17 February 2013, Lent
I have recently been thinking about how things are reused – hyped up or dumbed down – especially on TV and in the advertising world. For example if Sir Winston Churchill had been told that someday a generation of kids would believe he was the bulldog on TV saying “ohhh yes” as he promotes insurance, he would never have believed it! Dvorak’s New World Symphony with sweeping panoramic views of the countryside concludes with a loaf of Hovis bread. And then there is the Go Compare man singing opera. In the same way, the meaning of the word temptation has been hijacked. It is now generally associated with a box of chocolates – “dark temptations” they might call it, an expensive perfume, ice cream or a pudding. Temptations today are more a nod and wink towards indulgence and the slightly naughty. We in turn relish the thought of succumbing to it. As Oscar Wilde put it “I can resist everything except temptation”.
I wonder if the real meaning of the word “temptation” is a somewhat alien concept in our culture. We may not recognise a temptation, even if it wears a spangled gold outfit, and has bells and whistles stuck on. We might peer at it as it capers around and say, “What a very interesting thing that is”. In C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, a senior devil, advises Wormwood, a junior devil. He explains that if a Christian has reached the point when he or she has stopped recognising a temptation then there is no more work to be done on them!
Given all this, we may look at the temptations of Jesus in the same way as the Top Gear lads approach one of their insane challenges (like building a floating car, or driving from Iraq to Bethlehem). One of them will usually ask “How hard can it be?” The lads generally find out quite soon just how hard it really is – and the same is true of the temptations Jesus faced. They were deeply seductive ideas that challenged the very nature of his identity as God’s Son, and attempted to lead him away from his dependence on God and his mission on Earth.
Jesus, led by the Spirit into the desert, fasted and prayed for forty days, and was tempted throughout this time. But how could the Son of God be tempted, and tempted for so long? Temptation only works if there is the possibility that the victim may succumb – Jesus was not tempted because he was invincible, but because he was vulnerable. Jesus was tempted, not because of his divinity, but because of his humanity. Moreover, he was tempted in the things that He was most susceptible to. We are never tempted by things that are not within our character and our nature. For instance, it is highly unlikely that I will wake up tomorrow morning, and be tempted to go out and murder someone! But I might be tempted to daily choose a way of life that might slowly take me away from God or make me indifferent to His kingdom.
Jesus was tempted to doubt his identity as God’s Son, to misuse God’s power and put God to the test. As Thomas Merton puts it, “the greatest temptations are not those that solicit our consent to obvious sin, but those that offer us great evils masquerading as the greatest good.”
Turning stones bread is not evil – it is inherently good. In fact, later in his ministry, Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes to feed 5000 people, and turned water into wine. The evil in the temptation was that if Jesus succumbed, he would be taking back the power that He had laid aside when he emptied himself and took the form of a servant. He would be misusing the power for himself, not feeding the hungry as an act of compassion.
Jesus’ temptations were a fundamental attack on the ministry and life he was beginning. He was being tempted to walk away from allegiance to His heavenly Father, and, in abusing His power, choose the way of most earthly leaders and Kings, both before and since. Jesus’ responses to the temptations reiterate Deuteronomy 26, the passage we have just read. Everything – all power and might, all provision for daily living, everything – is God’s, and He alone should be acknowledged and worshipped.
The passage from Deuteronomy is an antidote to a significant temptation we all face – the temptation to forget that everything comes from God. The passage affirms repeatedly that everything belongs to God. This is why we often pray during the offering “all things come from you, and of your own we give you.”
The Israelites entering the Promised Land were reminded that everything that had happened – the land they were given, their rescue from Egypt, the blessing they knew, their crops – it was all God’s mercy and provision, His blessing. Significantly, this knowledge – that everything belonged to God – was intended to result in a particular lifestyle. However rich or poor, The Israelites were to model the generosity and compassion of God to people around them. They were to be a light to the nations, and through them, others would be blessed.
In the verses that follow today’s reading, we are told that the Israelites gave to those who needed it – especially to the weak and vulnerable among them – the alien, the widows and orphans. There was a spirit of giving, not of acquisition; a spirit of inclusion, not exclusion.
Lent is a period where, like Jesus, we can take time to think about how we live out God’s calling and His Kingdom. Lent is a time of repentance, for our self-centred lives. Despite the fact that we are in the middle of a recession, the culture in which we live still values indulgence. We live in a consumerist cultural climate that venerates acquisition and self, and I often think of how difficult it is to escape it. I am reminded of Gollum from Lord of the Rings who would wring his hands from time to time and moan, “it is mine, mine, my precious”.
So, fasting is unfashionable, and spending time in prayer is impractical. We have things to do, and places to be. We live in times where achievement – what we do and what we can gain, as opposed to who we are – is vital. The image we present to the world is what counts. Although every Sunday we pray the words “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done”, it might be that sometimes we live by the principle of “our kingdom come, our will be done”. God calls us to live for Him, and for the good of His kingdom, an exciting prospect, and a rewarding one. But difficult sometimes to live out.
It is difficult to find our way through the complexities of our everyday life. We are crowded out by the many things demanding our time and attention. Perhaps we can imitate Jesus, in taking time out to think about our lives and God’s calling. Lent gives us the opportunity of refocus on the things that matter: God, ourselves, our world and His Kingdom. Giving things up – just because it is Lent, misses the point. Perhaps as the title of Thomas A Kempis’ classic puts it, we should take the time to pursue the “imitation of Christ”. I would be the first to admit that I am prone to self-deception. I might give up chocolate, but secretly rejoice that it will help me reduce weight, and forget that the purpose of the act is to invest in something else that will draw me closer to God. As T.S. Eliot put it, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” It is scary how we can practice a holy external life while losing our inner selves in the hustle of life.
I have often sat at the Bach Cantata, and while enjoying it, have been quite shocked by some of the words. There is often an overwhelming consciousness of sin, a wretchedness of spirit, and a longing for God. Sometimes I raise my eyebrows and think to myself “oh my goodness – that is quite despairing”. But could it be that we might be forgetting to see ourselves through the eyes of a Holy God, as we truly are?
Perhaps this Lenten season, we can take time to restore ourselves in God’s sight, and renew our calling as Kingdom people. In the words of the hymn we will sing in a few moments, “May Christ, claim our minds, to search His ways, claim our lips to speak His truth, claim our hearts to sing his praise.
In the name of Christ, Amen.