Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

If you are the Son of Man.

Lent is upon us.
Tradition has this reading as for the first Sunday of Lent.
It deals with temptation.
But on a more significant scale, it deals with identity and choice.
The two are intimately linked.

The event we hear about takes place directly after Jesus’ baptism, where
a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
 Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

What is the reasoning for this?

We can understand the idea of a need to go and pray, to spend some time in silence.
Moses too went into the wilderness for 40 days to pray and work out what he was going to do.
In Jesus’ case, God the Father has just told him now is the time.
All he needs now is to work out how to do it.

Enter the devil. Note how Matthew first calls him ‘the tempter.’
Listen to his words: “If you are the Son of Man.”

Jesus has had confirmation of who is he from God the Father.
He has now spent a long time in prayer and fasting.


The first thing the devil does is try to undermine Jesus’ identity.
He is trying to put the tiniest slither of doubt into his mind.
He is trying to make him feel a lack of something.
By doing so, he is trying to get Jesus to prove himself out of this feeling of doubt.
‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 
 Now, Jesus has been on his own in the wilderness for quite some time.
He has had no food, so he is quite rightly famished.
What is wrong with wanting to feed himself?
We know he is capable of doing such a thing, think of the feeding of the 5000 for example.
But he answered,
‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
Notice how Jesus doesn’t enter it to the conversation.
No argument, no quibbling, no explanation.
He quotes from scripture, from the book of Deuteronomy 8.

The passage Jesus is quoting deals with Israel’s wandering in the desert.
It explains that this was in order to humble them, to test them to know what was in their heart.
It explains that God let them hunger, feed them with manna:
in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut 8:1-3) 
So Jesus’ reply is not some quick quip, it goes right into the heart of God’s dealings with his people, and God the Father’s dealing with him, the Son.

Jesus reply shows he gets his sense of being the Son from his obedience to the Father.
He will live by what the Father says, those words that were spoken at his baptism:
‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
But, nothing exposes us to temptation more dangerously than a successful rebuff of temptation.
The devil seizes upon Jesus’ words.

He takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple the centre of all religious life, the centre of the world for the Jewish people. It all happens there.

So, you say you will live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Well, listen to these words of God. As Jesus used scripture, so too does the devil.
He quotes from Psalm 91.
‘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 they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus refuses. He answers with scripture, again from Deuteronomy.
‘Again it is written,
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
The passage Jesus quotes in full is
Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.
The events at Massah to which this refers to are found in Exodus 17. This is where the people are arguing and in need of water. They question Moses’ decision to take them into the desert, Moses asks God, and God provides.

So Jesus answer speaks of a time when God was tested, and he did indeed answer.
But the commandment that came after is that no one is to do this again.
Jesus knows he would be fine if he did indeed throw himself from the temple, but again he is showing his obedience to the Father.

The last temptation is the most insidious, and reveals what the devil is really trying to do.

He takes Jesus up to a high mountain, and show him all the kingdoms of the world.
He has given up on scripture by this point.
Now he goes straight to the ego.
 ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 
This reveals the reason for all the temptations.
They have all been about attempting Jesus to go off from the path he is on.
They are all about how he  might achieve his mission easier, by miracles, flashy events, and in this case changing allegiance.

Jesus said to him,
‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’ 
Jesus quotes again from Deuteronomy.

So what is the devil really up to? What is the point for Jesus to go through these?

He presents Jesus with a series of options, all of which are reasonable, or would help Jesus on his mission.
But all of them are not right.
All of them seek to take Jesus away from purity in obedience to his Father,
to a mixed mess of alliegences.

We can think that when Jesus went into the desert, he knew what his mission would be, but probably did not know how he would achieve it.
By the temptations, Jesus now knows how he will not achieve it.

This seems to be the role of the devil. Choices.

He present us with options, usually none that bad. They are normally just lesser.
They are ones that take us off our path. Most significantly though, they are ones which ask us to be less than ourselves. They ask us to be someone we are not. A lesser version of ourselves.

This is how temptation works.
We are tempted to become lesser versions of ourselves.
We are tempted into not being our true selves.

And this is where the devil is at his finest. He doesn’t need to do that much, he just needs to let us think that our true self is not what we are, or our true self is not what God really wants of us.

In Jesus’ case, the devil offers things that would stop Jesus from being who he really needed to be, and yet these same options provide Jesus with what he will be, without succumbing to them the way the devil suggests.

Instead of changing stones into bread, Jesus becomes the bread by which men can live, because it is the same as the word which comes out of God’s mouth.

Instead of throwing himself off the temple, he becomes the temple, a temple which refuses to be cast down in the resurrection.

And in his death on the cross, he becomes the king of all the kingdoms of the world.

In these events, Jesus showed himself to be the Son of God, in humility and exaltation.
He will achieve his mission through his obedience to God’s will.
That is his true self.

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