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.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Listen to him

Matthew 17:1-9

Who do we listen to?

Last week several of us went on silent retreat. One of the things that happen when you go on silent retreat is that you become aware of just how many voices there are round about you.

Some of the more obvious voices were silenced: There was no television, radio, newspapers; and we didn't have the daily chatter or the voices of other people (apart from the voice of the vicar!)

We are surrounded by so many voices.

The outer voices: the voices of others, present and past, spoken and unspoken. The voices of parents, teachers, friends, work colleagues, books, advertisements; there are the magazines we read, the programmes we watch, the films we see, the websites we visit. Even the back of my cereal packet tells me what I must eat.

There are also the inner voices: the jumble of memories and thoughts: CS Lewis describes them as 'a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds'. There is the voice of morality (the 'should' and the 'ought'), of memory, of habits, desires and fears, of love or grief, of dreams (I only say that because this week I had one of the most powerfully vivid and emotionally moving dreams that I have ever had).

It is not surprising that at times we crave silence and space - a voice that is not telling me what I should think or do. There is just too much coming in.

One of the reasons why I love choral evensong!

But we cannot and we would not live in a world in which there are no voices. We would not be human. We need other voices, but we also need to hear a voice that puts all the other voices in perspective, that can bring order to restless minds.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain 'by themselves'. Like going on retreat, some of the outer voices are silenced.

And Jesus is transfigured:

I think that there is a parallel here. The first Sunday of Epiphany is about the wise men who follow the star of Bethlehem, the light that bears witness to the light. Matthew writes, and I think we are meant to read something into this, (2:10) 'When they (the wise men) saw the star (which was now over Bethlehem), they were overjoyed'. The star and the baby are completely identified.

And here, the last Sunday before Lent, we see Jesus transfigured. He has become light. In Matthew 17, he shines like the sun. His clothes become as white as light.

And it is not only that. At the beginning of the season called Epiphany, we remember Jesus’ baptism, when the voice speaks from heaven and says: “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. Here we have another voice, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. But this time the voice from heaven adds something else, “Listen to him”

The star says to the wise men, 'Go to Jesus, worship him'
The voice says to Peter, James and John, 'Listen to him

In a world in which there are so many other voices, Peter, James and John are directed to listen to the voice that is above and beneath all other voices; to the voice which can bring order to all other voices.

God the Father has chosen to speak through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is the Word of God. God the Father confirms that Jesus is the one who we need to listen to.

Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah.
It is a vision of heaven. It is a picture of intimacy. We will talk face to face with the risen and glorified Jesus.

But there is more than that going on here.

Moses and Elijah were both Old Testament prophets. Prophets predict things, but in fact prediction came quite low on the list of the priorities of the things that they were saying. They are not God-oscopes. Prophets speak what God is saying: sometimes God uses them to call his people back to himself, back to his law and back to living his way; sometimes God uses them to warn people what will happen if they do not put their trust in him; sometimes God uses them to encourage his people when the going is hard; sometimes God uses them to simply tell his people how much he loves them.

So we should listen to them.

Moses and Elijah are not just ordinary Old Testament prophets – if you can have an ordinary Old Testament prophet. Moses is the lawgiver; he is also the first of the Old Testament prophets. And God says to Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their people, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.” (Deuteronomy 18:18)

And if Moses is the first, Elijah is the last of the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament talks about how, before the Messiah comes, Elijah will reappear. Even today, Jews at the Passover meal will leave an empty place with an glass of wine - for Elijah.

But for the Christian, Elijah has already come. That is why, in the next few verses in Matthew 17, (verses 11-13) Jesus talks about John the Baptist being Elijah come back to life. Jesus says, 'John the Baptist is Elijah returned'. Not literally, but symbolically. He is the one who comes before the Messiah.

So the voice from heaven is significant.

It could have said, 'Listen to Moses, Listen to Elijah';
Instead the voice says, 'Listen to Jesus'

I like the story that is told of the two-year-old girl who was ignoring her food. Mummy said, "Keri, why aren't you eating?" Keri replied, "I can't eat; God told me not to." Her mother chided: "God wouldn't tell you not to eat your supper." Keri looked up at the ceiling, then conceded, "Well, maybe it was Moses."

We listen to Jesus because God the Father tells us to listen to Jesus
We listen to Jesus because he is shown to be here the unique Son of God.
We listen to Jesus because Moses and Elijah delight to talk with him

So what does it mean to listen to Jesus?
For Peter, James and John it was obvious how they could listen to Jesus. They had to choose to listen to Jesus, and they had to pay attention to what he said.

But actually for us it is not that different.

1. It is about a choice: choosing to listen to Jesus.

There are many outer voices around us, but actually most of the time we can choose which voice we listen to. We can even at times choose which of the inner voices we listen to.

The devil would tell us that we have no choice; that we are victims of the past, and the hurtful and destructive voices of the past; or that we are victims of society – and that there is no escape.

