A Sermon by Rev Peter Coley
First Sunday of Lent, 14 February 2016 – Readings: Romans 10: 8b-13 and Luke 4:1-13
Last week you may have heard on the Sunday programme on radio 4 the account of a very normal young English man who had converted to Islam. His parents were very much in the church. He described the church environment as ‘very nice’, but when he entered a mosque he had found an earnestness, a togetherness, a resolution he had not experienced in any church. This has bothered me ever since. Are we in the church just a little too nice, a little bit too comfortable? Afraid to become more resolute for fear of being perceived as fanatical? If we are seeking to follow Christ then surely such qualities are exemplified in his life and no more so than in the gospel account of his temptation.
After Jesus’ baptism, he is lead by the Holy Spirit to spend a solitary time in what the Old Testament calls ‘the abandoned place’ -a rocky desolate place that shimmered in the intense heat of the day, and plummeted to below freezing at night.
He is led not only to solitude but also to fast for well over a month.
Researchers into hunger strikes present us with a frightening picture of what happens when the body is deprived of food and drink over a long period. In the early stages there is simply an empty feeling accompanied by headaches. This gives way in time to a terrible craving hunger and severe body cramps and spasms. At the same time there can be irrational fears and hallucinations. As the fasting continues a final stage occurs where the person finds it hard to tell reality from illusion, all the emotions are heightened and there is a great sense of drama, a person becomes utterly vulnerable and tempted to believe there is no way out. It can be a moment of truth.
This was the stage at which Jesus encountered Satan, and at which he was to be tempted at the deepest of levels.
After his baptism whilst Jesus was fully aware of his unique Son ship, he was also aware of His vocation to be the ideal servant of God.
It was at this stage within the will of his Father that he should be tempted in pursuit of that vocation, in order that he might learn. We read in Hebrews that Jesus learnt through what he suffered. This would prepare him for the temptations that would pursue him throughout His life, as he followed his vocation in obedience to the Father, which would lead ultimately to the Cross.
Jesus must have described these temptations to his disciples, for us to have the account now. It is interesting that in His use of scripture he draws particularly upon Deuteronomy and the Wilderness experience of Israel. He must, as the ideal servant of God, succeed where the old Israel had failed. He must be obedient where they had been disobedient. They had wandered 40 years yet failed to learn obedience. He would wander 40 days and remain totally obedient.
So it will be helpful in our application and hopefully in our resolution to follow him that we look at how Israel had failed and how Jesus succeeded.
The bread of obedience
Jesus hears a voice… ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’
Jesus answers “It is written, ‘man doesn’t live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’”.
From Jesus’ reply it was not the temptation to doubt his Sonship that was of primary importance, – ‘If you are the son of God’ would become familiar enough words all through his ministry. No, it was obedience to God’s Word that counted – that was his life, that was his bread. It was Jesus the Word of God incarnate that would one day declare Himself as the Bread of Life.
The Spirit had directed him to fast, it is significant that Matthew tells us that he fasted for forty days and forty nights – exactly what we read in Exodus 33.28
‘Moses was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water’.
And now the devil comes to him and suggests surely quite plausibly, that like Moses it was time to end the fast.
But Jesus knew that his Father had called him to the discipline of fast, for precisely the same reason that Israel had been called to ‘suffer hunger in the wilderness’. It was that the supreme lesson might be learned that ‘man doesn’t live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’.
If Jesus was to succeed where Israel had failed, he could not and must not take control of his own life. His life was not to be seen in his own hands, his destiny lie in the hands and will of his Father.
The Father, who had called him and submitted him to these temptations, would, in his own good time supply the physical necessities he would need. The duty of Jesus was to be obedient to that call, and not to decide for himself when or how his fast should be ended.
The people of Israel so blessed and chosen by God after their miraculous deliverance from Egypt, had started out obedient to God’s call through Moses to leave Egypt. Yet as soon as the going got tough they wanted to take their lives in their own hands and return to Egypt, and to slavery. As they railed against Moses for ever bringing them out, they were railing against God in disobedience.
What about us? Are we in the process of retreating back into slavery in Egypt? Having heard the voice of God calling us, enjoying and delighting in him for a season, but now slowly retreating back into the old ways back into slavery?
Our sacrificial giving when we feel the pinch?
Our regular worship of God when it affects our convenience or family life?
Our private prayer, once so important to us, slipping away.
Our personal spiritual development, reading of Christian books and God’s word?
