March 10, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Dr Brian Rees using Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4: 1-13, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 10th March 2019, the First Sunday of Lent.
The Gospel passage of the 40 days in the wilderness is representative of the St Luke that we know and admire. Here we see the artist, the writer, the creator of a story that we can understand and access, and an account that is so dramatic and scary and personal that we can almost believe we had been there to witness it.
This story follows upon Jesus’ Baptism and inaugurates his ministry. It is found in this form only in the gospels of Luke and Matthew’, both interestingly in their Chapter 4, and both of almost the same length, but with the temptations in a different order. Mark, for his part, mentions it but briefly (1:12-13), and John ignores it entirely, for, as a theologian, he cannot accept that God in Christ can be tempted as revealed in this story. Interesting… Hold that thought!
The Lucan account hints at a Jewish understanding of fasting undertaken to centre oneself in humility and communion with – and dependence on – God. Traditionally it is:
- with weeping and mourning (and maybe sackcloth and ashes), as after a defeat in battle, or upon the death of someone special;
- as a sign of repentance and seeking forgiveness of sin;
- as an aid to prayer; and
- as an experience of the presence of God.
But Luke’s account has none of these elements. And with Jesus the only participant in the wilderness, one wonders where Luke acquired his original material. Hold that thought also!
In Luke, this story is full of confusing emotions: we have Jesus’ determined readiness for ministry, the excitement of meeting his prophet-like cousin John the Baptist, the coolness of the Jordan water, the loud and clear and affirming voice from heaven. Then, in a time of private reflection – forced into the desert by the leading of the Spirit, we are told – the prospect becomes suddenly worrying…. There are no Old Testament examples for him to pattern himself on…. the patriarchs and prophets will not do… not even God’s chosen, King David, nor Moses or Elijah.
‘If you are the Son of God…’ says the Temptor to Jesus, what kind of Messiah will you be? (And remember, in this period the understanding was that the devil controlled the earthly kingdoms.)
How about this, says the Temptor?
(1) Take care of yourself and your physical needs, and while you are at it, take care of the social and physical needs of those around you also, for there is so much need and poverty and injustice in the world. Turn stones to bread…. (Adopt some form of radical communism maybe, or militant socialism.) An allusion here, perhaps, to Moses receiving the Law on stones? The law now becomes Jesus – the bread of life.
Or (2) Force a unifying religious awareness on those around you so that God’s rule will be surrendered to by everyone. (Become a Religious Dictator, perhaps, or a harshly-enforced and uncompromisingly-rigid state religion.)
Or (3) Jesus, you know our Jewish peoples are being oppressed and persecuted by the Romans both at home and abroad…. Take political power and bring about the new Davidic kingdom that has been promised to Israel…. Kick out the Romans!
For Jesus, it was all so confusing, so inviting, so tempting…. and in the wilderness time, with the food deprivation and maybe limited water, were these temptations signs that Jesus was starting to hallucinate? Were they reflections of his own deeply-hidden inner struggles? What could he trust or know? Which was the right way forward?
Luke and Matthew both say it was at the end of the 40 days that he was tempted. And forty days is significant in that 40 is Jewish shorthand for a long time, and mirrors other 40 images…. The children of Israel wandering 40 years in the desert, Moses on the mountain 40 days to receive the Law, and Elijah 40 days at Mt Horev, and so on. 40 here simply means a time of testing in which God ultimately overcomes and triumphs: through testing times God seems to become closer and more approachable and is found. (Hold that thought also.)
(Quick review: you are holding in your minds:
1.This story is in this form only in Luke and Matthew.
2.with Jesus the only one there, where did this material come from?
- through testing times, God seems to become closer and is found.)
OK, let us move on. In this wilderness time, Jesus finds anew his reliance on Scripture which he can quote freely, and on God. Through considering and responding to the temptations he determines a new self-awareness…Not socialist, not dictator, not religious despot, not above controversy… but only a humble servant: teaching, nomadic wanderings, powerless, willing to suffer and willing to die alone and misunderstood.
But note, this story of testing and temptation lies within a definite New Testament context. Early Christians had at their heart the Resurrection of Christ: it is what marked them out; made them different from their Jewish contemporaries. As our Epistle asserts: ‘if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ This statement represents a form of early creed, or form of confession. Keep that also in your mind.
Remember that the Church as a collective of Christian believers emerged first around Jerusalem, after the death and rising of Jesus, where the witnesses to the Resurrection mostly lived, and then slowly throughout the Holy Land, and then the wider Roman Empire. From the beginning it was a missionary movement, with that one basic message we heard in Romans. The Christian movement developed without central control: there was no creed, no liturgy, no canonical writings apart from the Jewish texts, no external organisation. The resources at their disposal were the simple message of salvation through the Risen Christ, the personalities of the missionaries and their collective memories of Jesus’ words and deeds, and a certain amount of Jewish texts and tradition. But the early Christians wanted more: they needed information about Jesus. The letters were written first, mid first-century, offering support and encouragement to the disparate communities of Christians, and these were widely copied and shared among Christian believers in various locations. But within a generation the Christian communities in various parts of the Roman Empire had begun to develop their own distinctive interpretations of the message of salvation through Christ, some liberal (as at Antioch), and others conservative and orthodox (as in Jerusalem). So emerge the Gospels, probably written around 60 to 100 AD. Each of the writers wanted to reflect faithfully an awareness of the life, teaching, parables, miracles, struggles and vision of their now Risen Lord, and each had his unique bias. Mark’s basic summary with its rough chronology was a first attempt. This was developed further by Matthew and Luke: remember, the Gospel writers were evangelists, not reporters or historians. They were witnesses.
So, what about the Temptations. Who was with Jesus in the wilderness, or when he was alone in other personal moments, as in the Gsarden of Gethsemane, or on the Cross? Who heard God’s voice speaking to him and acknowledging him? Well, in a real sense, the Gospel writers. They were reflecting on their own personal experience of him, and the testimony of the apostles, and those who had witnessed the risen Christ; they found this the best way to share that deeper awareness of what they knew and had witnessed about Jesus and his thoughts and teachings so that others throughout the Roman world might know and believe more fully and correctly. They were passing on faithfully a tradition they had witnessed, heard and received.
I suggest that individual Christians and the Church often still struggle with the same temptations that the Gospel writers have Jesus facing in the wilderness – are we to be a social agency for feeding the poor? to take political and economic power? to dominate and control society? And the Gospel writers’ remind us that the Jesus they knew would have one undoubted response: ‘man does not live by bread alone’; ‘worship God alone and serve him’; ‘do not put God to the test by suggesting he cares uniquely for you and will do your bidding’.
The traditional call to the Lenten season is about preparing to meet the Risen Christ at Easter. It involves prayer and repentance, and the assurance of sins forgiven. The Lenten 40 days challenges us to go into our own troubling inner wilderness, to be hungry and thirsty to consider anew our relationship with God through the Risen Christ.
Jesus in the wilderness, no less than in the Garden of Gethsemane, struggled… can we do less in this 40 day period? And through this testing period keep firmly in your mind that earliest of Christian creeds: ‘if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’
What a joyous way to face Lent and prepare for Holy Week and Easter. Amen.
For further Lenten reflection: In the Gospel of Matthew, the account of the wilderness and temptations can be found in Chapter 4. Read on to Chapter 5, and encounter again the Beautitudes…. Is this still the definitive way forward for Christians?