. And any element of uncertainty can give rise to at least concern if not anxiety. Sweating blood in Gethsemane, as did the fearful in the trenches almost a century ago, tells us something of the Jesus tested to the limit.

Scorcese’s adaptation of the Last Temptation may be fiction but it provides fascinating insight. In it Jesus makes the crosses for the powers that destroy the would-be liberators, he even wrestles with the possibility of settling down and enjoying life with Mary Magdalene. This is not the Jesus many would want to consider, but it is a Jesus to whom I can relate and maybe even believe in.

Many want a superhuman Jesus, the perfect lover who simply overlooks all our misdemeanours, the storyteller whose message thrills us without disturbing us, the magician who cures all our ills.

The bubblegum Jesus is the Jesus of complacent, comfortable Western culture. The cool Jesus, is unfortunately an ice cool Jesus.

This isn’t the Jesus who will make the Church believable again.

Whereas the Jesus with Judean dust between his toes, the one who tasted the bitter herbs of Passover and whose blood was red and warm is the Jesus who is at one with our human dilemmas and doubts,
who can work through the struggle and come out the other side,
who will not scold us for trying our best but who will nevertheless frown upon our indifference.

This is a Jesus who asks the questions we dare not consider,
who draws attention to the world’s inequalities,
who is refreshed by a woman at the well, a woman of another faith perspective at that.

This is a Jesus who is real, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, DNA of our DNA,
who died our death that we might know what it is to live.

Only the Jesus who faces life full on is the Jesus who can save us; and the Jesus close to breaking point at that.

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