Baptisms are usually causes for big celebrations. Family and friends gather from far-flung places to rejoice and take part in the service, the welcoming of a new person into the family of God.
Almost always there is some kind of post-service celebration – a special reception in the parish hall, often followed by a brunch or luncheon where everyone can ooh and aah over the newly baptized.
Today, the first Sunday in Lent, we see how Jesus celebrated his baptism.
His hair is still dripping with water from the Jordan River. The words of God that boomed out as Jesus rose from the river, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” are still echoing in his ears.
And then Jesus is off.
Not to a reception or brunch in his honor, but propelled by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, where he finds himself alone and hungry, engaged in a difficult struggle about what it really means to be about God’s business.
Just when he is most tired and vulnerable, when he has eaten nothing and seen no one in 40 days, the struggle begins in earnest.
Suddenly Jesus is not alone. The tempter is there with him.
“Wow, 40 days without food – you must be famished,” the devil says. “But hey, you’re the Son of God. You can eat anytime you want. Just command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Jesus refuses. “One does not live by bread alone,” he says, quoting the Book of Deuteronomy.
The devil moves on. He takes Jesus high to the top of the Temple, the holiest spot in Judaism. This time, the devil quotes scripture, trying to beat Jesus at his own game.
“Scripture says God will command angels to protect you so that you won’t even stub your toe,” he says. “Go on, if you’re the Son of God, prove it. Jump.”
Jesus is not swayed. He responds with another quote from scripture. “It is written, “ he says, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The devil is nothing if not persistent. For a third time he tries. He takes Jesus to the top of a tall mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world.
“This can all be yours,” he says. “Just do one thing – worship me.”
This time Jesus gets angry.
“Get away!” he says. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”
We’ve heard this story so many times that it is hard to recognize its importance, to take it seriously. After all, who can really imagine Jesus succumbing to the devil’s temptations?
We’re not very comfortable with the idea that Jesus might be susceptible to the seductions of another way of life.
Years ago, when the movie The Last Temptation of Christ suggested that Jesus, hanging on the cross, imagined another way of life, one with a wife and children, one that did not require he sacrifice his life, furious protests broke out across the country.
How dare anyone suggest that Jesus might have regretted the path he chose, that he might be tempted to use his God-given power to allow him to live a very different life?
And yet, that’s exactly what our gospel reading today does say. That Jesus is human, that the devil’s offers are attractive and alluring. Are, in fact, tempting.
If temptation has no allure for Jesus, as it does for us, then he is not truly human, and this story – and perhaps Jesus’ entire life – has no real meaning.
The nature of real temptation is that it is deceptively attractive. Real temptation beckons us to do something that can be seen as good.
Real temptations call us to do things that are within our power. They are not always black and white choices between good and evil, but are often gray and ambiguous.
After all, why shouldn’t Jesus turn stones into bread? When the people of Israel were in the desert, God provided them with water from a rock and bread from heaven.
Why shouldn’t the Son of God do the same? Wouldn’t it be good not just for him, but for all the hungry people of the world?
Why not leap from the pinnacle of the Temple? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate leap of faith? Wouldn’t it show others how powerful God and Jesus really are, a display of power that might convince others to believe?
And why not compromise just a little and pretend to submit to Satan just once? Isn’t that a small price to pay for political power over the whole world, trickery that could be used for good, that could actually deliver people from oppression and evil?
The most serious temptations are ones that are not obviously bad. We are often tempted to do what on the surface appears to be good.
In the movie Broadcast News, the tempter appears in the person of Tom, a broadcaster who is handsome and charming, but who has few scruples about the ethics of journalism. Tom will do anything to get a story, and to promote himself in the process.
When Aaron, a dedicated and honest reporter, realizes that his friend Jane is attracted to Tom, he is appalled. He tells her that Tom is the devil.
“What do you think the devil is going to look like?” Aaron asks when Jane protests. “Come on, nobody is going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail.
“He will be attractive, he will be nice and helpful, he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation, he will never do an evil thing, he will never deliberately hurt a single living creature.
“He will just bit by little bit lower our standards wherever they are important,” Aaron says. “Just a tiny little bit; just a tiny little bit.”
Just a tiny little bit. That’s where the real danger lies. We know the obvious evils, and even if we occasionally engage in them, we at least know we’re doing something wrong.
It’s the “little bit” that gets us. The compromises we make in our work or family life, convinced that compromising our principles just a little bit is OK if it accomplishes a greater good.
We convince ourselves it’s okay to cut the corners a little bit, to bend the truth a little bit, to keep quiet in the face of a little injustice, to neglect our faith a little.
It happens on a national level, too.
It’s okay if a drone kills a few innocent people if it’s also killing terrorists. It’s okay to ease environmental regulations if it means corporations can make more money. It’s okay to betray our principles to keep our nation safe.
And then suddenly we wake up one morning and we’re not the people or nation we thought we were. Little bit by little bit we have strayed until we don’t even know who we are.
Jesus begins his ministry by going into the wilderness to discover who he is, what it means for him to do God’s work, to struggle with what kind of messiah he is meant to be.
He is offered the chance to be a superstar, but he chooses to be a servant. The superstar package is alluring and seductive – it would allow him to do many of the things one would think a messiah should do.
But by listening to the Holy Spirit that filled him at his baptism, by being attentive to God’s word in scripture, Jesus is able to turn away from the temptation to be a superstar messiah.
He is able to discover who God created him to be, what the real purpose of his life is.
If even Jesus struggled with temptations, then we can be assured we are not exempt from the allures of modern-day devils with all their attractive packaging and seduction come-ons.
We, like Jesus, must be willing to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness where we can wrestle with those temptations and discover who God has created us to be, what the real purposes of our lives are.
Lent is the season the Church has traditionally set aside for us to do just that. It is a time to examine our lives, to listen to which voices are calling us, to wrestle with how we should respond, to pay attention to those “little bits” of sin.
The voice of God and the voice of the tempter are both there for us this Lent, as they were for Jesus. Lent is our time with Jesus in the wilderness – our time to pay attention and listen.