Monday, 22 February 2010

Sermon preached on the first Sunday of Lent, 21st February 2010

Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16

Romans 10.8b-13

Luke 4.1-13

This gospel reading is well-known, and it is a traditional beginning to Lent. Jesus has just had the spiritual high point of his baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, when the voice of God was heard by all who were there on the riverbank: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

And the Holy Spirit appeared too, as a dove, and alighted upon him. A moment of wonder to the crowds, and who knows how wonderful for Jesus himself?

And this before he had begun his mission among people! Until then he had been a carpenter in Nazareth.

But before the work of God that Jesus was born for could begin properly, Jesus submitted to a physical and spiritual discipline. Fasting AND praying.

It was a rigorous test by anybody’s standards, and he was tempted in three potential areas of weakness:

· The first: physical hunger - Jesus was fully human, and was as hungry after forty days without eating as any of us would be. He was tempted to break the fast by using divine power to made bread from the stones. He could have done this… but he didn’t. He chose to bear the hunger.

· The second: ambition - the temptation to distance himself from his place within an equal trinity to become Lord of everything on earth. Power is an attractive bait.

· The third: glory - at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was tempted to show the world just who he was by giving a miraculous show from the top of the temple. It would be the ultimate showing-off. After that, who could doubt him? Even those not present at the river to see the dove and hear the voice would have to believe in him.

There are some interesting points to note in this passage. We’re told that Jesus was led BY THE SPIRIT into the desert. This same Holy Spirit who, with God the Father, had affirmed Jesus so spectacularly so recently.

But now the Son was led to the desert, where he would be tested by himself, without the overt support of the Father and the Spirit.

And before the end of the testing Jesus had to grapple with the Devil. And if we have a look at the account of the same wilderness experience as recorded by Matthew, it was AFTER Jesus had succeeded in resisting all the devil’s ploys that angels came attended him. The temptations were faced in his human strength, not divine.

It is also a bit chilling to notice that when the devil did leave, Luke says, it was until an opportune time. Which suggests the devil returned at a later date.

It is chilling, but also sort of encouraging. Because this is what we should expect ourselves if we are serious about growing in our faith.

If we submit to a discipline for Lent, or at any other time, we should expect to be tempted to abandon it, or modify it if it gets difficult. (And it will get difficult.)

We have Jesus’ example to follow. Jesus fought the devil with words of Scripture: “It is written…” he said, repeatedly.

Where is it written?

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible.

· Man does not live by bread alone: Deuteronomy 8.3

· Worship the Lord your God and serve him only: Deuteronomy 6.13

· Do not put the Lord your God to the test: Deuteronomy 6.16

But the devil knows Scripture too. The verses he quotes to tempt Jesus to prove his divinity are straight out of Psalm 91 (vv. 11 & 12). The devil knows where to strike us, all right.

But every time the devil offered him more - more bread, more power, more protection - Jesus turned him down. He says No to the bread, no to the kingdoms, no to the angelic bodyguards.

So by the end of the episode, the devil still has all his bribes in his bag and Jesus is free to go. And then angels came and attended him.

When it's our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We're likely to get the standard Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won't need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to have us dancing to his tune.

But what about the wilderness? Where is OUR wilderness?

We might already, every one of us, have had a wilderness experience.

· It might have been in a hospital waiting room,

· or a cheap bed and breakfast somewhere after losing the house we lived in,

· or the car park where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job.

· It might have been a kind of desert within our own self, begging for a word from God and hearing nothing.


How do we cope with these wilderness times?

We can try and do it as Jesus did. He counteracted every enticement of the devil with words of Scripture.

In the reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans, which we had this morning, he recommends this, too. “What does scripture say?” he asks. “ ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.’ ”

And Paul, too, is quoting the Old Testament, from Deuteronomy again, chapter 30, verse 14. In context, from verse 11, it reads:

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

This is the OLD Testament! Sounding very like the NEW Testament!

We NEED words of Scripture to have at hand, as weapons for when temptation strikes us. And we need them before we know we need them, like a smoke alarm. We don’t wait until the house is on fire to go and buy one. We have one fitted in case, to protect us, so we have a better chance when danger strikes.

We also need to remember the TWO threads to Jesus’ experience in the desert. there was fasting AND there was prayer.

The prayer, and Scripture, enabled Jesus to be strong at a time when his body was weak. We can think of our own soul, our spirit, as a muscle which needs exercise to be strong, like any other muscle.

The devil knows our weak spots and that is where he will attack us. But if our spiritual muscle is kept toned and exercised then we will be better able to resist and stay true to our resolve and to Jesus’ teachings.

This is why the giving up whatever is our particular pleasure during Lent is only any good to us if it is also accompanied by prayer. And we should expect to meet the devil, too. He will not like Christians making a better effort to follow Christ. He will put a spanner in our works if we let him.

Take home your pew sheet with the Bible readings on it. Read them at home. And say the prayers. And if you would like a suggestion for a verse to memorise as a weapon, try verse 2 from Psalm 91: You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust. That’s this week’s homework!

Forewarned is forearmed! Let’s be ready!

Let’s pray: Lord, you are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.


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