Sermon: First Sunday of Lent, 14 February 2016, St John the Divine

Readings  Deuteronomy 26.1-11, Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16, Romans 10.8b-13 and Luke 4.1-13

Preacher  Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP

It is a well-established tradition that on the first Sunday of Lent we focus our minds on Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness as described in the various gospel accounts. In the Book of Common Prayer for the first Sunday of Lent it is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness that is provided for the service of Holy Communion on this day. In the Common Worship 3-year Sunday Eucharistic cycle it is also Matthew’s account of Jesus’ wilderness temptations that is provided for Year A, Mark’s shorter account for Year B, and Luke’s account for Year C – today.

In the first three gospel accounts the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptations all come either immediately or soon after Jesus’ baptism. This is significant. For in his baptism the Holy Spirit is heard to acknowledge Jesus’ true identity – the voice says,

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

In all of the wilderness temptations there is an attempt to attack and undermine Jesus’ true identity as God’s beloved Son. Matthew and Luke both give three main temptations, although in a different order. Let’s look at Luke’s order, that we have heard read today. Perhaps the first thing to notice is that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led “by the Spirit in the wilderness”. In other words, Jesus’ temptations – his moments of testing – are all part of the plan and purpose of God. It is not Jesus alone with the devil – whatever with our modern minds we might conceive the reference to the devil to mean. No, God is there too. This is a three-way contest, with Jesus in the centre.

The first temptation is obviously concerned with bodily and practical every day needs. After 40 days of fasting Jesus is famished. The first words of the first temptation are,

“If you are the Son of God…..”.   This is really important. The devil – whatever power is at work to undermine Jesus’ authority – tempts Jesus to question his own identity, which has already been powerfully ratified at his baptism. He is the Son of God. That is already settled. But the powers of evil wish to sow doubt in Jesus’ mind about his true identity before God. And Jesus will have none of it. He refuses point-blank to turn stone into bread in a dramatic showiness of his identity. Instead, he refers the matter back to God, by quoting from the scriptures he knows so well – from Deuteronomy –

“One does not live by bread alone.”

Matthew’s account includes the next phrase in Deuteronomy –

“but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.

In Lent we will no doubt ourselves be considering ways in which we can come closer to Jesus in his journey to the cross. One obvious method is to spend more time in reading the scriptures, perhaps especially the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry and passion. It was a method Jesus so often used himself concerning the Old Testament scriptures that he knew so well. Today’s gospel reading from Luke is clear evidence of that. Jesus knew profoundly that reflecting on and praying the scriptures was a very effective way of keeping him connected with God the Father.

The second temptation in Luke’s accounts is even more challenging. The devil leads Jesus “up”. Matthew’s account which places this temptation third says Jesus was led “to a very high mountain”. From this high position Jesus is shown in his mind’s eye “all the kingdoms of the world”. The powers of evil, referred to as the devil, want Jesus to worship them. In return Jesus is promised great glory and authority. But Jesus is shrewd enough to recognise a false promise. Again, he quotes Deuteronomy, answering,

“It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” “.

Jesus refuses to be compromised by offers of power that would serve only to undermine his true identity, his true nature.

The most challenging temptation in Luke’s account, the third one, is when Jesus is taken in his imagination to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. If Jesus is the Son of God, then he should throw himself down, for – as scripture itself testifies in the psalms – angels will be sent to protect him. The powers of evil use scripture itself to test Jesus. But Jesus is not fooled.

As one of Shakespeare’s characters says, “The devil can quote scripture for his purpose”.

Once again, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy and sends the devil packing, pronouncing,

“It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” “.

These three temptations can very much be seen in traditional terms as that of the world, the flesh and the devil – or as one book has described – money, sex and power!

As well as the reading of scripture, spiritual reading can be another helpful Lenten discipline. The sixteenth century Spanish mystic, religious, priest and Doctor of the Church St John of the Cross has much to say on the subject of temptation. In one of his minor writings called “The Precautions” he writes,

“The world is the enemy least difficult to conquer, the devil is the hardest to understand, the flesh is the most tenacious, and its attacks continue as long as the old man lasts” (perhaps we should add “or as long as the old woman lasts”!)

With our modern, or should I say post-modern, minds we may not find it easy to think in terms of the devil tempting us. Who is this devil figure? We will, however, when we have lived long enough, recognise that there is evil in the world, and that such evil can at least sometimes find an echo in our own hearts and minds. The New Testament letter of James claims that God “tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire…..”.   Another great sixteenth century Spanish mystic and religious St Teresa of Avila wrote that our dreams can come from three sources – God, the devil and our own minds. Perhaps this three-fold complexity can be claimed also as the source of our own temptations, even if we would prefer to express it in more post-modern terms.

The great twentieth century poet and playwright T S Eliot in his play “Murder in the Cathedral” gives a dramatic account of the temptations that faced Thomas a Becket before he was murdered.   Even the thought of martyrdom was a temptation to Thomas because of the spiritual glory and renown such a death would bring to his name. In the end Thomas recognises that his greatest temptation would have been, “To do the right deed for the wrong reason”.   Once Thomas realises this, he knows that temptation will not come in this way again.

At the end of the day, it is all about to what we give our consent. And what matters most of all is – are we loving in our thoughts and especially in our actions? St John of the Cross wrote that we shall all be judged by our love.

Perhaps focussing on loving action is the best way to overcome temptations.  Today is not only the first Sunday of Lent, but also St Valentine’s Day, when we especially celebrate the gift of true love.  Valentine was a priest or bishop who was martyred under the Emperor Claudius in about 269.  The connection of this celebration with lovers seems to be either as a traditional day in medieval belief when birds mated, heralding the Spring, or more likely as being linked with the pagan Lupercalia fertility festival in Rome, which occurred on the Ides of February.  For us as Christians this day, St Valentine’s Day, marks an acknowledgement of the all-loving God who blesses all those who love one another.  As Jesus himself famously said on the occasion of the Last Supper, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”.  Amen.

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