Sermon by Andy Wurm, Lent 1, 6th March 2022
Today, on the first Sunday in Lent, the gospel story offers one way to look at Lent, which is wrestling with temptations. The 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, represent the years of a lifetime, therefore he faced the temptations faced by every person in their life. It wasn’t so much his choice though, for we are told the Holy Spirit shoved Jesus into the desert. That makes sense, because often it is only through being forced to go without our usual supports and securities, that we discover new sources of strength, -retrospectively realising it was necessary for our growth.
Prior to being shoved into the desert, Jesus was baptised. He emerged from that experience with an unshakeable sense of God’s love, which enabled him to overcome the temptations.
No-one was with Jesus in the desert to record what really occurred there, so what we have in the gospel account are teachings of the early Christian community about how to respond to the temptations we face during our life. (Interwoven with the gospel writer’s view of Jesus.) Behind the teaching of the early Christian community, lies the spiritual wisdom about engaging with temptation received from their ancestors, crafted into the story of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was how they remembered God’s love for them. The Promised Land represented union with God, which is fullness of life. The story of the journey to the Promised Land is the spiritual map of how to get there. It’s the journey to freedom with God, and liberation from all that spiritually enslaves us. If we are to make it to the Promised Land, we must overcome temptations along the way, and the way to do that is not of our own making, but is given to us by God and so requires faith.
When the people of Israel put their faith in God, they moved closer to the Promised Land. When they lost faith in God, they were prevented from moving closer. Many didn’t make it to the Promised Land, including Moses, who only saw it from a distance. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as the new Moses, but where Moses failed, Jesus succeeds. Jesus, then, is the one we must follow if we are to make it to the Promised Land.
Recently emerging from the waters of baptism, Jesus mirrors the ancient Hebrews, who emerged from crossing the Red Sea to freedom from slavery. Following the account of Jesus’ baptism, the gospel-writer inserts a long list of Jesus’ (male) ancestors, implying that Jesus was immersed in the history of his people (and in fact all humanity). Not all of those listed were as pure as Mother Teresa though, so not only does Jesus show us the way through temptation, but he is with us in all its mess and in our dysfunctional coping with it.
Jesus’ wrestling with temptation involves engaging with the devil. In scripture, the devil takes two forms, and both are in operation in this story. In one, he is simply a member of God’s heavenly staff, responsible for testing how faithful to God people are. That involves encouraging them to sin, to see how they will respond. In this way, the devil function is that which helps people discern what is the best way to act, so in Jesus’ case, the devil helps him decide how he will live out his mission of love. The other form the devil takes in scripture is as the spirit of evil, which is not power in its own right, but always a distortion of power, or a distortion of good. The devil is not an individual, but a function which can be manifested by an individual, or a number of individuals.
The first temptation Jesus faces is to turn stones into bread. Being a long way from the Bridgewater Inn, Jesus is hungry and so is tempted by the suggestion to turn stones into bread, yet he responds by reminding the devil that deep satisfaction comes from more than filling the stomach.
Jesus is not denying the value of visiting the Bridgewater Inn, (or feeding the hungry), but emphasising the deeper need for God. St Augustine says we are made for God and only fully satisfied when we rest in God. That’s not easy though. A few centuries after Jesus, men and women flocked to the Egyptian desert, adopting a monastic lifestyle. They were very aware of the temptation to fill the God-shaped hole in their lives with other things, just as we do with material possessions, busyness and addictions. These desert fathers and mothers hoped to give themselves fully to God, but even out in the desert, also far removed from Bridgewater Inn, and with no access to the internet, found themselves unable to abandon the anxieties and temptations of their former lives. Free of external distractions, they found themselves bombarded with endless mental activity.
Apparently, they were often tense with each other, obsessed about the trivia of their work and compulsive about their few material possessions. They fantasized a lot about sex, but even more about food. They were, however, able to transcend all that by regular practice of contemplation (now known as mindfulness). Like the newly baptised Jesus, emerging from the pool of imperfect humanity, they found peace and satisfaction by transcending their preoccupations. By simply allowing their obsessions and endless mental activity to just be, rather than fighting them, or seeking to fulfil them, they let the resulting emptiness fill them. In that emptiness was God.
The second temptation Jesus was presented with was to use his power to win over others. The devil can offer Jesus the ‘kingdoms of the world’ (the power structures of the world), because to a large degree, they are his. They operate through force, so to worship the devil (which the devil invites Jesus to do) is to use power to control others. There are many ways in which we can do that, from using words to using guns. Whether we kill people to get our way, or belittle them with words, we are still worshipping the devil, because those are his ways. More successful than either of those (which give the game away too easily), the most devious way to control others is through subtle manipulation. Just small steps. Just get them to go along with one small step, and then another and another. It’s only afterwards that anyone can see the change that’s occurred. Using power to dominate others is to serve the devil, even if we are trying to overcome evil. As the evil Emperor in Star Wars says to Luke, who he’s encouraging to give in to his anger and hatred and strike the Emperor down, the more you do that, the more you become my servant. That is why Jesus offered no resistance to those who crucified him, and thus revealed his utter difference to power which dominates. God’s power is not power to dominate, but the power of mutual relation. We avoid falling for the temptation to dominate (in which we also surrender ourselves to domination) by committing ourselves to relate mutually with others.
The third temptation Jesus faces is to test God. We all doubt God, but giving in to that doubt is another matter. The ancient Hebrews emerged from the Red Sea to freedom from slavery, but shortly after they began to wander through the desert they started to doubt God. They doubted God would provide the food they needed, and wished they were back Egypt, where, although slaves, they were guaranteed food. Freedom isn’t always easy.
Jesus’ ultimate temptation to test God was his temptation to avoid death. He could run away from it,
but then would not be able to reveal to the true nature of the world’s violence. He had to therefore trust that God would deliver him, even from death. How far do we trust God? The devil tempts Jesus to do something stupid to test God, even quoting from a psalm, that God will guard you ‘lest you dash your foot against a stone’. Jesus shows us that instead, we must live our lives simply and honestly, not expecting God to meet our demands by presuming God will do what we want, nor denying our responsibility by leaving to God what is ours to do. The more we give up using God for our purposes and the more we listen to God’s desire for us, the more we shall find ourselves able to trust God.
Losing familiar securities and supports is not always a bad thing.