The Intolerable Compliment

It is a strange fact of the Christian life that one of the surest marks of God’s favor is trouble. In the scene just preceding Luke’s account of the temptation of Christ we have seen one of the most overt revelations of Jesus’ true identity. The heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends on Jesus “in bodily form like a dove” and the very voice of the Father declares “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” There’s just not a lot of ambiguity here.

And yet, in Luke’s account, we find the very first token of the Father’s pleasure with the Son is this: he was immediately led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil. For many people this is as puzzling as Christ’s baptism, and for the same reason. We know the baptism and temptation couldn’t have been to purify him, for he was already pure. We know they weren’t punishment like Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, for upon him rests the Father’s good pleasure. So what’s the point?

The clue is Jesus’ own words to John the Baptist. “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt 3:15). To fulfill. To come to the point of things. To sing full-throated a tune of which we have heard only dim snatches. To bring to fruition. To live out completely what has hitherto been lived out only partly. To be, in the end, fully human. This is what the Son of Man has come to do.

That is why we read in Deuteronomy as well. The confession of Israel at sacrifice is the confession, ultimately, of the whole of the human race: “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We have all spent our lives aimlessly meandering in the desert, seeking that which would fulfill and coming up empty. Yet even so, God has been secretly bringing to fruition our longings. He has given signs of hope, which are children and the fruit of the earth. He has been calling us toward something, commanding us to hope, hinting to us of some greater fruition, some greater Seed and Harvest, some unthinkable consummation. And so we remember where we came from, where God has brought us, and what we hope for, however dimly. And to the wandering Arameans Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob he has granted that one of their sons would be not merely a Son of Man, but Son of God as well.

It is that hope which Christ fulfills. To do it, he enters our humanity, not as a philosopher-king, skimming along the surface of the human condition with syllogisms and wise policies of state, but as the lowest of the low. Dirt poor, the subject of gossip, conspiracy, and betrayal, destined to a life in the desert of rejection, pain and finally death, Jesus will plumb the depths of the human lot with no place to lay his head.

The devil, who is much happier with policy wonks and Big Concepts can’t see the point of this any better than we can. “If you are the Son of God…” says the Sinmeister, “you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be hungry, you wouldn’t be suffering, you wouldn’t be weak, you wouldn’t be obscure.” Satan’s argument (which we so easily believe) is a kind of “name-it-and-claim-it” prosperity gospel text ripped bleeding from its context in Psalm 91. But Jesus is not hoodwinked. He knows why he is there. He is there, not as punishment, but to do the will of the Father who is well-pleased with him. He is there to come alongside Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the rest of us wandering Arameans. He is there to guide our wanderings not to a plain full of manna like Israel in the wilderness, nor up a high mountain where we can sate ourselves on the blood and gold of a thousand kingdoms, nor to the parapet of the Temple where we can make an empty grab for our 15 minutes of fame, but to the death of our false selves and the gift of a fully human heart, like his. He is here to pay us what C.S. Lewis calls the “intolerable compliment” of really loving us, of joining us in our desert, and of sanctifying that desert that we might suffer like him and so become what St. Irenaeus called, “the glory of God, a human being fully alive.”

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