Saturday, March 05, 2022

The First Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the First Sunday of Lent.

The First Sunday of Lent 2022

Reading: Luke 4:1-13

It seems a bit strange, having begun to look at St Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry over the past few weeks, to suddenly have to go back to the start of it again. We will, of course, return to St Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry, but for now we must press the rewind button to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

St Luke has just described Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and has given his version of Jesus’ genealogy (Luke 3:23-38). St Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam whom he describes as ‘son of God’ (Luke 3:38). Jesus, of course, is described as God’s Son by the Voice from heaven at his baptism (Luke 3:22). It is Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and what that means for his ministry that is the central theme of our Gospel reading. Jesus is questioned and challenged by the Devil as to what sort of Son he is going to be.

The Gospels don’t tell us a lot about Jesus before he begins his ministry. Only St Matthew and St Luke tell us anything about his birth. St Matthew tells us nothing about his childhood after his escape to Egypt when Herod tries to murder him. St Luke, however, does record one event that happens when our Lord is growing up.

At the age of 12, St Luke tells us, Jesus goes with his parents to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. On their way back, his parents, who think he is with others in the party they are travelling with, realize he is missing. They eventually find him in the Temple, his mother tells him how anxious they have been about him going missing. He replies that they should know he has to be 'about his Father's business' (or 'in his Father's house' depending on your translation – either are possible). The point is, whichever translation we opt for, that even at the age of 12, Jesus is conscious that God is his Father. Nevertheless, Jesus returns with his earthly parents to Nazareth where, like a good son, he is obedient to them. St Luke writes of this time in Nazareth:

‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.’ (Luke 2:52)

Jesus then goes off the radar until he appears in the Gospels at the age of 30 to be baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Presumably in these in-between years, while being obedient to his earthly parents, Jesus was at the same time thinking through what it meant to be God's Son and what it meant to 'be about his Father's business'. God the Father makes clear at Jesus’ baptism that he is pleased with the progress Jesus has made. But now, before Jesus begins his work, it is time for him to be tested. Has Jesus learnt what it means to be God's Son and what it involves? Is he ready for the business his Father has sent him to do?

Our Gospel reading describes three tests that Jesus has to take before he begins his ministry. St Mark gives just a summary of them (Mark 1:12-13). St Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11) and St Luke, however, both describe them in detail, although in a different order. These tests are often referred to as the ‘Temptation of our Lord in the Wilderness’. The word 'temptation', however, can be misleading here. The Greek word that both St Matthew and St Luke use can mean either ‘temptation’ or ‘test’. Commentators I respect argue that ‘temptation’ is the right translation. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word 'temptation', I think of someone being tempted to do something they want to do but know is wrong: from eating chocolate to murdering their boss! This is not what is going on here. If we do keep using the word ‘temptation’, we need to think of the temptation in terms of a test. The Devil tries to persuade Jesus to do something to test whether he has understood what it is that God wants him to do in his ministry.

Although the Devil is the One God uses to test Jesus, it is important to see that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and is led into the wilderness by the Spirit (Luke 4:1). This is something that God wants to happen. God has arranged this testing not simply to see whether Jesus can resist temptation, God wants to know whether Jesus has understood what it means for Jesus to be his Son and whether Jesus understands what is required of him in the years ahead.

The Father has cause to be concerned, not because of anything that Jesus has done, but because of his own previous experience. God has already had a son he wanted to do work for him. A different sort of son, but a son, nevertheless. This son too had been led into the wilderness, where he had been tested, but had failed. During his testing, this son complained against the Father when he became hungry. He had not worshipped only the Lord his God. And he had put the Lord his God to the test.

When God sends Moses to Pharoah, God tells Moses he is to say to Pharoah:

‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.’ (Exodus 4:22)

Jesus’ tests will match the tests God’s Son, Israel, went through in the wilderness after the Exodus and failed. Will this Son be any different? Will he pass the test? As before, the tests are all about what it means to be God's Son and the answers that Jesus gives will show whether this Son will succeed in carrying out his Father's business where the previous son failed.

There are three tests.

1. The First Test: To Turn Stone to Bread

It is, of course, not a test if the answers are obvious. Again, we fail to see in what way Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was a test because we persist in seeing it primarily in terms of temptation to do something wrong. A temptation in our mind is do something that we already know to be wrong, but which we also know we should resist. Temptation for us is about resisting what we know to be wrong.

Jesus’ testing in the wilderness, however, isn’t primarily to do something he knows to be wrong, but about his understanding of what it means to be God’s Son and how he would live that out in his life and ministry. What is being tested is Jesus’ understanding of himself and the work he has come to do, and what that means in practice.

