1 March 2009 – St Davids Day & First Sunday in Lent
Readings: Genesis 9: 8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-end Mark 1:9-15
When I was about 17 years old my friends and I thought it would be fun to spend a week of our summer holidays walking the South Downs Way in Sussex. I don’t remember how we came to the conclusion that this might be fun but we did. Anyway we caught the coach to Eastbourne, which is where we were going to start. Being 17 we had no thought of booking campsites or accommodation – we were just going to arrive, set off and camp wherever took our fancy. The South Downs Way was a wilderness for us to conquer. So we arrived in Eastbourne, retrieved our rucksacks from the coach and strode off confidently to the start of our journey into the wilderness. At the end of the promenade we found a footpath sign saying “South Downs Way”. There was one problem – the sign seemed to be pointing up a hill which, to us Essex boys, looked like the north slope of the Eiger. It was a hot afternoon, our rucksacks were heavy and it seemed an impossible task – surely there had to be an easier way? And then we saw to our delight another footpath pointing to our left that looked much easier. Admittedly it not signposted for the South Downs Way but, with our immense local knowledge, we decided that it would be much more sensible to conquer this section of the walk by walking along the foot of the cliffs at beach level rather than going over the top. And so we took the easier looking footpath and felt very smug that we had avoided a tough climb. [PAUSE] Until, that is, we got to beach level and saw that the tide was in and that there was no beach to walk on – there was just the sea and the foot of the cliffs. So of course we not only had to retrace our steps to our original starting point but we still had the big hill to climb. We had been in our wilderness for precisely no time at all before succumbing to the very first temptation to take the easy option.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent and Lent is a time in which we journey together as a church towards Easter – it is a time of preparation in which we ready ourselves for the pain of Jesus’ death on Good Friday whilst also knowing of the joy of the resurrection to come on Easter Sunday. But, of course, the pain and the joy of Easter lies at the end of our Lenten journey – today we are just setting out on our pilgrimage and before we can go much further we have to learn how to deal with temptation. If you have given up something for Lent – whether it is chocolate or alcohol or meat – or if you have decided to pray more or to read an improving book or to take a Lent course you will doubtless be tempted to give up at some point. Similarly, the more you seek to progress in the Christian life the more you will be beset by the temptation to take the easier route of conformity with the world. So let’s look briefly at two very different stories of temptation from the bible:
The first is the story from Genesis of Adam and Eve (or perhaps I should say Eve and then Adam) being tempted by the serpent. Adam and Eve lived in an innocent paradise – they lived in harmony with each other, with nature and with God. The only command God gave them was “You are free to eat from any tree in the Garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…” (Gen 2:16-17). I have often wondered why God gave this command as it seems a little unfair to deliberately prevent Adam and Eve from gaining knowledge. Then I thought about my own children – to a large extent they live in paradise – their every physical and emotional need is met and I hope that they want for nothing important. But I would deny them something – I would not let have unrestricted access to the internet – nearly all human knowledge may be available online but so is every form of human evil and, quite simply, they are not ready for that. As a loving father I want to do all I can to protect them from that sort of knowledge for as long as possible. I don’t know if that was God’s motive but it helped me to understand something of what may have been going on.
But, of course, as soon as something is banned it becomes infinitely more attractive and the way is prepared for temptation. The really interesting thing to note is the clever and subtle way in which Eve and Adam were tempted to disobey God. The serpent didn’t just say – “Oh go on, eat it!” but rather, temptation starts with a subtle, insinuating question: “Did God really say…” and we know that shortly after this doubt was planted that disobedience swiftly followed and human kind has been disobeying God ever since with the results that we see all around us. I don’t know what your personal weaknesses are but I suspect that every time you have given into temptation the process has started with a subtle questioning of your resolve – Does God really mind if I do this? Surely one cigarette / chocolate / drink won’t hurt? And on goes the cycle.
But I have good news for you – disobedience to God and giving into temptation is not the only option open to us. And that is because of our second story – that of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. In Mark’s gospel Jesus was ‘sent out’ by the Spirit into the wilderness straight after he was baptised by John and before he began his public ministry. Again we are not told God’s motivations in putting Jesus to the test in this way but we can only assume that it was a rite of passage through which Jesus could only pass by total obedience to God.
Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting in the desert and, at the end, we are told that “…he was hungy”. What understatement! Can you imagine? He must have been famished, he must have been emaciated, he must have felt close to death. It was at this point, when Jesus was physically at his weakest, that the devil arrived to tempt him and the first temptation was, quite simply, to break his fast and to satisfy his hunger by using his divine power. However, as with Adam and Eve, the temptation is not a direct or obvious challenge but rather, it is a subtle insertion of doubt – “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread”. By putting the question in that way the devil is inviting Jesus not only to feed himself but also to prove the Sonship of which he was assured at his baptism only 40 days earlier. Of course we know from the Wedding at Cana in John’s Gospel when he turned water into wine that Jesus would be perfectly capable of turning stones into bread – but he declines to do so and says: “It is written: Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” Jesus therefore declines to use his divinity to satisfy his own physical needs and, perhaps more importantly, he declines to entertain the devil’s doubt about his relationship with God.
The Devil then takes Jesus to the highest point in the Temple and says once again: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” The Temple stood at the centre of Jerusalem and the temptation was, quite simply, for Jesus to demonstrate his divinity beyond doubt for everyone to see – after all if the whole of Jerusalem saw Jesus being saved by a fly-past of Angels then there would be no need for further proof. Again Jesus says: “It is also written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When Jesus was crucified he was also tempted in a very similar way when people were hurling insults at him and saying – “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God”. But, of course, Jesus had already defeated the temptation to prove his sonship in that manner.
Finally the Devil must have been getting a little desperate and offers to give Jesus all the ‘kingdoms of the world’ if Jesus will but bow down and worship him. In many ways this is the least subtle of the temptations as it does not seek to question Jesus’ status but merely asks Jesus to switch his allegiance in exchange for earthly power. Jesus dismisses this invitation to rule over the earth by saying: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” And Satan fled from his presence and Angels came and attended him.
Q: What is the common theme running through each response that Jesus offers in reply to temptation? What does Jesus always do?
A: He says : “It is written” We know that Jesus was steeped in scripture from the stories of him in the Temple as a child and it is scripture that he uses time and again to refute the biggest temptation of all, which is the temptation to doubt, specifically to doubt his relationship to God.
So, during the course of this Lent, or indeed at any time, when (not if) we are troubled by the temptation to doubt God’s promises to us or our promises to God we have a very clear choice of biblical examples to follow: On the one hand we can follow Adam and Eve and allow the question mark of doubt to worm its way into our relationship with God and spoil something beautiful or we can follow the example of Jesus and rely on the word of God and its assurance that we are each beloved children of God. But of course we don’t simply have to follow the example of Jesus in the sense of doing what Jesus did, we can also rely on him as the incarnated Word of God to assist us in our struggle against temptation. Make no mistake: In our humanity we will fail in that struggle from time to time – but provided we keep getting up and keep seeking to follow Christ and rely on Christ then we know that we will win through to the joy of the resurrection.
Back on the South Downs Way my friends and I eventually made it to the top of that hill with our rucksacks – although we were tired (and slightly embarrassed) the view was magnificent and the next day we were striding across the hills like pros and avoiding all shortcuts!
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, as we start this journey together through Lent help us to keep our eyes fixed on the passion and resurrection of Christ and, like him, we pray that you will lead us not into temptation but deliver us from all evil. Send the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide us on our journey – now and always. AMEN.