Lent Reflection - 1st Sunday
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7 Psalm 32 Romans 5.12-19 Matthew 4.1-11
I remember watching a theatre production about the writer C.S. Lewis, known today as the author of the Narnia books, but known in his time as a leading academic. He was an Oxford don and a Cambridge professor in the field of Medieval English Literature. He taught countless undergraduates over nearly 40 years. In the play, called the Song of the Lion, he shouts down the corridor, "When my students read to me an essay, they want to know how well they've done, and I want to tell them what's next."
When someone is disappointed in their marks in school or college in our household, I find myself explaining that the test is a means to an end. It's not about how good the mark is. It's to help you learn. If it shows you have a weakness in a certain set of questions, then you can plan your revision with a particular set of priorities.
This is the sort of testing that Matthew means when he writes about Jesus' time in the wilderness. When we hear the word temptation, we think of someone offering you a cream cake when you know you really need to go on a diet. But the meaning here is more to do with examination - putting a stress on your resolve to follow through with a particular course of action.
Jesus has just been baptised by John. He has a clear idea of his identity and his direction and his calling. Now that is to be tested. He is going to develop and grow the habits of good decision- making that will sustain him as a human being in the life that he will lead. In the words of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, "tempted in every way as we are" (Hebrews 4.15) - yet he did not sin. As the line in our Collect this week says, "As you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save."
He is going to undergo the same tests that we all go through. Where we have made the wrong choice as human beings, he will show us the right one as a fellow human being in whom God is fully present. [To go further: look at the Early Christian Fathers' teaching of "Recapitulation"]
His responses to the tempter take us right back to two dramas in the Old Testament. The first is, of course, the Fall itself. When Eve and Adam choose to disobey God's instruction, and eat of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they break their relationship of trust with God. They know better. They make themselves the centre of their decision-making instead of God who made them.
The other drama is the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness after they have been set free from oppression in Pharaoh's Egypt. They complain against God. They put him to the test. They worship a golden calf that they make with their own hands.
Both Adam and Eve, and the Israelites, have failed the tests they've been given. But these are turned into learning-experiences by the grace of God, whose redeeming love is so much greater than the trespass, as Paul puts it.
Where they have made the wrong decision, Jesus shows what the right decision looks like.
He is following in the footsteps of the Israelites in their forty years in the desert, in the wilderness, where the book of Deuteronomy says that they were tested by God (Deut. 8.2). Their character as a nation and as a people was being formed by the decisions that they took - and related to the listeners as reminders of how to live in the land once they had arrived in it. They act as a microcosm of our humanity.
Each of Jesus' responses to his three times of testing comes from the Book that tells the story of how the people take to themselves the challenge of living by God's instruction - Deuteronomy. They also shed light on Jesus' mission to redeem the damage done by the Fall.
The first temptation is to use his power and his ability to satisfy his own appetite first, without regard to his heavenly Father.... tell this stone to become bread. His response is a line from Deuteronomy - One does not live by bread alone (Deut. 8.3). The verse he quotes goes on - "but one shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." His appetite will only be truly satisfied when he puts God's values first - when he is loving his neighbour as he loves himself. The world revolves around God, not around selfish human beings placing themselves destructively above and apart from God's creation.
The second temptation is to work a miracle for the sake of working a miracle - a massive publicity stunt... to throw himself off a pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple so that the world can see the angels catch him. The devil quotes a line from Psalm 91 to try and persuade him. But Jesus spots the trap.
What would be achieved if Jesus compromised his integrity by doing a miracle for the sake of it, instead of for the sake of a person who needed healing, wholeness, love and acceptance? This isn't show-business. This is about the healing of the human soul.
He responds by saying, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' (Deut. 6.16)
The oxygen of his relationship with God the Father is trust. That's the same for us too. When you read Psalm 91 carefully, you see that the line, "For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways" (Psalm 91.11), is for those who have come to the Lord as their refuge and stronghold, those who have set their love upon him (Psalm 91.14). The psalmist is saying, as you trust and follow the Lord, then you will overcome the dangers of the lion and the serpent, the dangers of the lion-like pride or serpent-like cunning of the world you face (Psalm 91.13). Don't court it. Don't put yourself in harm's way deliberately. Go forward in faith and trust, and when it comes, as it will, then the Lord will protect you. But God comes first.
The third temptation is to seek the power, the glory and the authority of the world according to its own ways. The devil claims implicitly that this has all been entrusted to his own hand. Follow his ways and he can have anything he wants.
Jesus recognises this as a test of ultimate loyalty - where will his true priorities lie? Will he seek worldly power first? Will it be more important for him to seek power, seize it, and try to hold on to it regardless of truth, integrity or justice? Or does true power and authority lie elsewhere? He rebukes the devil for the mirage that he has conjured up. He quotes Deuteronomy again, from the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness, 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.' " (Deut. 6.13)
In Hebrew and in Greek, the word for worship is the same as the word for serve. To worship is to serve God - and to serve God in one's neighbour.
Guard your heart - for from it flow the well-springs of life. (Proverbs 4.23)
Notice the seed of doubt that comes into the first and second temptation - "If you are the Son of God...." The devil is playing upon Jesus' very own sense of identity, and his relationship with God the Father. And so for us. That little voice which says, "If God loves you....", "if God knows you...", which then seeks to draw you away from trusting God and obeying him.
These three challenges keep occurring in Jesus' ministry - to put his own appetite ahead of his Father's will, to exercise worldly power over people, and to avoid the pain and the sacrifice of what he has to achieve out of love for each person for whom he will give his life on the cross.
So to our times of testing and discipline. We have a teacher who will guide us. Paul writes: "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it." [1 Corinthians 10.13]
When we fail, we have a teacher who will not let us go and who will guide us when we admit our mistake - Psalm 32. 5, 6: " Then I acknowledged my sin to you and my iniquity I did not hide. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,' and you forgave the guilt of my sin."
More than that, we have a teacher who is also our redeemer - who takes the first step to put right what has gone wrong in our relationship with the one who made us. From Jesus' obedience to God our Father, comes the healing light and eternal life that is so much more powerful than the effect of human sin - which is the message of our New Testament reading today. This is grace - undeserved and freely given. Paul says Jesus' obedience to God is not simply like Adam's failure, it's so much greater in power and effect (Romans 5.15, 16). Christ is more than a second Adam - he is also Son of God. The Love of God is triumphant. This is more than just mercy. "Mercy is when you don't get what you deserve. Grace is when you get what you don't deserve!" (A popular quote on many websites - whose origin is unclear).
So this season of Lent keep your heart and mind trained on the teacher and not the exam paper - and on the lesson learnt, not on the grade achieved. Remember - it's Christ the Good Shepherd who is leading you - and he won't let you go.