The first test is to turn stone into bread. Jesus has been without food for forty days. He is hungry. The test lies in whether he will satisfy that hunger by using his power as God’s Son. Very often we are told that the test here is for Jesus to use his power inappropriately. It would be wrong for him, it is said, to use his power to turn stone to bread. But this test question isn’t about whether Jesus will misuse his power, but about what his priorities are in using it. Jesus is being ‘tempted’, to use the language of temptation, to focus on his real physical need. He is being tested as to whether as God’s Son he will prioritize physical need? Jesus, after all, is genuinely hungry. He legitimately needs food. Jesus’ reply is that we should focus on God’s word and what God says to us, and not on our own needs, no matter how legitimate they may be. Jesus’ answer to the Devil is frequently quoted but rarely observed. Jesus answers:

‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ (Luke 4:4)

2. The Second Test: To Worship Satanic Power

In the first test, Jesus has to decide what his priorities are: satisfying his physical or his spiritual needs. Jesus chooses God’s word as food for his soul rather than bread for his body. Not that bread is wrong or his body unimportant. It is about priorities. The second test is to obtain power and influence in this world other than by worshipping and serving God alone. As God’s Son, Jesus is destined to be King. He has come in fulfilment of the promises God made by the prophets to send the Messiah, the One who would be the Ruler of his people. The essence of being a Ruler is that you have power to rule. If Jesus wants to be the Ruler of his people, there is not much that he will be able to do in this world without that power, and so doing a deal with the one who has that power is, again, not an unreasonable course to take. How can Jesus achieve his aims in this world without it?

The test, then, is whether Jesus will compromise his worship and service of God to gain the power he needs to realize his calling. After showing Jesus all the kingdoms of this world, the Devil says to Jesus:

‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ (Luke 4:7)

Jesus answers him:

‘It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ (Luke 4:8)

3. The Third Test: To Test God

Jesus’ third test in the wilderness builds on the other two. It is even more difficult than the previous ones as it is based on interpreting the Scriptures. Jesus has quoted the Scriptures in answer to the previous two questions in the test. He has got the answers right. But the Scriptures also said that God would look after his Son and make sure no harm comes to him. Jesus can’t fulfil his mission as God’s Son unless he is sure of his calling and that the people to whom he is sent believe in him. Why not settle it once and for all with a simple demonstration that proves that God is on his side? The success of the act will show that God is with him and behind both him and his ministry.

Jesus is taken by the Devil - whether physically or in a vison, we don’t know - to the pinnacle of the Temple. Interestingly, it will be from here that his brother, James, (according to some church traditions) will be thrown and killed by unbelievers in about 30 years’ time. The Devil’s ‘temptation’ is for Jesus to throw himself from it now. As Jesus is God’s Son, the Scriptures promise that God will look after him. Surely God can be relied upon to intervene to save him? It will be a spectacular demonstration of who he is and a great way to begin his ministry.

Jesus has been tested previously by being asked to prioritize physical need and to realize his goals by gaining political power and glory. He is now being asked to validate his identity, and, by extension, his mission, by a test designed to demonstrate unambiguously that God is on his side. If God were to intervene dramatically for all to see, it would show conclusively to all concerned that Jesus has got it right in what he thinks and does. Jesus has been led into the wilderness to be tested and here in the wilderness, he is now invited instead to test God: to get God to prove he is God’s Son by getting God to protect him from harm and failure.

Jesus refuses quoting Scripture. Jesus answers the Devil:

‘It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (Luke 4:12)

These tests and temptations are about Jesus’ self-understanding and his understanding of what it is he has been sent by his Father to do. We need to be careful, then, not to make them simply examples of the general temptations to sin of the sort we all experience all the time. These tests of our Lord are specifically about what it means for him to be God’s Son, the Messiah, sent by God to his people Israel who had failed in their own calling as God’s Son. The Devil tempts him to make his work about satisfying physical needs using political power, proving his identity by provoking God.

The first test Jesus faces in the wilderness is whether he will turn stone into bread to satisfy his hunger. Will he be the sort of Son who puts his own physical well-being and comfort first? If he is, then presumably that will also be how he understands his work. The second test is to put gaining political and earthly authority and influence before the worship of God. Will he be the sort of Son who seeks to achieve his aims through power and glory rather than obedience and suffering? If he is, then presumably he will seek an earthly rule, kingdom, and influence. The third and final test is to show that God is on his side in a visible and dramatic way. Will he be the sort of Son who sees success in measurable and demonstrable terms? If he is, then presumably he will judge his work in the same way; his fame and how many followers he attracts will matter to him.

