1st of Lent, 10 March 2019, 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
Romans 10.8b-13 Luke 4.1-13
Imagine if you came into church this morning and found a £20 note on the floor in your pew. There are three possible ways to respond. You could immediately hand it in to one of the churchwardens as lost property. You could quickly check no-one else is watching and pocket it for yourself. Or you could hesitate, wavering between the two.
It’s that third option that we are normally referring to when we talk about being tempted. Something niggles telling us it is wrong to take one course of action. But we may end up taking it anyway, and be very quick to justify it to ourselves afterwards. And whichever route we decide, there has been an internal struggle, a sense of being tempted.
The Church Times commissioned YouGov to do a survey a few years back and they found that a quarter of the population were planning to give something up for Lent. The most popular fast was chocolate, followed by alcohol, smoking and meat. The point of it is that you know there will be some struggle. It has become fashionable in the Church to talk about taking up things for Lent, and that can be healthy, but there’s good sense in the traditional practice of fasting. It’s a way of recognizing, even if in a symbolic or relatively trivial way, that there are unhealthy instincts within us which we need to bring under control.
It’s for this reason that we can get the wrong idea when we hear of the temptation of Jesus. We may think that he paused and wondered to himself, “Yes, some bread would be very welcome after all this time in the desert”, or, “Control of these kingdoms would be very helpful for my mission”.
But the text gives no sense of this. Instead, repeatedly, as the test is put to Jesus, he responds immediately with a verse of Scripture. His instinct is the word of God for that moment. Of course, Jesus was facing a testing time and considerable hardship and discomfort. But there was no internal struggle, there were no demons within to overcome.
You say, but surely in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus was struggling. Don’t we read of him praying at length in great anguish? Yes, we do, but again, the pain was the horror of what faced him, not any agonizing over whether or not he should do his Father’s will. He prayed that there might be another way, but his will was always surrendered to God.
Jesus was like us because he was fully human. He was not like us because there was a perfect integrity to his character. We are not whole. Neither sin nor the devil had any grip on Jesus. And therefore, neither did death. That’s why he can be our Saviour. That’s why, in the words of our epistle, ‘If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’.
We are fragmented. We are battlegrounds of competing desires. Or worse still, in some areas the battle may be completely lost and we are enslaved. Such as if we pocketed the £20 note without a thought, as if we were entitled. And we’re all enslaved in one way or another.
That’s why, in Lent, we don’t choose targets like giving up unkind thoughts or hurtful words. Because we’d have no chance. Those quick response thoughts and words are a level of behavior where we’ve no direct control. Down inside, we all have trigger points which reveal deep and not always attractive instincts.
That’s why Lent is not about improving ourselves by our own effort. The whole of the Christian faith is not about self-improvement. The reason for any abstinence or discipline is to make us that little bit more open to God, more receptive to his Word.
Think of your garden. You can’t grow anything yourself. You can prepare the ground and plant seeds and keep weeding and watering. But the growth is not in your hands. Similarly we make space for God. We trust that if our wills and our deepest desires are to be aligned with his will, then that’s work we can’t do ourselves. It’s only something that can happen slowly as we place ourselves where we can grow, in the company of the Church, and its life of prayer and word and sacrament.
All this is unattractive to some modern ears. The phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’ was a political statement from the start, in a culture of Roman imperial power. Nowadays it’s a challenge to the culture of self-rule. Today, my will and my choice is paramount. And we have more choice than ever, and less sense of the need for our characters to be formed well in order to make good choices.
It is a popular myth that we each sit above the world as it were, with our power of choice, and as we face each new situation we rationally choose the best action. And if we lack anything it’s at the level of information rather than any deficit in ourselves, in our virtue.
The truth is that our desires are constantly shaped by all the stream of communication around us and if we pay no attention to the influences we place ourselves under, we just go with the flow. All with the illusion that we are making the choices.
A great paradox of the way of Jesus is that here, in the desert, in this place of temptation there is no sense that he had any choice at all. He reacted at the level of instinct with the word of God which was so deeply rooted in him. And for that reason he was free. Far more free than anyone who may pause and deliberate.
The parishioner in the pew who has freedom is the one who, without a thought, hands the note to the churchwarden, not imagining there was any choice in the matter. Anything else, the slightest hesitation, is a sign that something harmful has a grip on us.
And if you’re thinking, as I hope you all are, ‘I’d have no problem handing that note in’, try something harder. Think instead about the notes in your wallet when the offertory plate comes round. Or the pledge form you complete each year, when you decide what to give to St Mary’s by standing order or envelopes. If I had freedom, real freedom, how much would I give? That’s a much tougher test isn’t it?
Or think about the challenge Paul gives to the church in Rome. He says, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. The same Lord is Lord of all. It’s hard for us to imagine the distrust there would have been between the two groups. Or maybe it’s not so hard, given the level of anti-Semitism in Britain today. And the wider racism, and sexism, and homophobia, and distrust between social classes. I’m sure people would have readily said to Paul that they agreed with him. And at the top level of their consciousness that may have been true, but the prejudice deeper down is harder to root out. It can be revealed in a moment, in an instinctive reaction.
As Christians we should be both more aware of that, and of the work that needs to be done – and more forgiving. St Mary’s is a welcoming church, we are each fair-minded people. We say that and we mean it. But the proof is in what other people encounter.
The point of Lent is that there’s work to be done in all of us. New life to grow. So we pray, in the words of the Collect: Almighty God, give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.