Sermon for Lent 1

Sermon for LENT 1, at Lancaster Priory, 1st March 2020

Preacher: The Revd Canon Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster

As we begin this season of Lent, the Gospel reminds us of the Biblical example of Jesus going away into the desert for forty days and forty nights. “Then Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.”

Our forty days of preparation to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter morning will not (we hope) by marked by the presence of the devil among us, tempting us in the same way that Jesus was tempted. We may well be tempted – by chocolate, alcohol, cake, crisps, or whatever it is you may have chosen to give up for Lent; or by the lack of resolve to do what we may have promised to do as something to “take up” for Lent. That trip to the gym, the swimming pool, that early morning run, that daily reading of the Priory’s Thought for the Day. It’s the early days of Lent – so I hope you are still able to keep on with your Lenten discipline whatever it may be.

But what happened to Jesus in the wilderness is quite another matter. This was the crucial time after Jesus’ first public appearance when he was baptised by John the Baptist, and before he began his public ministry by calling his first disciples. At his baptism, Jesus was confirmed as the one for whom the Baptist was waiting – the one whose sandals he was not fit to fasten on – by the voice of the Father saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now the devil is called “the tempter” and that is something we can probably more easily understand. And as we know, lots of Biblical messages come in threes – so here the temptations also come in a set of three.

The first is simple. Bread. “Jesus was famished” we are told. And what was offered as temptation was the simplest thing familiar to everyone. All Jesus had to do was to use his divine power and command the stones in the wilderness to become bread. For the Son of God that would be easy, surely. “Just do it!” the tempter urges, “and your hunger will be gone”. But of course, it’s not about bread. It’s about power, and the abuse of the divine power to satisfy his own appetite. Jesus does not hesitate to quote Deuteronomy to close the tempter down.

The second is a little more complex. “Reveal your divine power by jumping from the highest pinnacle of the Temple, and God will send his angels to protect you! Then everyone will know you are truly special, for God would not do that for anyone else!” But Jesus gives the tempter short shrift. “You shall not tempt the Lord your God!”

The third temptation is very different to the previous two. First, it ramps up the drama even more – Jesus is not asked to show his power here: it is the tempter who reveals his own power at work in the nations of the world. (Remember that in Hebrew tradition, God permitted Satan to hold, for a time, power over the fallen nations of the world.) Jesus is taken to a high point on a mountain from which he can see all the kingdoms of the world. And the tempter offers these lands and all their splendour to Jesus – if only he will worship him.

To the previous two temptations, Jesus has been civil, even polite, trading quotations from scripture – the Book Deuteronomy to be precise – to respond to the tempter’s challenges. (It’s clear that the Tempter knows the Bible well! He even uses scripture to try and tempt Jesus) But this third temptation goes too far in vaunting the tempter’s power, so he receives a strong rebuke. “Away with you, Satan!” for only God is worthy of worship and service.

The challenges to Jesus, therefore, are all about power.

  • Jesus’ Power to turn stones into bread
  • Jesus’ Power to summon angels for protection
  • The Promise of Power in the kingdoms of the world

This tempter who tests Jesus at the start of his ministry is to return again to Jesus at the end of his ministry:

  • in the Garden of Gethsemane, in his last hours, when Jesus prayed that “this cup may pass from me.”
  • And on the cross, when he refused his very last temptation – “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and then we will believe!”)

So – if Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, (tempted as we are, yet without sin) is the model for our 40 days of Lent, what does this story of temptation say to us in our own context?

The first temptation of Jesus is about ordinary physical need. He was famished, and the temptation was bread. Hunger can make people make bad decisions. Take Esau, for example – who was tricked into giving away his birth-right to his wily younger brother Jacob, “for a mess of potage” – he was tempted because he was hungry and his priorities were not what they should have been – and he paid the price, with the loss of his status!

In answering the first temptation, Jesus responds by saying “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus was, of course able to perform miracles with food and drink; his very first miracle was the turning of water into wine at Cana, he also fed the five thousand:  but this was never done as a “magic show” to show off of his power, but as the response to a clear and present need. The focus of his mission was not to provide an instant solution to the everyday problems of life – rather, his aim was to point to something even more lasting, more fulfilling. And ultimately that was to point to himself, as he was to say, “I am The Bread of Life,” even that same Bread which we shall receive today in this Eucharist as Jesus reveals himself to us.

This Lent, let our focus be on the Christ who knows our needs and answers them more fully than we can ask or desire, and in a way that gives us more than bread which we can eat but we will be hungry again; the Bread of which he speaks will give us the strength we need for the journey of our Christian life which is before us.

The second temptation of Jesus is nothing short of asking for a miracle on demand – it reminds me of that line from Jesus Christ Superstar, when Herod asks Jesus: “Prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool!” Jesus did, indeed perform many miracles, but each one was a response to a particular need; a multiplication of loaves and fishes, a healing, a raising from the dead. Not a “miracle demonstration” before a large crowd to prove his divinity to the masses. From the humility of his birth, to his death on the cross, this was not the way God in Christ was revealed to the world. God was revealed in humility and vulnerability, not in grand shows of power.

This Lent, let our focus be on the Christ who for our sakes was humble and obedient to his heavenly Father even to the point of suffering and dying for our sakes, and – as Jesus was obedient let us too, seek to be obedient to God’s call on us and on our lives.

The third temptation of Jesus was a very different sort of power, which Jesus spurned, the temporal power of earthly, political rule. He rejected outright the zealots’ call for him to be the focus of opposition to the Roman rule, as some sort of secular messiah. He would not be tempted to become a worldly despot, however benevolent. “His Kingdom is not of this world” as he would say to Pilate. The worship of his Father, God Almighty, as King of kings and Lord of lords was Jesus’ priority, and all earthly rulers subject to God’s authority. This temptation was the last before the devil left him.

This Lent, let our focus be on the Christ who spoke truth to power in the hour of his Passion, as in his name, we seek to hold our leaders to account when they do not exercise their powers with the integrity and truthfulness we have a right to expect of those in authority. When they are seen to act out of self-interest and not for the common good, let us show them the example of Christ who suffered for his people so that they might have life in all its abundance.

At our baptism, we are welcomed into the Lord’s family, the family of the Body of Christ, the Church universal, and into the loving embrace of our God and Creator – and those words which were spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism “This is my Child, my Beloved” are surely also addressed to us and every member of that family. But later in life, every beloved child of God will face a time of testing, when our faith will be put to the test in any number of ways.

But Jesus has gone before us and has shown us how to resist and be steadfast in our faith. Yes, we may falter, yes we may for a while follow a different path to the one Christ would have us walk in. But if our focus turns back to Christ, we will have his words to help us triumph over temptation, so with him we can say. “Away with you, Tempter!”

And if we do turn our eyes and focus on Christ as our inspiration and guide in all things, we will be able to say:

“I will not put God in second place after my desire to satisfy my appetite.

“I will not put God in second place after my desire for power.

“But I WILL worship the Lord God Almighty and serve only him.”

And the angels of God (in whatever form they might take) will minister joyfully to the child of God who resists the Tempter.