Preacher Canon Robert Titley
So BBC Three is on its way out, off air and online. All of you who thrilled to Gavin and Stacy and Little Britain may find a tear in your eye as you now have to resort to iPlayer to catch the next edition of Snog, Marry, Avoid?
Eleven years ago, the pre-launch campaign for Three used the song ‘Three is a Magic Number’, itself a catchy number composed to help children count. And it’s pretty much right: the number three, if not a magic number exactly, has mystical significance, not least in Christianity. ‘A threefold cord is not quickly broken,’ says the book of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 4.12); Catholic teaching says there are three ‘theological virtues’, St Paul’s trio of faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13); and threeness is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God as a Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit.
Indeed, the number three is embedded in the very way see our world. The minimum conditions of relationship are a three – me, you and some channel of communication between us; our mind works on things in three realms – past, present and future – and tells stories about them that have a beginning, a middle and an end. So, when Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and Matthew wants to unpack that and say what his temptations were, it’s significant that he give us three of them. More of that in a moment. Let’s ask first why Jesus is tempted.
Jesus is about to start his ministry, to be God’s Son in human flesh and blood. He needs to work out what that will and won’t mean, so he goes into the wide open space of the wilderness to prepare himself. This is good but risky.
On Ash Wednesday, I suggested that in Lent we all needed to clear space for God, following the example of Jesus. The risk is, though, if you clear space in your diary or your mind, that you attract uninvited guests. You sit down to think about important stuff, but see how other things bubble up in you mind now you’ve stopped being busy: fear, perhaps, or anger; envy, resentment, the whispering voice telling you that you deserve better, or that you’re a failure. That’s why a holiday, with those vacant hours on the beach, can be a quietly scary time. And if you’re not careful, those things can determine the choices you make.
Jesus has an uninvited guest that Matthew calls the devil. Do you believe in a personal devil? Most people have, for most of Christian history, and it is an effective way of expressing those forces that seem to conspire against us. On the other hand, the idea of a personal devil as an explanation of evil creates as many problems as it solves. If you’d like this subject tackled head-on sometime, we can do that; but, for now, let’s look at the temptation rather than the tempter.
Jesus’ temptations are about how to use the opportunities ahead of him, and there are, as we saw, three of them. The symbolic number suggests that it is a full and comprehensive test that Jesus undergoes, and they pretty much cover the ground, economic, personal and political: the basics of life (should he turn stones into bread?), his attitude to God (trusting or testing?) and who he will take his lead from (God or Satan?). In each case, Jesus resists the temptation. He gets it right, and so, in a scene that echoes that fateful moment of choice in the garden of Eden, Jesus begins to mend the effects of bad choices that go back to the dawn of humanity.
You and I are not Jesus. We each have a vocation, but you and I are called to something more modest than he was. He had his choices to make – what are the choices before us? We’re in a world that makes a fetish out of choice but we are in a climate that is not very friendly to it. How much space do you have to manoeuvre when, for instance, your employment choices may not be between this job or that job, but between this job or no job, or between any job or no job? And the future may not look full of opportunities, either.
Nevertheless, the same three things confront us: economic, political, personal; the money and other resources I have and what I do with them; the power I have, such as it is, and where I apply it; and third, most important, my identity. When I see myself in the mirror, who am I? And whose am I? Who do I belong to, who has the deepest claim upon me? Where does my allegiance lie? Who or what do I worship? And the temptation you face will be essentially the same as that which comes to Jesus, the whispering voice that tries to entice you from serving God, who loves and accepts us as we are, and tries to take us down another path.
But how do we serve God? How do we know what God wants? In the story, Jesus says No to Satan with quotes from the Bible. Now the Bible is not like a user’s manual that gives you an answer to each thing in life so long as you look hard enough – God has too much respect for us to do that; and, notice, Satan quotes the Bible too – but the Bible is the place to go to build up a sense of the character of God.
That’s why we spend quite a while reading it in each service. And it’s wonderful that, after last Sunday’s suggestion, some of you have started coming to Morning Prayer here, or have got hold of the app that gives you the same service on your phone or computer: a good way to spend fifteen minutes a day praying with the Bible. If you feel you need to deepen your relationship with God this Lent, the scriptures can supply that crucial third element.
We ended last week with a monk, Thomas Merton. Here he is again, with words that rather suit a glorious morning like this.
By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.
Less dramatically, when you clear some space in our life, anchoring yourself in the Bible can help make sure it’s God you attend to, not the uninvited guests.
Three is a Magic Number by Bob Dorough
Somewhere in that ancient mystic Trinity
You’ll get three
As a magic number.
The past, the present, the future,
Faith, and hope, and charity,
The heart, the brain, the body,
Will give you three,
It’s a magic number
Morning Prayer at St Mary’s: Monday – Saturday 8.30am
Evening Prayer at St Matthias: Monday – Thursday 5.30pm
Thomas Merton Visit the Thomas Merton Centre merton.org