Lent is characterized as a time of self-reflection, a chance to go deeper inwardly, ask hard questions of ourselves, and appreciate in a new way what the cross means for each of us. All this is true. Jesus’s temptation in the desert was deeply personal and confronting that temptation required a wholehearted trust and love of God. Yet the cross, and consequently Lent, is not solely about our individual spiritual conversion. Jesus dies for the whole world out of love for humanity and obedience to God, not just individuals. Especially as a community of witnesses, we can see Lent as a way to ask questions of the faith we practice together.
The temptation story provides a framework for one way of this kind of introspection. In Luke 4:5-8, the devil comes to Jesus a second time:
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Here, Jesus is blatantly tempted to worship the devil, though as we have noted previously, all three temptations are about worship. In this second temptation, the payoff is power and dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. But why is it the devil wants worship? The context here is crucial: the Roman emperor, Caesar, proclaimed himself a god, and a whole cult of emperor worship was common during Jesus’s—and almost more importantly, Luke’s—day, something the Jews rightly despised because they knew only YHWH was God. Therefore, to give allegiance to Caesar also meant idolatry to the one true God. It was impossible to serve Rome and YHWH. The association of worship with imperial authority was quite strong. On the flip side, to declare that worship belonged only to YHWH was to declare the kingdoms—and their rulers—defeated and subservient to God. When Jesus responds this way to the devil, he is not simply spurning an evil idea, but making a declarative and victorious statement: kingdoms of the world take notice, your days of evil are numbered.
But God’s victory looks like Jesus in the wilderness—painful, meek, and vulnerable. Like turning the stones into bread, the “temptation behind the temptation,” so to speak, is a shortcut, a way of bypassing the pain and suffering of the cross. Equally important to what God will do in the world is how God will do it. How Jesus acts is how God acts.
For us, the Western church, a local body of witnesses, this may be the temptation we face most strongly as a body. It is most painfully clear, especially during election years, that we often want to achieve influence and dominion over the kingdoms of the world. We see the name of Jesus used to coerce, to cajole, and to slyly win over voters. On a more subtle level, we give our allegiance to powers and authorities other than God, sometimes directly—as in a pledge of allegiance—and sometimes indirectly, through what we spend our money on. How might our church be more faithful in pledging our sole worship to God?
There is no single answer to the complexities of life’s many situations and demands, and we are called to discern faithfully what it means to be loyal and worship only God. Yet a helpful thought, from a 2nd Century Christian writing call The 2nd Epistle to Diagnetus may remind us that our true home, and our true worship, do not belong to this world:
Christians live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.
The Church has had a long and sad history of collusion with power and dominion over people and nations, from Nazi Germany to slavery to colonialism and back even further to the Inquisition and the Crusades. We must mourn this tragic tendency to succumb to the second temptation of Jesus. As we continue to sit in the darkness of Lent, in our individual and corporate sin, let us confess our past and present yearnings to give in, and pray to be equipped to name our accuser and see his defeat on the cross.