Saturday, 9 March 2019

Temptation - a sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent

It’s not often I get to quote from  Mae West at the beginning of a sermon, but here’s something she’s supposed to have said: “I was as pure as the driven snow - until I drifted.” Oscar Wilde is also generally good for a quote, and he famously said that he could resist anything except temptation. And also this: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

Well, temptation is high on our agenda today, as Lent begins and we consider the specific temptations experienced by our Lord as out in the wilderness he prepared for his ministry. Would Jesus have agreed with Oscar Wilde? Would he have sympathized with Mae West? Now I’m going to say yes he would (even if a qualified yes) in both cases. But let’s first of all look at the temptations he himself faced and indeed resisted.

Luke goes into some detail as he tells the story; and we see that firstly, the devil encourages Jesus to turn the stones of the desert into loaves of bread. Since Jesus had spent forty days not eating, he was pretty hungry. That provided the opening, but this temptation wasn’t just about solving Jesus’ own immediate hunger. Think about how good it would be if you really could turn stones into bread! Think of the suffering you could relieve, the empty stomachs you could fill, wouldn’t that make for a happier and better world? And straight away we see something important about temptation; we’re not often tempted into doing things that are obviously bad. Yes, there are those little insidious temptations that say things like, “Everyone else is doing it,” and “No-one’s going to know,” but on the whole temptation isn’t so much about doing bad things as about doing things for the wrong reason, or allowing the wrong things to take charge of our lives.

Like the second temptation where the devil offers Jesus political power. All this I will give you, he says. Surely me having power is fine if I’m going to do good things with it? Many a dictator has started out that way. Jesus is offered the potential to do good on a huge scale. Who wouldn’t go for that? But Jesus didn’t.

And then lastly the devil prompts Jesus to put God himself to the test. And in the process, I suppose, to dazzle the people into believing in him. If Jesus leapt from the top of the Temple, so that the angels could save him just as promised in Scripture, wouldn’t every religious leader fall in line behind him? 

Not a single one of these temptations was in itself a bad thing. But what every one was really doing was enticing Jesus to take a short cut rather than the path of doing his Father’s will. To set his own agenda, and to go for quick gains rather than what he was truly called to do. The devil basically admits that’s what he’s about when he says, “Just bow down and worship me.” These temptations are about turning aside from the true path, knowing better than God, and letting the devil take charge. If you prefer you can say, instead of “the devil”, expediency, lust for power, worldly ambition - the same thing applies.

Mae West was as pure as the snow until she drifted. I think Jesus would have sympathised with her drifting. That’s what most of us do, drift into sin rather than openly choose to do bad stuff. We get tempted by plausible suggestions. It’s like when a telephone con man reels you gently in, playing with your hopes and fears,  before he tricks you into doing the stupid thing, parting with a shedload of money or handing over the details of your account. You’re knocked off course, and you may hardly realise it’s happened. And that’s what sin is, by the way. The Greek word is hamartia. It doesn’t mean doing bad, naughty things so much as missing the mark, being off course.

Would Jesus have agreed with Oscar Wilde? Not entirely, since he didn’t give in to temptation. But he’d have recognised the truth in Wilde’s point that a temptation resisted doesn’t then go away and leave you alone; it grows more persuasive till the itch to have or do what you’re not allowed is so strong you can think of nothing else. Best to give in, Oscar Wilde said. Better to have a firm and secure answer to it, Jesus would have said, I think.

The temptations of Jesus in the desert were not a one-off thing. Out there Jesus could face up to them, and find the words to answer them (which we’ll come back to in a minute). But not to conquer them completely: they weren’t going to go away. They’d be there all through his ministry. At the end of the story the devil didn’t give up and run off with his tail between his legs. No, he simply held back and kept his silence until an appropriate time.

The temptations would only disappear if he gave in to them. That was Oscar Wilde’s theory, anyway. But Wilde was wrong to think so. Temptation doesn’t disappear if you give in to it. It may seem that way, for a while, but what really happens is that it mutates and grows, it snares more of your life and becomes more deadly. There’s no way to appease temptation.

Finding the words to answer temptation; knowing what the words and the thoughts were that would guide his life; that’s what Jesus was doing in the desert. The devil tries his hardest, his damnedest I guess you’d have to say, but Jesus is always able to put him in his place and silence him. How? By always quoting scripture. It worries me that Christians often don’t know or use the Bible as well as we should. We may have to work at it, but all that we need is there.

And that’s why we always read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert on the first Sunday of Lent. He took forty days to prepare himself, to tune himself into his Father’s will, and to use the Scriptures to answer and to shut out the insidious but ultimately discordant voices of temptation. We’re given forty days to do the same; to be aware of those areas of our Christian living where we lack discipline and order and to get ourselves back into gear. And remember how temptation doesn’t go away, and how to exploits every weak point. We should be constantly on our guard, against the forces that seek to jostle or cajole or steer us away from the path of obedience to the Gospel and to our Lord, wanting to take first place in our hearts.

For me that makes Lent a holy and blessed time; in these forty days God gives us time to measure up to temptation, and to renew our awareness of his word, and to restore some discipline in our lives; to take stock, to be clear about where we’re headed, and to be better aware of his call, and ready to serve.

And we need it because we’ll always fail and fall short. But though no-one can earn their way to God, God offers us life as his gift to us. Jesus actually spent a lot of time with the sort of people holy folk turned away from, and he seemed to enjoy and value their company. So maybe Lent needs also to be a time to expand our circles of awareness. What God offers is for everyone, not just a few. There may be only a few here today, but remember that there’s no-one out there that God doesn’t love. And he wants them to know that, and he wants us to part of how they find that out.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, missing the mark, and the Greek word for repentance - in this Lenten season of repentance - is metanoia. Now metanoia means “to change one’s mind or heart,”  or, more precisely, “to go beyond the mind we have now.” Lent is a time for repentance, and so we should think seriously about temptation and sin, but we asked for more than just that. Metanoia is also about seeing things - the world, other people, ourselves - in a new way, seeing beyond what we think we know.

So, as well as countering temptation and adding discipline, Jesus was preparing himself for a ministry that was completely inclusive, that reached out to all. And we too should be using Lent to learn new things, and to grow as God’s people. Thy will be done, we pray, and those four words are a good theme for our keeping of Lent. Thy will be done in me, in us, here in this place, and in the day the Lord is giving us. So may our Lent be a time of change, growth, and of seeing in new ways, and of getting ready to go beyond where we are now.

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