Today’s Gospel is a highly significant one – and, to be honest, one I would much rather preach about when there are no children in the congregation. Because today’s Gospel has to do with the truth of the Incarnation in a way that is as important as the celebrations of Christmas – but in a way that is geared more to what it means to be an adult follower of Jesus.
Each time the priest presides at the Eucharist, he adds a drop of water to the wine in the chalice during the preparation of the gifts, and says a prayer which often slips past unnoticed: By the mystery of the water and wine, may we come to share in the divine life of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our human life.
We tend, I think, to let this prayer slip past because we don’t really believe it. We have big problems with the humanity of Jesus: most of the time at least we are unconscious heretics (I can never remember which sort of heretic I am…) who don’t fully believe in the fullness of Jesus humanity. “True God and true man”, said the Council of Chalcedon on 451, and today’s Gospel shows us where that bites in the life of Jesus.
Jesus in the wilderness is coming to an awareness of just what his life is going to be – and just what it is going to cost. Jesus’ life is a living-out of the unconditional love of God – Jesus shows us God’s love in human form (the only way we can really get to grips with it). In human form – not in pretend human form: Jesus is working with what we work with, and is subject to the same limitations that we are subject to – that is what the awesome mystery of the Incarnation is all about – (rather than the Christmas tinsel, and what one writer memorably calls “the sweet smell of shepherds”…!) If you will pardon a line which might sound glib: in the wilderness Jesus comes to two realisations – the truth of how he is going to live his life, and the recognition that “they’re not going to like this.”
Jesus shares the contingency of our lives. We are not all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving: we have to live our lives in situations of not knowing what is going to happen next, how things are going to turn out; we have to life our lives in settings of weakness, when we simply cannot do what we know needs to be done – the resources- of money, of time, of energy – are simply not there for us; we have to live our lives in settings where we cannot find enough love and unselfishness in our hearts to be who we want to be as well as do what we want to do. And Jesus has taken on all this – Jesus has taken on our limits, our contingency, our human nature.
Jesus has taken on our living, and shows us what is possible. If we don’t believe the first, we can’t believe the second. If we don’t believe that Jesus is truly one of us – “like us in all things but sin” as the preface to EP 4 says – then he is no example to us – he is just pretending. “It was OK for him,” we might find ourselves saying, “he was God, he knew what was happening next, he had the power.” But if you will pardon another apparent irreverence, that reduces Jesus to some sort of figure out of Star Trek, able in the last resort to punch his wrist communicator and say the equivalent of “Beam me up, Scotty.”
And, of course, that is precisely what Jesus does not do. The Second Person of the Trinity has put off power and knowledge and everything that cannot be honestly contained within our human nature – all that cannot be part of a truly human life. Jesus was among us as one like us in all things but sin – and felt the limitations as we feel the limitations. And so was tempted.
Power – not to live with limits: power to provide for all material needs (turn these stones into bread); power to solve all the political and social problems (I will give you all the kingdoms of the world); power to dazzle and impress and become irresistible (Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple).
Jesus chooses to continue to share our life – to continue truly to be Emmanuel, God with us. So Jesus shows us what we can do, faced with the same temptations of power and compulsion. And Jesus doesn’t simply show us – he makes it more possible for us. Because there is one power which Jesus does not set down – the power of self-giving love. In choosing not to compel, not to override our freedom, Jesus enables us freely to respond to that love, to be empowered by it, to be enabled in our turn to love and empower others without over-riding their freedom – and so to build the kingdom.