Saturday, 9 February 2008

Resisting temptation

MATTHEW 4:1-11

Useful to use the Churches times and seasons.

It tells our story

The year begins with Advent: We remember the prophecies given to the Patriarchs, to the prophets, to John the Baptist – and the announcing of Jesus birth to Mary

Christmas: The coming of the Son of God. God is with us

Epiphany: The revelation of Christ, the Son of God, to the world – through the star that appears to the wise men, and the baptism.

At Lent we focus on Jesus ministry and in particular the way that the course of his life led him to his death on a cross. It culminates in Holy Week, when we focus again on Jesus’ last week. On Maundy Thursday we remember how Jesus gave us the Lord’s supper. On Good Friday we remember his death on the cross for us.

And of course on Easter Sunday, and throughout the season of Easter, we focus on the risen Jesus, and that as Christians we are called to live as resurrection people.

On Ascension we remember that Jesus was taken up into heaven, that he is there and that he is praying for us. And on Pentecost we remember that he has given us His Spirit.

Trinity Sunday is a shift in gear. If you look at the lectionary it begins what is known as ‘ordinary time’. During the next 20 or so weeks we focus on what it means to live in the light of the above. It is about living as God’s people, as subjects of God’s kingdom. And it climaxes with All Saints and the vision of heaven

And that brings us to Advent: where it comes full circle. We look forward to second coming and back to the first coming.

The churches year gives us a pattern for living: Preparation, Awareness of God’s presence, Revelation, Self examination and confession, Resurrection, Living the Kingdom, Our glorious hope

So Lent is the dip. It is a season for self-examination and repentance. That is why people take up Lenten disciplines. It is not because we have to (there is always a danger that we will turn something useful into something essential), but at its best it reminds us that here we are not what we should be, that repentance is very much part of the Christian life, that we are involved in a spiritual battle, that we need to learn self-discipline, and that we need a Saviour.

And that is why, on the first Sunday of Lent, we always have this reading. It sets the tone for Lent.

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus goes into the wilderness.

This story, the period of Lent, reminds us that there will be times when we are led into the wilderness. Of course much of our life is lived on the level. At times there are periods of great joy and stability. But at other times in our lives there will be periods of grief and intense pain. Not one of us will be immune from them.

But notice that it is the Spirit who leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
This story assures us that in times of testing, God has not abandoned us. His Spirit led us and prepared us for that place, and his Spirit is with us.
And this story also assures us that such periods do come to an end. The angels will come and minister to us, as they came to minister to Jesus. After Good Friday there is Easter.

Peter writes to Christians who were suffering for their faith: ‘And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”


So let’s look in a little more detail at this passage.

At the heart of the temptation is satan’s desire for Jesus to do things his way, and not God’s way. He wants to get Jesus to do what he managed to get Adam and Eve to do: to rebel against God

And so we notice that the first temptation echoes the temptation of Adam and Eve. The devil is very boring and rather predictable. Just as he said to them: “Eat the fruit”, he says to Jesus, “Turn the stones to bread”.

Adam and Eve put their desire for the fruit above their obedience to God’s word. God had said to them: “Don’t eat it”. But they did eat it.
And Jesus is tempted to put his desire for bread (we’ve been told in one of the most glorious understatements of the bible, ‘he was hungry’) above his obedience to God’s word.

But unlike Adam and Eve, unlike us, he puts God’s word first: “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”.

And throughout his ministry, his life and death, God’s word always comes first. It takes precedence over his very human desires.


And the second temptation is to do with accepting limits: letting God be Creator and remembering that we are the creature.

For Jesus it was a challenge as to whether he would accept the limits of humanity.

This might seem to be a very strange temptation. Jesus is taken to the edge of what we know as sanity. Remember he had fasted for 40 days. The devil takes him to the top of the temple, and tells him to throw himself off: ‘You’ll be OK. You’re the Son of God. God will protect you. You’ll probably fly’. It is quite literally like me finding myself at the top of the cathedral tower, with a little voice saying ‘Throw yourself off. It’ll be OK. They’ll see’.

We put God to the test when we refuse to accept our created nature. There are limits, natural boundaries, and if we cross them we have to expect to face the consequences. And I know this raises major questions about what is created nature: we only need to look at what can be done now by medical advancements: altering a person’s chemical balances, genetic engineering or modification, surgical reconstruction (even to the extent that a person born as a man can actually now grow a child within him – although he or she could never give birth: [I can imagine a few feminists saying, ‘typical men – they want the bit that quite a lot of women like, but not the bit that no woman likes]). There are no easy answers. But the point is that there are limits to our created nature – and that means that just because something is possible it does not always mean that it is permissible. It also means that if we cross the boundaries, we will have to face the consequences

Again, we see how this temptation is a paralleling of the first temptation. The serpent said to Adam and Eve, “Take the fruit. Reach beyond yourselves. Become like God”.

And the temptation is always for us to reach out and to try to become like God here and now, in our way, rather than accepting our place as men and women who can only become like God in Christ, together with all other Christians – who have lived, who are living and who will live.

And Jesus answers: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. Don’t ask him to do things that he has not said he will do. If the first temptation is a temptation for us to fall short of his word, the second is a temptation to go beyond his word. However hard you pray, if you jump off a tower you will not fly. However hard you pray, you will not be spared the mucky and at times seemingly totally arbitrary slings and arrows of life.

And the third temptation is the most blatant. Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of this world and their splendour, and the devil offers them to him. “I will give you all of this. All you need to do is to bow down and worship me”.

I suspect that it might have gone something like this: “Jesus, God the Father has said that he will give everything to you – if you walk his way. But his way means poverty, rejection, suffering and death. I also can give you this. All you need to do is bow down to me. Do it my way. All you need to do is to take it. Everything that is here: the armies, the wealth, the women, the men, the glory, the status, the absolute freedom. It is all yours – here and now”

For Jesus it was the most serious of all the temptations. Do you remember how he reacts when Peter tells him that he must not suffer and die? Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me Satan”.

It is an invitation to forget God the Father, to forget his love, to turn our back on him, to live without him. It is the invitation to live without God, to live life our way, to try and grab it all here and now.

In the words of one advert for sofas, “You want it all. You can have it all”

But this is also the point when Satan overplays his card. With the first two it may have been Jesus’ own voice speaking. Now there is no question. And Jesus says: “Away from me Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only”.


So on this first Sunday of Lent we remember that Jesus was tempted just as we are, yet was without sin. And we remember how at the beginning of his ministry he set himself firmly upon God’s word: not to fall short of his word, not to go beyond his word; and he committed himself to live life according to God’s word – whatever it would cost him..

We need to be aware of those temptations

When we constantly fail, be aware that the devil can be resisted and there is one who has resisted. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7)

Remember that even if we have failed 57 times, with his help, we do not need to fail the 58th time. We can come to Jesus, and he will give us the strength we need.

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