Today’s gospel reading should sound familiar. If you were with us back in January, you heard it on the first Sunday after Epiphany where we observe the Baptism of Jesus. Same gospel reading … but today we get the rest of the story. After coming up out of the water and hearing the voice say “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”, Jesus finds himself driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. That’s right – no party, no cake, no nothing … just thrown into the wilderness. The Greek makes it sound like he was hurled like a Frisbee … picked up by the scruff of the neck and hurled into the wilderness. And he spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. Now this doesn't sound like something one who is “beloved” should be going through, does it?
One thing that might help us understand this wilderness time is how the Jewish people understood Satan. Much of our views come from popular culture more than the Bible. I’ve been reading Walter Wink’s book Unmasking the Powers (thanks to Susan Brock) and he goes into where the image of Satan as “ultimate personification of evil” came from. Largely, he claims, it came from later extra-biblical writings like Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Jewish understanding of Satan was more imaging him as a prosecuting attorney type: the one who would accuse us of our egocentric and sinful nature. Satan was a creation of God and a necessary servant of the most high God. Therefore, Jesus’ understanding of Satan was not as the diametrically opposed rival of God, but rather his agent who through temptations, digs at the weaknesses of our egos and strips away our false selves, laying them bare before us and God. This stripping away process is what reveals the truth and causes us to know our finitude and frailty so that we can experience the mercy of God. Now that’s a pretty radical departure from what we've been told through popular culture and even some New Testament writings.
Satan thus may be understood as the one who would test Jesus and attempt to strip away any falsehood immediately after his baptism to prepare him for the ministry and, ultimately, his death and resurrection. And perhaps this is a helpful image for us too. All of our readings reference baptism today and it looks like we will have at least one, if not four, baptisms at Easter Vigil this year. Our own baptism is a preparation for a life where we will be tested and tried – where Satan as “prosecuting attorney” will find ways to dig at our egos and lay bare our sin and our wounds. Everything in us will resist this and it isn't fun. But it is necessary so that we can be driven to our own wilderness and in our weakness discover the mercy and grace of God.