14 Feb 2016: Lent 1: The Temptations
Oscar Wilde once famously said: ‘I can resist anything – except temptation.’ In fact, in our culture now, when we talk about temptation, mostly it’s portrayed jokingly as something that should not be resisted. So the adverts urge us to give in to temptation – for chocolate, for a drink, for a fragrance. ‘Go on. Give in. You know you want to.’
Most of these temptations are of course somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of things. No big deal. Just a little temptation. Why not give in to it?
And so, when we come to Lent, many of us choose to mark it by resisting those kinds of temptations – chocolate, alcohol, other luxuries. It’s a kind of ‘first world fasting’, when we make do for 6 weeks without things that most people in the world do without all the time. And then come Easter day we celebrate with a chocolate egg and pick up where we left off.
What is the worst temptation that can torment a Christian? Give that question a whirl in your brain and see what spins to the top! I would guess that some of you would come up with a sexual temptation - there are, as you well know, plenty of variations in that field. Maybe others would suggest being corrupted by money or power. Perhaps others put self-righteousness on top of the list. And we could go on …
ONE TEMPTATION OR THREE?
Today I want to suggest to you that the worst temptation for a believer today may be the same one which Jesus faced when he spent his forty days in the wilderness. Did I say the one temptation? I certainly did. The alert among you (dare I say awake?) immediately want to remind me that Jesus endured not one temptation but three:
Turn stones into bread.
Worship the devil and rule the world.
Leap from the tower of the temple.
You are right in that those three things are mentioned in the Gospel story. But what I going to suggest to you is that those three things are all really just variations of the same temptation.
But before I enlarge on my suggestion, I put it to you: If the temptations of Jesus do revolve around turning stones into bread, ruling the world, or jumping from a tower, then his temptations are rather exotic and unreal compared with mine or yours.
Frankly, I have never been tempted to turn stones into bread, nor bow down to the devil and rule the world, or jump from a temple. My temptations are the very common, home grown variety. The temptations of Jesus were in one sense tailored to his unique, amazing gifts.
Even so, I think we are missing the point when we get caught up with the idea that there were three different, special temptations. I believe his temptations were really just one, coming from three different angles. And what is more, I think that his temptation was, in truth, very much like ours.
In fact, his one temptation is the one which I fear most in my own life.
THE TEMPTATION OF JESUS
Let’s look at what happened to Jesus in the wilderness. The clue is in the small little word “if” which occurs in two of the episodes. The ‘if’ calls Jesus’ faith into question - his belief that he is the Son of God.
The first episode: ‘The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”’
The barb of the temptation is in the “if”. IF you really are the Son of God. This taunt lays siege to the very basis of Christ’s faith in his status as the Son of God. Doubt is the issue. Remember that this temptation followed directly on Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit rested on Jesus and the heavenly voice said: ‘This is my dearest Son, with whom I am very pleased.’ Was that Voice real? Was his faith real? Am I the Son of God?
The third episode: ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here ‘. Once more the clout of the temptation is hidden in the insidious little “IF”.
IF you really are the Son of God, jump off. Prove yourself as the Son of God, perform a mighty miracle. Again the temptation strikes at the faith of Jesus; calls it into doubt. Are you really the Child of God?
The second episode is more complex but I see it as hinging on the same point. The devil took Jesus to a high mountain, and showed him all the glory of the kingdoms of the world. He said: ‘If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’
The devil argues: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you, Jesus, could rule the whole world and bring universal peace and justice? If you were really the Son of God, surely you would be able to do that? Face it Jesus, you are not God’s child but mine. Your faith is unreal. You are a son of this soiled earth not the Son of heaven.
There is one temptation at the core of each episode. Jesus is tempted to doubt his status as God’s true Child.
What about us? What about our temptation? I too regard the insidious “IF” as the most dangerous of my temptations. It is especially dangerous because in many ways it sounds most reasonable.
Does this situation sound familiar to you? A nagging inner voice addresses you personally: ‘If you really are a Christian, why don’t you and your fellow Christians do more for all the hungry people of the world? Or do more for the refugees? If you truly are a Christian, you would have to be achieving greater things than you are.’
Or perhaps the temptation comes in this form: ‘If you really have been saved, why can’t your prayers make people better. If you truly are saved, there would be no limit to the suffering you could alleviate.’
Maybe it’s a third variation on the theme: ‘If you really are a child of God, as the Bible says, why haven’t you and your fellow children of God done more to bring justice and peace to the world? Or even peace to the divided churches? If you truly are God’s child, there would be much more reconciliation around.’
In each of these cases we are taunted in a way which hits at our faith, the core of our religion. It strikes at our status as those who follow Jesus. The Tempter says: ‘As a Christian, as a saved person, as a child of God, prove your status. Prove it! If you are what you say you are, then work some miracles, even a few minor ones will do!’
The moment we fall for this temptation we are in trouble. If we begin to doubt our God-given status, we can walk into the depths of faithless despair.
But our Christian status is God-given, not something we need to prove or earn. Jesus knew himself as God’s Son by the word of God, not by his own works. In his desert temptation, again and again he turns to the Scriptures in answer to the devil. In order to know himself as God’s Child, he does not have to turn stones into bread, or give dramatic signs like jumping from the temple tower, of by ruling the world.
He just has to have faith, to trust the God whom he calls Father.
So it is with us. As St Paul put it: ‘By God’s grace you are saved, through faith.’ This faith is not your work but it is a gift from God.
God loves us in Jesus and names us his children. That is all that ultimately matters. God’s love, outpoured to the uttermost on the Cross. God’s gift, not our performance.
Perhaps you now understand why I regard the insidious little IF as the worst temptation. Fall for that and we lose everything. Defeat it and we can cope with anything.
Even if we should break under every other temptation that afflicts our brittle humanity, yet if we retain our simple faith as God’s children, as those for whom Christ died, then God can still make something worthwhile and beautiful from our lives.
Remember and cling to the words from the Letter of John: ‘Dear friends, see what kind of love the Father has shown us: we are called God’s children and such we really are.’
Don’t be tempted to doubt that!
Thanks be to God!