5 March 2017
First Sunday in Lent
10.00 Communion Hadlow
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.
If you have given up something for Lent – whether it is chocolate or alcohol or meat – or perhaps all three if you are addicted to alcohol infused meat dipped in chocolate – mmmm – or if you are being radical by giving up 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.
So, today, on this first Sunday of Lent and before our pilgrimage is too far underway we are learning a little about temptation – it’s subtleties, it’s consequences and how to resist it.
Our Gospel reading from Matthew contains the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness but the compilers of the lectionary have juxtaposed this with the very first story of temptation, which had rather a different outcome.
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…”
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.
It may also be interesting to think about this in terms of commandments – this story predates all the hundreds of laws of Moses – Adam and Eve had only 1 commandment to live by – ‘you can do anything, but just don’t do this one thing’. In paradise humanity had one very simple law.
But of course, as soon as something is banned, or perhaps given up for lent, it becomes infinitely more attractive and the way is prepared for temptation.
The 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 and ejection from God’s personal presence swiftly followed. Lots of non-Christians, and perhaps some Christians, seem to think that the concept of ‘original sin’ has something to do with sex. Actually the original sin of Adam and Eve was to break the one simple rule that God gave them – they allowed the subtle insinuations of doubt to carry more weight than the word of God.
I don’t know what your personal weaknesses are but I suspect that every time you have given into temptation the process has started not with an immediate reversal but with a subtle questioning of your resolve – Does God really mind if I do this? Surely one piece of chocolate covered alcohol infused meat won’t hurt? And on goes the cycle.
But I have good news for you – giving into temptation is not the only option open to us. And that is because of our second story.
In Matthew’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. It is interesting that in the prayer that Jesus taught us, after this event, he prays that we should not be led into temptation. Doubtless a memory of this difficult time and a recognition that temptation is hard and best avoided if possible.
Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness, the same time that Moses spent up the mountain if you remember from last week, 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 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. Putting him to proof, of course, implies an element of doubt. We know from miracles such as the Wedding at Cana when he turned water into wine or the feeding of the five thousands 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 took Jesus to the highest point in the Temple and says once again: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” 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”.
Finally the Devil 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 worthy of worship: God alone.
So humanity were excluded from the personal presence of God because of the original sin of disobedience and giving into temptation. But God continues to reach out to his people and to give them a way back into his presence through the person of Jesus who shows that another way is possible, that temptation and sin do not have the final word.
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.
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.