S. Matth. 4. 1 THEN was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an-hungered. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down; for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan; for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
One of the most fascinating literary figures of the twentieth century is Charles Williams, one of the Inklings, a friend of JRR Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and others in that circle. He has followers in very conservative Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic circles, and yet, an initiate of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a descendant organization of the Order of the Golden Dawn, also has followers in esoteric and magical circles, and one of his novels, The Greater Trumps, considers the Tarot. He has some interesting comments on today's gospel, which I commend to your attention.
The earliest Christians saw martyrdom as the highest form of Christian discipleship -- indeed, they had to guard against the excessive devotion to it that blurred the line between a courageous stand for the gospel and reckless self-endangerment/suicide. As the Christian faith became more tolerated and then elevated to the state religion, asceticism replaced it, and drove men and women into the desert to pray and fight with demons, using Christ's forty-day stay in the desert as a model. Lent is also modelled after this forty-day stint in the desert (among other forty-day/year periods in scripture), and we, like the desert mothers and fathers, go into a desert (figurative for us) to fight our demons and pray.
Like Jesus, we will soon see that the temptations are not necessarily those to gross immorality -- rather, the most dangerous (and common) temptations are those to put good things to the wrong use. We hear a lot about social justice, and, indeed, we are called as Christians to be very outspoken about it and work toward it. However, if we get to the point where the gospel becomes a means to the end of earthly well-being, rather than the struggle for social justice being a means to the end of following Christ, we will go astray -- the Religious Right has had many embarrassing moments as it has been co-opted by the Republican Party, and the Religious Left will endure many more as it is co-opted by the Democrats. As Christians, we are first and foremost citizens of the heavenly realm, and secondly members of the church, and finally, citizens of our nation-states -- when we reverse the order, we create idols. Without being conscious of it, we will have worshipped the devil to gain control of earthly political power -- to implement godly ideas, for sure, but without recognizing the ways in which that power corrupts us.
Note that I'm NOT saying that we should abandon our efforts to achieve social justice -- rather, we must remain ever-vigilant that they are done for the right reason -- service and obedience to God -- and not as an end in themselves -- the same can be said about prayer or any other religious exercises.
Fr. Chris Tessone, as always, has some interesting comments about this aspect of today's gospel -- he quotes Luther about the ways in which fasting can become a good work rather than a means toward the end of drawing closer to God. I commend his comments to you as well -- his test about whether fasting is authentic or not -- if we do it "because it is part of the Kingdom's plan, enabled by God's grace and imprinted on our will by Christian discipleship" -- is the test we should apply to ALL of our spiritual life.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect for the First Sunday of Lent, 1979 BCP)