Sunday, 14 February 2016

Resisting temptation: taking the hard road in the wilderness

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 14 February 2016. Text: Luke 4:1-13.

So here we are in Lent. And the temptations begin. So we’re going to talk today about resisting temptation, about how Jesus did it and how we do it.

Many of you will know the phrase from one of Oscar Wilde’s plays that “I can resist everything exception temptation”. And yes it’s tough to resist. Each of us have our own temptations. For some people it’s chocolate. For others it’s cream cakes. Or television. Or not going to the gym. Me, I get constantly tempted by surfing on to random websites when I should be working. Or indeed when I should be writing sermons. But really I’m not talking about that sort of temptation here.

Nor am I talking about the really judgemental sort of temptation. I grew up in the Church of Scotland, and those old Presbyterian preachers had a bit of a fearsome reputation for standing up in the pulpit looking all stern and telling their congregations what to do. When I was a teenager I was in a sketch where every time someone would say something slightly liberal, or slightly about enjoyment, or dare to mention human bodies, a black-clad figure would stand up and loudly sing the old hymn “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin”. And again, and again. Totally, completely, counter-productive.

This is not that kind of sermon. And I’m not talking about that kind of temptation. But I do want to talk about what we do when we are put to the test. When we hear that little voice in our head that says “go on, you could do that thing. Don’t think it’s wrong, it’s just what they want you to believe. It’ll taste, or feel, or look, so good”. Or the other voice that says “are you really sure? They don’t really like you, you know. You’re not really as good as them. Come on, no need to worry. Don’t do the hard thing.” Or still another voice that says “He deserves it, you know. She deserves it. Slap her back. Tell him he’s a fool. You show them.”

Because that’s the kind of voice I’m talking about here. The quiet voice that sounds so friendly, so much on your side, which promises you everything if you let go. Except that you know what’s right really. And you know that it’s not what the voice is saying. And the gospel that we heard gives that voice a very clear name. It refers to it as the devil.

Image: Blake's Satan, via Wikipedia
Now the word ‘devil’, or the name Satan, is not a helpful name to the modern ear. Because we think about silly Halloween figures with horns and spiky tails in red costumes. Or creatures from some horror movie. Or the beautiful but dangerous fallen angels in Paradise Lost. The word ‘devil’ is both too powerful, too frightening, but curiously not powerful enough. Because in most of the Bible, he’s not a red demon. He’s a fallen angel of sorts, but not the sort that does battles. He has the name of ha Satan, the accuser or the adversary, if you like the counsel for the prosecution. He’s a subtle sort of accuser. He’s the voice that tempts Eve with the apple. He’s the one who persuades God to let him test out Job’s faith, and launches terrible suffering on him. He’s the one who has a quiet word with Judas, the misunderstood disciple, and persuades him to betray his master.

And here, in the wilderness, he’s the quiet voice that comes to Jesus and offers him all sorts of things if Jesus will only give up what he knows to be right. He’s sowing the seeds of doubt in Jesus’ mind. In Luke’s gospel, the scene immediately follows Jesus’ baptism. He’s filled with the Holy Spirit. He’s heard from heaven the voice that said “you are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased”. So he has a relationship with God. He has a mission in the world. And then the devil comes to him to undermine that relationship and that mission.

The whole story is a drip-drip-drip of doubt. Twice the devil says “if you are the son of God”, in case Jesus was questioning that. He gives Jesus the chance to worship him, rather than God. He gives Jesus the opportunity to put God to the test. It’s the sort of doubt we’ve all felt ourselves – are we really worthy to do this work in the world? Are we worthy to call ourselves Christians? Are we good enough people to consider ourselves as sons or daughters of God? You could say this is about projection, about the underside of our own personalities getting to us. You could also say the same about Jesus’ experience, after forty days alone and in danger and hungry. And perhaps it is. I don’t think it matters. I certainly think when we experience that sort of thing, we don’t need to call it the work of the devil all the time. But it certainly is an experience of temptation, of testing. And the gospel calls it the devil so we’ll stick with that.

Jesus knows who he is, he knows what he’s come to do. When he leaves the wilderness, he preaches the famous sermon where he quotes from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. But all of that rests on his relationship with God. On his trust in God.

But here Jesus is, alone. Without anyone to help him. It had to be the wilderness, the lonely and risky place, because real change comes through real testing. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it like this: “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

Image: Deeply Plaid
Jesus went into the wilderness to change. Few of us here are likely to go into the wilderness during Lent. It’s not how most Christians do things now. But it’s a common enough experience to enter the wilderness. To enter a world of unemployment, not knowing how and whether you’ll get out. To stare into the abyss of a loved one with dementia or cancer, seeing their suffering and not knowing where the light will come from. To be homeless or a refugee, hungry and travelling and without a place to stop and with only hostile people around. To experience the pain of mental illness, and not be able to see a way out. Suffering is all around. Wilderness experiences are all too common. And you would do anything to get out of them, or to get those you love out of them. And the self-help thinkers will tell you that out of great suffering comes great wisdom, and the wisest people are those who suffer most. And although they sound stupid and glib, they’re probably right. But it hurts. And you want it to stop. And at that point you would bow down to anyone at all to make it end.