God knows we have our needs, but who’s in control here God or me?
Now is the time to reflect upon these things AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!!
Good intentions count nothing with God. The bread of obedience.
The trust of obedience
The next temptation is to do with trust where there is the prospect of failure. What if the widespread opposition Jesus would inevitably face and the constant refusal of people to believe without witnessing spectacular signs of his divinity, what if these were to cause him to stumble? Would the Father be there to pick Him up?
Surely says the Devil, it would be folly to start your ministry, with the prospect of possible failure. What you need is definite proof of the Father’s protection. Why not create a situation where he has to come to your help.
So Jesus is tempted to imagine himself at the pinnacle of the Temple, quite possibly it is the time for the evening sacrifice, hundreds of people would be assembling in the courts below, and he is to contemplate throwing himself down so that he would be upheld by angel wings and land safely at the bottom. After all it’s biblical – the Devil gives it even more appeal with scriptural backing He quotes just part of a verse 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 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’.
He didn’t go on to complete the verse
Of course you can prove anything from scripture if you take it out of context, and that is what the Devil does now. For such divine protection is only afforded to those who are in the Lord’s way, not those who tempt God for their own desires!
In Jesus’ reply we see it is clear he understands that he is being tempted to do what Israel did at a place called Massah where they put God to the test. They were getting thirsty so they murmured against Moses to prove that God was with them and forced him to entreat God to provide his people with a miraculous supply of water from the rock.
Massah becomes a symbol of rebellion and tempting of God. Jesus knew that, and quotes the word of the Lord back in those times. ‘you shall not tempt the Lord your God’ – as the people tempted him at the waters of Massah.
Jesus knew the difficult path that lay ahead. He also knew that God’s strength and sustaining power would come only as he remained obedient and faithful to his call.
I once visited a remarkable Christian lady at a care home in a former parish. Her husband had had Alzheimers disease for the past ten years. It was a remarkable testimony that she spoke of the Lord’s goodness and sustaining power that had helped her through the harrowing experience of seeing her husband, who was also a keen Christian man slowly deteriorate with the disease. She couldn’t understand why the Lord hadn’t taken them both by now, her husband was 90, but through her moistened eyes a faith and love shined that only heaven awaits.
Have there not been times in our life when we have tempted God? Perhaps when things haven’t gone as we had hoped, or when we have been discouraged, or when we have had to face a real set back or major difficulty. Haven’t we called out ‘God where are you? What do you think you’re doing?’
That is human, and the Psalms are there for us to use and express our frustration as we are learning in our house group at the moment. But ultimately we can’t stay there, we have to move to a place of trust, and allow God to work out his purpose.
Have we moved away from God by rebellion, by our ongoing lack of trust?
The way of obedience
To escape the way of the Cross by being disobedient to his vocation as the Suffering Servant, was to be Jesus’ greatest and most persistent temptation. In the account of Matthew it forms the climax of the temptations.
Jesus was in effect tempted to subscribe to the devilish view that the end justifies the means; that so long as Jesus gains universal sovereignty, in the end it didn’t matter how that sovereignty was achieved. Once again the Devil uses scriptural imagery. You may remember Moses on Mount Nebo, as he surveyed the land that lay before him, he was told that this was the land promised to your ancestors ‘To your seed will I give it’.
The Devil now presents to the imagination of Jesus, standing on an exceedingly high mountain, a vision of all the kingdoms of this world, kingdoms that were destined to become the ‘kingdoms of the Lord and his Christ’. And he offers them to Him without toil or tears or the loss of his own life, on the single condition that he would pay homage to him.
The Devil offers all his weapons of cruelty, ruthlessness, and force in a heartless thrust for world domination, much like we’re seeing with ISIS today. What a contrast to God’s difficult way of winning people by the power of love, self sacrifice and even suffering to make willing subjects of his kingdom.
The Israelites, were divinely warned that when they possessed the land of promise, they would be tempted to be self-satisfied, to trust solely in their own powers, to forget the Lord their God, so that the kingdom of Israel, instead of being the reign of God’s people would be little different from the kingdoms around them. The warning went unheeded.
But whereas Israel forgot, Jesus remembers, and quotes the divine injunction ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Need I say any more? As David Watson a much used evangelist used to say. Jesus is either Lord of all, or He’s not Lord at all. Lent calls us afresh to give up our Gods and worship the true and living God in a resolute way. Amen.