But actually we do not need to be victims. We have absolute choice in deciding who we listen to.

We can listen to the voice that tells us to take revenge, or to wallow in self-pity, or to cower in fear. We can listen to the voice that tells us that our significance is dependent on what we have or on success and the status we achieve. We can listen to the voice of lust that tells us that we must have the object of desire, whatever the cost.

And I can listen to the television or radio, or I can go over and turn it off. I can listen to someone bad mouthing someone else, or I can walk away. I can listen to the voice of my ambition, or I can turn my attention elsewhere.

There is a very simple spiritual law. What goes in here, comes out here, here or here. When we choose to listen to a voice, we are almost invariably choosing to do what that voice tells us to do.

But we can also choose to listen to another voice: the voice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The voice of one to whom Moses and Elijah pointed; who lived 2000 years ago; who is alive and who still speaks through his written word and through his Spirit living in those who have received him.

So when the voice from heaven, says to us, ‘Listen to Him’, we are given a choice. We can listen to the other stuff; or we can listen to Jesus

2. It is about attentiveness

I may hear you, but I may not be listening to you.

I’m sure you know the situation. You’re talking to someone, but you overhear a conversation. It is about someone you know. So although you hear the person who is talking to you, you are actually listening to the other conversation. And at the end of the conversation, you somehow need to pretend that you know what was said to you.

Or someone is talking with you. They’re telling you something, but you’ve just thought of a great story to tell them – so you are not actually listening to them. It’s like one of those comedy sketches, where you get two people talking at totally cross purposes.
Or it’s like listening to a sermon. The preacher is preaching, you hear him them – but you are not listening to them. You are listening to an inner train of thought: what’s happening this afternoon; is she going to be OK; why the sun is coming in that window but not that window; and so on.

Half the battle in this whole thing of listening to Jesus is won when we actually choose to not only give Jesus the time of day, but to give attention to Jesus, to listen to him.

I can read the bible – and end up with a load of trivia knowledge. I can read the bible - and come out with a theology degree. I can read the bible – and think this is a fantastic story. But it is not going to make any difference to me. It will only make a difference if I sit down to read the bible or to hear the bible, if at the same time, I have chosen to listen to Jesus and I am attentive to him.

In the same way we can come to church: maybe we are looking for comfort; maybe we are looking for entertainment; maybe we are looking for friendship; maybe we are looking for a bit of peace. Some days it will be good – other days not so good. “The music/choir were very good. Malcolm was not quite on form”. But if we come to church to listen to Jesus, whatever the service, however it goes, we will not be disappointed.

I long to see in myself and others a greater expectation, a greater attentiveness. I wonder how it would be if we turned it round at the end, and instead of people saying, ‘nice sermon vicar’, the preacher stood at the door and asking people, “What did God say to you today?” How would we answer?

And Jesus will speak, and does speak in many ways – if we choose to hear. It might be the small voice inside; or one of the familiar prayers that suddenly comes alive; or something that the person next to you says; or a memory of something that you know has to be dealt with; or a sense of peace – or, and of course this is the place where God speaks most obviously and most clearly, something from the bible or the teaching of the bible, that comes alive and bites you. The word of God, says the writer to the Hebrews, is like a two-edged sword.

We need, when we come to church, to be like Mary, sitting at Jesus feet – longing to hear him, to listen to him. And if you find that at church you always seem to be doing the Martha jobs, please, please, please, make time at other times, to meet with Jesus together with others. We need to spend time listening to Jesus.

‘Listen to me’, we say to a child. ‘Listen to me’ we say when we are trying to say something, but we are not ble to put it into words. We want them to hear what it is that we are saying. And Jesus, when he teaches, when he tells his parables, when he tells his followers what is going to happen to him, says “Listen to me. Be attentive – get what I am saying. And if you don’t get it, think it through, talk it through, wrestle with it. Because I am speaking in order to be understood”

We listen to Jesus because he is shown here to be the unique, the one and only, Son of God. He is shown here in his radiance and his glory. Here is the one who is the radiance of his Father’s glory. Peter writes many years later of this experience in 2 Peter 1, “We were eye witnesses of his majesty”

We listen to Jesus, because the voice from heaven tells us to listen to him. God is not silent. He wants to be heard. He wants us to listen to him. And that reminds us of the prophecy given to Moses 3000 or so years earlier, when God says that he will punish those who refuse to listen to him.

We listen to Jesus, because his voice is good.

Look at what he says to the disciples: “Get up; don’t be afraid”. They did not need to be afraid, because he was with them.

And when Jesus speaks to us, his words are good. They may be painful, but they will bring healing; they may shatter some of our complacency, but they will enable us to build our lives on rock rather than sand. And it is his words which will make sense of all the other words that we hear – because it is his word which created this universe, and it is his word which sustains this universe, and it is his word which will bring this universe, this world of time and space as we know it, to an end.

In a world of many voices, outer voices and inner voices, present voices and past voices, which voice are you going to choose to listen to?

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him”.