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  • Writer's pictureHelen Bent

The Temptations: 18-02-24

Mark 1:9-15

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!"


I began reading the Bible seriously when I was about 12 and had my first set of Bible notes, so I’ve been reading it for over 50 years. I never fail to be amazed at how passages of scripture that I have read over and over again strike me in new ways.


I was fascinated by Mark’s account of the temptations, partly because it’s so brief.  

Mark deals with the whole episode in one sentence!

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness,  

and he was in the wilderness forty days, 

being tempted by Satan. 


and then adds

He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.


Interesting! Mark only mentions Satan and the temptations in passing and doesn’t give any detail.


I’ve got a lovely book, given as a present when I left theological college. Gives the texts of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) side by side.


If we do a quick comparison, each of the three synoptic Gospel writers tell us something different. John doesn’t mention it at all. Matthew tells us that Jesus had already been there 40 days and 40 nights before Satan turned up, suggesting this was only a brief encounter right at the end.


Luke as usual goes into more detail and it appears that the devil was present throughout, needling Jesus, although again Luke puts the actual recorded temptations right at the end of the 40 days and nights.


We usually see the temptations as the key subject for the first Sunday in Lent, but what if we are missing the point in some way?


And if this is not just about the temptations, what is it about?


Jesus had recently been baptized by John in the river Jordan, uniting him in some way with the sinful humanity he has come to save.


Although it’s Jesus being baptized, all three persons of the trinity are involved.

The Holy Spirit has descended on Jesus like a dove, and God the Father has spoken

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

What powerful words of reassurance and affirmation!


And then it’s not straight into ministry as you might expect, it’s out into the desert.


The Holy Spirit has a key role here.


Let’s get another comparison.

The Spirit sent (Some versions translate it immediately drove) Jesus out 

Drove is a pretty strong word here.


Jesus was led by the Spirit - Matthew


According to Luke, Jesus, was already full of the Holy Spirit, from his baptism when he returned from the Jordan and then he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.


This is intentional and purposeful on God’s part.

Jesus is about to begin his great world changing ministry. So much to do, so little time to do it. But before beginning, or rather as a way of beginning Jesus goes off alone into the wilderness, ‘the empty lands’ and spends 40 days just him and the Father.


Jesus has already been preparing for his ministry for 30 years, but this is preparation on a different level. It seems to me that this is like a 40-day retreat for Jesus in the desert, accompanied by prayer and fasting. A place far away from the normal day to day distractions.


This is a strategic withdrawal from the world but not an abandonment of the world.

Jesus is preparing for ministry to the world.


So what’s the desert like?

The Israeli desert is not sweeping sand dunes like the Sahara, although there are patches of sand. It’s dry, dusty, rocky, mountainous in places, empty, bleak, harsh, inhospitable. The desert is a tough and unsentimental teacher, a place where you could easily die.


The God of the Bible is the God of the desert.

The very identity of God’s people had been forged in the desert. They spent 40 years in the wilderness rather than 40 days.


Many key people in the Bible had spent time in the desert as preparation for what they were going to do.

David spent years in the wilderness tending sheep and writing psalms before he became king.


A place of simplicity.

There’s no room for luxuries and non-essentials in the desert.


A place of waiting

Nothing happens fast in the desert. Jesus has so much to do and so little time. He might have been eager to get on with ministry but waiting on God comes first. Time intentionally spent in prayer.


A place of silence

Silence can be really uncomfortable at first, but then it starts to grow on you.

There’s space to listen to God rather than bombard him with our agenda, to ponder and mull things over at some length.


A place of discernment

The clamour of demands would grow as Jesus began his ministry, so he needed to get really clear what the Father wanted of him. He wanted to stay on message and not get side tracked by the peripheral.


To some extent, the temptations then come as a culmination of the simplicity, waiting, being silent and discerning. This is the final Laying aside


In the first temptation, Jesus is hungry and the devil offers bread. This is the crucial area of physical needs, and wants, in other words our Selfishness and basic instinct to survive.


In the second temptation, Jesus has to lay aside status and power, possessions and power – a few months into ministry Jesus would suddenly shoot to fame and celebrity status, and he needed to be able to handle it without getting sidetracked.


In the final temptation, the devil offers Jesus the whole world. Jesus already has all authority but he needs to be able to deal with pride.


During his time in the desert, Jesus is facing up to his humanness and making sure that it is not going to get in the way of God’s plan.


At the end of it all, we’ve got this rather St Francis like picture of Jesus with the wild and animals and then God blesses with angels who come and minister to him.


So far so good, but so what? What about Lent for us?


There’s more to Lent than giving up wine or chocolate, helpful disciplines though those things might well be. And I’m speaking to myself here as much as you.


Make time for God

Living busy lives, the best that many of us can manage are brief God slots. A quick few minutes perhaps between shower and breakfast, a thought and prayer while driving the car, or a hurried reading and prayer before sleep.


Keep it simple

But let’s go for a bit of quality time. Discover your own little wilderness – maybe out walking, maybe a favourite chair in a quiet spot in the house.


Wait and listen

I can only speak for myself. With retirement and a new phase of life on the horizon, I am feeling quite challenged by Lent this year. So much to do, so little time to do it in.


Instead of batting round getting anxious about not having finished work jobs and not having found a suitable house, maybe I need to set aside to realign myself with God once more


And then it may be easier to discern God’s plan for the next phase of life.


For me it’s about a new phase of ministry in retirement.

What is it for you?



    Lord Jesus,

    where is my wilderness?

    Holy Spirit, lead me there.

    Help me to wait

    and listen.

    Loving Father,

    meet with me

    and show me your way.


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