Our Lord was tested to see if he would pass after God's other Son, Israel, had failed. He did. Jesus refused to focus on his own needs and focused instead on God's Word. He renounced the easy route of seeking power and glory rather than worshiping God. He rejected dramatic displays that sought to demonstrate God's approval and make himself the centre of attention. He was obedient to the Father, even though it meant suffering and death. This refusal, renunciation, and rejection characterized his ministry. He came to serve rather than be served and to give his life on behalf of others. He came to die that we might live.

After he has fulfilled what God has sent him to do, the Risen Lord says to his disciples:

‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21)

We are now called to continue Jesus’ ministry. While Jesus’ tests are about him and the work the Father sent him to do, we can, nevertheless, learn important lessons from Jesus’ answers to the Devil’s tests as we seek to fulfil our own calling as Christ’s body, God’s people on earth. We ourselves face temptations to pursue a path other than the one our Lord followed. Jesus wants us to follow his way. Will we be tempted to stray?

1. The Temptation to Prioritize Material Well-being

We are embodied beings living in a physical world with bodily and material needs. The urgency of these needs encourages us to think that these are our most important needs. This sets up a conflict between our physical needs and our spiritual needs. At different times in the history of humanity, some have asserted one over the other. In the past, hard though it may be for us to understand today, some have asserted the priority of spiritual needs to the denial of physical needs. For most of us most of the time, however, the physical needs of the body are not something we can easily ignore.

We live in an age, however, which seeks to avoid any conflict between our physical and spiritual needs by prioritizing our physical and material needs in the here and now. The prevailing ideology of our age takes as its working hypothesis that this world is all there is or, at least, that this world is the only world that we should worry about and concern ourselves with.

It is here and now, in the theatre of this world, that our lives are being played out. This world is what matters not some hypothetical strange world to come about which we know little and care less. This means that satisfying human need now must be our first priority. In our minds, this isn’t about greed, but need. After all, we do need food, for example.

Materialism can show itself in different ways. It can reveal itself in the ostentatious display of wealth and in the unbridled desire for ever more money and possessions, but it can also display itself more deceptively as a simple concern for human physical well-being. It is not wrong to be worried about our physical needs any more than it was wrong for Jesus to be hungry. It is how we react to these needs that matters. Do we react in such a way that they take priority over everything else?

Jesus said that ‘man shall not live by bread alone’. He didn’t say that we didn’t need bread and, later in his ministry, he teaches his disciples to pray daily for it. In fact, his most famous miracle is providing bread for five thousand people in the wilderness! If, however, in our desire for bread to feed ourselves and others, we ignore our more basic and urgent need for the Word of God, then our desire for bread, whether for ourselves or for the hungry, becomes an opportunity for the Devil to get us in his power.

Too often both human need and human greed are based on the same assumption, namely, that we live by bread alone. That assumption, however, comes not from God, but, as Jesus realizes, from the Devil.

2. The Temptation to Seek Political Power

Jesus, in his first test, rejects prioritizing physical need asserting instead that we should live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. However, if we take a different point of view and believe this physical world should be the centre of our attention and that our priority should be physical and material well-being, here and now, then this, in turn, will determine our means of achieving it. The means we use to achieve material well-being in this world will need to work both physically and practically, and the means we use will then, inevitably, be both social and political. To make any real and lasting difference in this world, we tell ourselves, we need power and influence.

This doesn’t always express itself in negative ways. Making this world the place where we seek to achieve our goals and realize our ambitions may indeed lead to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, Lenin’s Soviet Union, or to some of the other terrible atrocities our world has seen, but, equally, it can express itself more altruistically in, for example, the concern for peace, social justice, diversity, inclusion, and equality.

The reason we want political power and influence may be to ensure that there is bread for all and a fair distribution of that bread to all. Nevertheless, the fact remains that while we may differ in what we do with it, ultimately what we want is the same. We want political power to gain happiness in this world. For some, this power is to dominate and control; for others, to change things for the better; but the means and the end are the same: political power to change life materially, for good or ill, in this world now.

Jesus chose a different way. Rather than seeking a seat at the table of power, he chose to be hung from a Cross. Instead of the way of power and glory, he chose a path that involved humiliation, suffering, and death. Jesus rejected the ‘temptation’ to accept power in this world because, as he himself was to put it, his Kingdom isn’t of this world (John 18:36).

