“If you are the Son of God…” says Satan to Jesus in the wilderness. He says it twice, tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread and throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, but that little word “if” is there in the second temptation too, when Satan promises him all the kingdoms of the world “if” Jesus will worship him.
“If”: it’s such a small word, but it opens up alternative universes, different futures. “If” says that things could be different from the way they are – for better or worse. It opens the doors to new possibilities. If we turn right instead of carrying straight on we might find ourselves in a place we never expected to be. If we decide to stay at a party instead of going home early, we might meet someone who changes our lives. If we say yes to that job opportunity, instead of no, our lives might change completely. That little word “if” implies that we’ve got a choice to make, that things could turn out differently from the way we thought they would. Nothing is written in stone as long as there’s an “if” around.
Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness is all about confronting the “ifs” in his future. If I do this, believe this, act in this way, then what? He has to make choices between alternative visions of how his ministry might be, which will lead him in very different directions. Satan’s questions force him to weigh up those options, to decide what it might mean for him, and for the world, if he truly is the Son of God.
He’d spent thirty years growing up in Nazareth, playing among the wood shavings in Joseph’s workshop, learning the skills of a carpenter. He’d learned the customs and attitudes of the people around him, their way of life, their assumptions. Most people then, and many now, would have expected that their lives would be much the same as the lives of those who’d gone before them. They didn’t expect to have many choices. Life was precarious if you were an ordinary first century Jewish person man, living in an occupied country; it was enough just to get by, to avoid trouble, to scrape a living. There were no careers advisers telling you that you could “be anything you wanted to be”. A carpenter’s son would become a carpenter. A fisherman’s son would become a fisherman. If you were lucky, you’d get married, have children and begin the whole cycle all over again.
But something was niggling at Jesus, the sense that things could be different, that he was different, called to follow a different path. At the age of twelve, his anxious parent, realising they’ve lost him on the return journey from Jerusalem, find him in the Temple, debating with the religious leaders. “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” he asks. He’s realised that, however much he loves and respects Joseph and Mary, there’s a world opening up before him which his parents could never have imagined. His future isn’t going to be about making furniture in Nazareth.
That’s confirmed dramatically when John baptises him, just before this story we’ve heard today, and a voice from heaven tells him “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. But what does this mean? That’s what the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to find out. “If you are the Son of God…” Satan says to him, as he offers him some versions of the future that probably look quite appealing. Turning stones into bread – what’s wrong with that? Being kept safe from disaster by God - that sounds fine too! Surely these are the kind of superpowers that any self-respecting God would give to his son. But Satan gives himself away in the second of his temptations. His version of the Jesus’ future depends on Jesus worshipping him. The kingdoms of the world can be his, “if” he worships him.
The future is up for grabs as Jesus struggles with temptation in the wilderness. That what all the “ifs” in it suggest. His ministry could go in any number of directions. He could create a kingdom like all the other kingdoms of his time, a kingdom where might is right and the weak are left to fend for themselves, where leaders are in it for their own power and glory. That would be the easy way, the way of all the other kingdoms he saw around him. But Jesus, in that wild place, has wild thoughts, “ifs” of his own to counter Satan’s.
What if the poor and the marginalised were given pride of place? What if they came first in the queue instead of last? What if children’s voices were listened to as carefully as adults? What if women were treated with respect, as equals, not as property? What if success wasn’t judged by how much money people had, or how famous they were, but by how much they loved others, how easily they spotted God’s likeness in them, how little they needed, and how thankful they were?
“What if” life was like that? Jesus thought to himself as he sat in the desert. It would probably be painful and costly and frightening, but wouldn’t it be wonderful too? Could he bear that pain? Could he choose this future over the one that Satan offered him?
We who say we follow Jesus are often tempted, as he was, to take the easy route too, to follow the train tracks of the world, trundling along looking for all the usual trappings of power and glory, as if we had no choice. But, praise God, there have been people in every generation ready to as those “what if” questions afresh, uncovering once again the vision of Jesus’ kingdom. St Francis wondered “what if I gave up all the riches I have and lived out Jesus’ message alongside the poorest of the poor? Campaigners for the abolition of slavery like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce – asked “what if” people of every colour believed that they were sisters and brothers? In this week when we have celebrated International Women’s Day, we might ask “what if” women throughout the world could be who they are called to be, offer their talents in every field of life, without having to face discrimination, trolling and outright abuse? On a personal level we might ask “what if I could change and grow, think differently about myself, live more simply, more lovingly? What sort of future might that open up for me?
Out in the wilderness, Jesus asks wild questions just like these, as he struggles to choose between alternative futures, alternative visions of who he could be and what he could do. It all hangs in the balance as Satan tries to convince him to choose the future he offers, but in the end Satan shoots himself in the foot, because he doesn’t seem to realise that Jesus’s relationship with his Father is so close that it’s completely obvious to him that Satan’s suggestions bear no trace of the family likeness, no hint of God’s voice. He suggests ways forward that are all about self-enrichment, self-aggrandisement, self-protection. “If you are the Son of God… choose these”, he says to Jesus. But the God whom Jesus has grown up listening to would never call him in this direction, and Jesus knows that too well to be taken in.
My daughter – an inveterate traveller - once told me that she had been about to get on a night bus in some dangerous corner of Central America when she suddenly heard my voice in her head telling her it wasn’t a good idea, so she didn’t. Phew! We know the voices of those we are close to, the way they think, the things they are likely to do. Their voices echo in us, and if we respect them we pay attention to them. Jesus knew his Father’s voice, his Father’s priorities. His ability to resist Satan is rooted in his relationship with his Father.
If we are going to be able to choose life-giving futures for ourselves and for our world, it will be because we have nurtured our relationship with God, our life-giver too. In this season of Lent, we’re also invited out into the desert, into the place where there is space - and provocation - to think, to ask “what if?”, to dare to imagine that the future can be different from the past, different from the way others tell us it will be, different from the way we have convinced ourselves it will be. But to do that safely and wisely, we need to have learned to recognise God’s voice amidst all the clamour of the world, to have nurtured that relationship with him, through prayer, through Bible reading, through service of others, through coming together for worship. It’s not something that happens in an instant. It takes time – the theme of our Lent studies this year. It takes steady commitment day by day if we want to “know him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly” as the prayer of St Richard, which the choir will sing later, puts it.
Jesus was given a choice. If he was the Son of God, what would that Sonship look like? We are given a similar decision to make. If we are children of God, as God says we are, what does that mean for us, how will people know, what difference will it make, how will it shape us and the world we are part of?