21 February 2010
First Sunday in Lent
10.30 Communion Woodchurch
Rev’d Paul White
Heavenly Father as we come to listen to your eternal and universal Word this morning we pray that you may you speak into our hearts and give us the grace to hear and respond to the message you have for each of us. Amen.
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 used to rather flatter landscapes, it 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. 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 prepare 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 but 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 being really radical facebook or ebay or whether 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.
Our Gospel reading from Luke contains the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness it may be helpful to cast our minds back to the very first story of temptation in the bible, as I think that it helps to shed some light.
Of course I am talking about 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, after all knowledge is supposed to be a good thing isn’t it? 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 for as long as possible and thinking about Adam and Eve from the point of view of a loving father helped me at least to begin to understand what may have been going on there. On a slight side note I hope that in the coming weeks my wife Vivienne will talk to us about her work in Mediawatch which is aimed at protecting children to exposure to harm from unsuitable material on the internet.
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, which is also reflected in the gospel story. 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 / hour on the internet 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 Luke’s gospel Jesus was ‘led 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 famished”. What understatement! Can you imagine? He must have been emaciated, he must have felt close to death. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that because this was Jesus it was an easy thing for him to do. Although Jesus was fully God he was also fully human and he really felt the hunger that we would feel. He had been under the desert sun for 40 days with nothing to eat and he really was famished!
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: One does not live on bread alone” 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 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 an earthly kingdom. Jesus dismisses this invitation to rule over the earth by saying: “It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” Although this may not have been the most subtle of temptations this is probably the one that afflicts us most – we are constantly bombarded with the message to forget about God in exchange for the things of the world. It is the message of consumerism – buy the latest gadget and your life will be better and easier, you will be a more attractive and interesting person. But Jesus reminds us that the temptation to earthly power and success is not of God and that our worship should be directed solely at that which is really worthy of worship: God alone.
Finally the Devil 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. How often are we tempted to put God to the test on our terms? It is possible to put God to the test in very unsubtle ways: If that phone rings in 30 seconds and Kylie Minoge asks me out on a date then God really exists. But it can also be done much more subtly perhaps when God does not answer prayer in the way in which we think he should. But this story makes it clear that the temptation to test God is not of God, on the contrary it comes from that which has always sought to break the relationship between man and God – that has been at work in the human psyche since time immorial, which visited Jesus in the wilderness and which will doubtless visit each of us in a myriad of ways.
But we have a defence against temptation.
When Jesus was tempted, what was his most common response?
He said : “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: 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 make it through to the joy of the resurrection.
You will be pleased to know that back on the South Downs and back in time my friends and I made it to the top of that hill with our rucksacks – 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.