And that is when the quiet and reassuring voice in your head speaks, offering the honeyed words of temptation. That’s why this isn’t about chocolate. That’s why this stuff matters.


Let’s look at Jesus’ temptations a bit more. We might call it bread, power and safety. Or, slightly more grandly, the economic, the political and the spiritual temptations. Both of these are described by different commentators [David Lose and Leith Fisher].

The three temptations all cover things that matter to Jesus and still matter in our world (feeding the hungry, acting in the political realm, healing people where they are). They’re not bad things to be tempted about. Jesus was a good person, so of course his temptations were about good things. But Jesus each time goes for the hard option rather than the easy one.

The bread first. Now you could say this is about Jesus’ own hunger, or you could say it’s about his awareness of other people’s hunger. We know that food really mattered to Jesus. Who ate, how they ate, who they ate with. We constantly see him at tables, eating with the most surprising of people, outcasts and lowly folk. Our most important Christian ritual is remembering a meal he had before his death. And perhaps the most tender moment in the gospel of Luke is when he meets the disciples once more after his resurrection and doesn’t give them a message or a sign but simply shows them he’s alive and asks if they have any food. And yes at times the gospels tell us of Jesus as feeding the hungry through miracles (such as the feeding of the 5000, or the changing of water into wine in the wedding at Cana). But food is not really about miracles for Jesus. Mostly he acted through his followers, through their sharing and their generosity. It’s been said about the feeding of the 5000 that the real miracle was that Jesus persuaded all those people to share their food with each other. Food goes with generosity, and sharing, with the gifts of God. But Satan tries to separate Jesus from those gifts of God by persuading him to feed the hungry through power. How great it would be to do so, to fill a food bank with the click of your fingers. But it comes through generosity, through small acts of kindness. It comes through living out the kingdom. And so Jesus passed the first test.

And so the devil gave him another temptation. He could have power in the world. He could be a great ruler of nations, could be the Messiah of the kind that many people were expecting, the warrior king to cast off the Roman oppressors and establish Israel as a great nation, the highest among the nations. He could have power, and money, and palaces, and armies. All he needed to do was to bow down and worship Satan. And yes, he probably could have done it. And he really must have felt that temptation. He was an actor in the world. He was constantly encountering power structures and challenging them. So did his followers. The original creed of ‘Jesus is Lord’ was an act of deep challenge to the state, because it was saying that Caesar is not Lord. And it applies today. I recently read a book by Eugene Peterson, who translated the Bible as The Message, who talks about how deeply subversive is the nature of the kingdom. He’s an American, but writes: “the methods that make the kingdom of America strong – economic, military, technological, informational – are not suited to making the kingdom of God strong”. And he recounts talking to a member of his congregation, a powerful person, and thinking that “if he realised that I actually believe that the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn’t be at all please. If he knew what I was really doing and the difference it was making, he would fire me.” And Jesus knew this – that the choice is between the power structures of the world, which means violence and destruction and the work of the devil, or the kingdom of God, which means love and sacrifice and hope for the world. And love hurts. But love always wins.

One more temptation to come. This time Jesus was in the place of power itself, in Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish world. Standing above the temple, he was offered the chance to show his miraculous self. He could create a scene of great power, to wow the crowds. A man falls, the angels come and rescue him. It would be an impressive experience. They’d come flocking to his side after that. But it would be the vainest of vanity, a seven day wonder. An instant sensation, but disappearing just as instantly. Jesus healed plenty of people, became known for it. We are likewise called to follow him by caring for the sick, seeking their healing. But not in a flash & a bang. Jesus didn’t come to start a branch of Miracles R Us. Yes he would come with great signs, but his ultimate healing of the world would come back in Jerusalem on a cross. Real power.

And so Jesus resisted the temptations of an easy, miraculous route to power and authority. His route to Jerusalem would be the hard one, the rocky road that began in the wilderness, that heard the voice that tried to separate him from God and told it to leave him be. And he told his followers that their way would be hard, that they needed to take up their cross to follow him, that whenever they looked after the least folk, they looked after him.
Image: BiblePlaces.com

There is a temptation to an easy way, even if it’s not the one we know to be right, even if we think it’s for others’ benefit. The voice of the adversary is a subtle one. But we can resist that temptation. We can resist it during Lent. We can resist it even in the depths of the wilderness experiences of our lives. What we can’t do is resist it by ourselves. Human beings don’t have that power. But Jesus shows us that it can be done. We can resist the voice of temptation through his power and we can resist it through his example. We can resist it through the name of Jesus Christ, sent by God to resist temptation and to redeem the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.