Our own desire for power and influence in this world is often based on the false assumption, rejected by Jesus, that what this world needs can only be obtained by gaining political power in it, often power at any cost. But power and influence in this world can only be obtained if we make a pact with the Devil. Jesus replied to him that we should ‘worship the Lord our God and serve only him’. But what is it that we worship: is it status, success, or simply our self? Our idolatry can take many forms. Our gods can look beautiful and sound wonderful, but in serving them we serve gods that will demand our service, and will eventually destroy us, no matter how well-meaning or laudable our aims.

3. The Temptation to Value Success

For Jesus’ ministry to be successful, he needs people to believe he is God’s Son. Why then not publicly establish his identity from the start for all to see by taking God at his word? If, however, Jesus had thrown himself off the Temple to show he was God’s Son, this would not have been a demonstration of his identity and faith, as the Devil presents it to him as being. Instead, it would be a test of God to see if God would intervene as he had promised. Jesus would still have been God’s Son if he had gone through with what the Devil suggested, whether God saved him or not, but where would that leave God and his promises if he didn’t intervene?

As followers of Christ, we want to believe that God is on our side. But how are we to know? If our aims are physical and material well-being, the means of achieving them will obviously be through social and political power and influence. The test, then, of whether God is on our side will also be material and physical. It will be visible and clear to show that we have got it right. The test will be whether it works; whether we are successful; whether it makes us happy.

In the past, the glory, power, and riches of the Church were seen as indication that God was on her side. Today, we use other criteria to determine whether God is on our side. For some, it is the number of people who come to our church services. For others, it is our success in achieving justice and equality in our world. For others, it is whether we get what we want out of life: whether we are healthy, wealthy, and successful.

We create a test designed to prove to ourselves or others that God is with us. We want something visible, that all can see, to show that God is truly on our side, but it is not ourselves we are testing by doing this, but God by holding him to our standards of success and failure.

So desperate are we for signs and wonders, that we often go looking for them and have great joy when we think we have found them. We test God by expecting success in the work we do; in the numbers we attract to our cause; or in our personal achievements in life. But all these tests remain of our own making, and, in the end, they prove nothing except our lack of faith. God will not be tested by us despite our efforts to do so.

After the tests in the wilderness have been completed, St Luke writes:

‘When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.’ (Luke 4:13)

The Devil in the wilderness questions Jesus about his understanding of what it means to be God’s Son. It is Jesus’ obedience and understanding of what it means that is to take him to the Cross. Nailed to the Cross, Jesus is again tested three times about what being God’s Son means.

Firstly, the leaders responsible for Jesus being there, scoff at him saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one (Luke 23:35)!’ Secondly, the soldiers mock him saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself (Luke 23:37)!’ Thirdly, one of the two criminals who are crucified with Jesus derides him saying: ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us (Luke 23:39)!’

They are all clear about what being the Messiah, God’s chosen One means, and it doesn’t mean suffering and dying a cruel death, apparently powerless to do anything about it. For Jesus, however, that is exactly what it means. Importantly for us, Jesus teaches that we are to follow his example; we are each, individually, to deny ourselves and take up our Cross daily (Luke 9:23). Quite simply, we are to be like him.

Finally, in closing, I want to ask three basic test questions, based on what we have been saying, for each of us as individuals to answer.

1. How seriously do you take God's Word compared to how seriously you take satisfying your material wants and needs?

In answering, ask yourself how much time you spend in a day reading the Bible compared to having a meal or watching something on a screen. Do you think that your physical comfort and enjoyment is more important than your spiritual life?

2. Which would you prefer: to be well off and successful or to be known as a regular and committed member of God's Church?

In answering, ask yourself how much time you give, for example, to cultivating contacts that will help you in your career compared to how much time you spend on spiritual activities. Does having money and material possessions matter more to you than your relationship with God?

3. To what extent is your faith in God dependent on everything going right in your life?

In answering, ask what it is you pray for. Is it for material things for yourself and your family or to know and do God's will in your life? Do you see physical well-being and outward success in life as the test of God's blessing?

When the test becomes personal and individual, most of us if we are honest have to admit that we don’t score highly. We do prioritize physical well-being, wealth, and possessions over knowing more about God. We do seek social status, power, and success rather than serving God alone. We do put God to the test by holding him to our standards of what we expect him to do for us.

However, although our score is low all is not lost. Realizing it gives us the opportunity to do something about it. That, traditionally, is what Lent is all about. Lent is a time for repentance for past failure, for reflection on present behaviour, and a chance to renew our commitment to following Jesus on the way of the Cross.

This Lent, then, may our Lord give us the grace we need to examine ourselves, so we too may succeed when we are tested.


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