27 Feb Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A
26th February, 2023
As we approach today’s gospel reading, in all its familiarity, I think it’s worth noticing that Jesus did not go into the desert of his own accord. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record him being led up, or driven out, into the wilderness by the Spirit. God wanted Jesus to be in the desert; there was something that would happen there that could happen nowhere else, and at no other time. It might seem a strange thing for God to do to the one who he has just called, “my son, the beloved”.
The question the desert asks though is intimately related to Jesus’ baptism, and so to ours: What does it mean to be God’s son, God’s child, his beloved one? What did it mean for Jesus, and what does it mean in turn for us, Jesus’ adopted siblings?
Indeed, the tempter begins by drawing on Jesus’ identity: “If you are the Son of God”. These words, this appeal to identity, will come up again in Jesus’ ministry, and finally on the cross. Jesus’ responses, both on this occasion and those to come, show that those challenging him have fundamentally misunderstood what it is to be the Son of God. It’s not about flashy deeds of power, or dramatic signs produced on demand. It’s not about lording it over the world and over creation. It’s not about using identity for self aggrandisement. No. In Jesus’ eyes, being God’s child means trusting his Father utterly, all the way to the cross and beyond. What then might the three temptations, the three tests, we read about today show us of Jesus, of God and of ourselves?
First of all, daily bread: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” No, says Jesus, for “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Here Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 8, which itself recalls the time when the Israelites were hungry in the desert, and despite their mistrust in God’s provision, were fed with manna from heaven. In drawing on the historical precedent, Jesus also shows his trust against the lack of trust shown by God’s people.
And for us? Do we hunger for “every word that comes from the mouth of God”? Do we trust that God will give us what we need as we come to worship, pray, spend time with God, whether that’s daily, weekly, with others or alone? We don’t need to bring anything fancy with us, and in fact it’s probably better if we don’t. Nothing we can do will conjure up God, and the more we can come before God in openness, honesty, humility, the more we are able to receive.
And so having failed once, the tempter again tries to get Jesus to prove himself as God’s son: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘On their hands will they bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” I kind of imagine the tempter feeling quite pleased with himself here, what with quoting scripture and all. Ha! Got you there, my boy.
Yeah. About that. Not much point quoting scripture at the one who is himself the Word. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”, says Jesus. To be clear, Jesus is not refusing to jump because he lacks faith. His previous response to the tempter, that he is willing to rely on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”, is proof of ample faith. Rather, by refusing, Jesus is allowing God to work in God’s own time. As we’ve already seen, this is not the last time he will be asked for a sign, and each time he will refuse, acting not from his own desires but rather from God’s. And there will come that moment of utter desolation when Jesus will fling himself on God’s mercy, having nothing else left but to cry, “into your hands, I commend my spirit”.
Back to the tempter. Third time lucky? “The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’”
What is at issue here is idolatry, or perhaps in more modern language, compromise. Will Jesus take the apparent short cut? The history of God’s people is littered with golden calves, high places, sacred poles, foreign gods. Indeed, any period of history, up to the present day, is replete with leaders and officials who take bribes, putting their own interests above those of the people they are meant to serve. It’s a sad fact that often it’s the honest leaders who stand out as different, not the corrupt ones.
I think it’s also here in this whole area of idolatry and compromise that we meet some of our greatest challenges as Christians. I used to include this story in a series of RE lessons about the life of Jesus, and with one class we got into a lively discussion about the devil, the tempter. He – she – wasn’t shown in the image I used to illustrate this lesson, and some of the kids were going down the whole horns, tail, red, spiky trident thing, route. Then another said that they didn’t think the devil would look like that, because you’d know to run a mile. They thought a much more effective devil would look quite normal, just like anyone else.
Our opportunities for compromise are many. It is difficult to worship and serve God alone, and the temptation to rely on our own strength is always there, especially when we can provide for so many of our own needs. Fundamentally, thought, the nub of all these temptations, tests, compromises is this, both for Jesus and for us: the temptation to treat God as less than God.
What does this look like? Not trusting God’s readiness to empower us in the face of trials. Failing to trust God’s helpfulness when things go awry. Forgetting God’s sure promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” When we are faced with the ongoing seduction that is compromise with the ways of the world, what do we do? The seductions will be different for each of us, but we can all choose to follow Christ by holding fast to the Word of God? We, along with Jesus, can be bold to say, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
I have a series of little quotations up on the wall by my desk, one of which is this from Henri Nouwen: “a prayerful life…is not a life in which we say many prayers but a life in which nothing, absolutely nothing, is done, said, or understood independently of Him who is the origin and purpose of our existence.” This to me encapsulates something of the purity of heart which we see today in Jesus’ responses to temptation and testing. Jesus had a choice to make, a path to choose. That the path he chose led him to the cross is undeniable, and we are clearly told in the Gospels that this will be our lot, too. But we must also remember that it is through the cross that the victory was won.
Lent calls us to make this choice. We are invited to choose to walk each day in the light of God who is our light and salvation, trusting God and God’s provision, however it may come to us – in worship and prayer, in private, in public, in community or alone, in the sacraments, in our brothers and sisters, in the friends and strangers we encounter on our path. As we follow after Christ this Lent, each step bringing us closer to the cross and so to the joy of Easter, I pray that we might each know God’s love, God’s presence, God’s spirit in us and around us, and may come also to share it with a waiting world. Amen.
Image: Moyers, Mike. Lenten Labyrinth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57142 [retrieved February 27, 2023]. Original source: Mike Moyers, https://www.mikemoyersfineart.com/