Temptation

By in Sermons on March 10, 2019
Luke 4:1-13 Last week I talked about the wilderness and the mountain top, two symbols of those moments of transcendence, those moments of closeness to God that transform us, inspire us with a new sense of the reality of God, a new vision of who Jesus is and who we are called to be. Today, in the story of the temptation of Jesus, we have a very different wilderness story. A story of hardship, of temptation, and, as is our theme for this time of Lent, a story of courage. But before we get into the story I’d like to reflect for a few moments on the idea of courage. Now it’s probably a little unusual in this day and age, and especially for someone coming from a background in the physical sciences, but my return to the study of theology, twenty odd years ago, came out of reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics. This was back before smartphones and Kindles, remember, and Sureka and I had picked up second hand a cheap set of classic works, and I was sort of randomly reading through them on the train. Wealth of Nations, the Divine Comedy, the Origin of Species, and the Nicomachean ethics, that sort of thing. And what I love about Aristotle’s ethics is that they are less focussed on determining the right or wrong option in any particular situation, and more upon the growth of virtue in the individual; an emphasis less on ‘doing the right thing’ and more on becoming the sort of person who does good by virtue, by practice, by habit. An idea which I find rather strongly echoed in the Christian language of the fruits of the spirit – virtues that grow in the individual as they become, by habitual action, deliberate choice, and the in-working of the Spirit, more and more inclined towards love, joy, peace, faithfulness, gentleness and the rest. So for Aristotle, courage is simply one of the virtues; a balance between being foolhardy on the one hand, and cowardly on the other. And this is a pretty good description of one sense of courage – fools rush in unthinking, the cowards runs away, but the courageous finds the balance. But the sense of courage that we are exploring this Lent; the courage shown by Jesus in the temptation, by our brothers and sisters in Timor Leste in their everyday life, by the martyrs of history and of the present day; the courage we are talking about is something different. I love the C. S. Lewis quote that UnitingWorld are using to describe this sense of courage: C.S. Lewis “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point”. It’s one thing to act virtuously when there is no challenge, no hardship, no risk. A good thing, but, in a sense, a small thing. It’s something else to act with the same virtue when it’s not so easy. Perhaps you remember the movie Schindler’s List, the story of Oskar Schindler saving the lives of over 1000 Jews at the time of the Holocaust. It was later said “Oskar Schindler was not a hero – he was human, at a time when being human was rare”. That is the sense of courage we are exploring this Lent: the courage to live and act with virtue, to live out the fruits of the spirit, even when it is hard or dangerous to do so, or tempting to do otherwise. And that is what we see in Jesus in the story of the temptations. The courage to act with virtue, to do the right thing, to stand firm for what he knows he ought to do, to be who he knows that he is, even when it would be so much easier to do otherwise. So, the story. Jesus has come from his baptism, come from hearing the voice of God declare to him “you are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased”, and immediately he is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and temptation. And that’s quite striking, isn’t it. Almost as if the whole episode is God’s idea. As if God knows that having heard God’s voice, declaring that he, Jesus, is the beloved son, Jesus needs to go through the process of temptation, the offer of another path to the one that God would have him walk. As if Jesus needs, up front, here at the beginning of his ministry, the chance to test his resolve and prove to himself that he has the courage that he needs. Now I want to be really careful here, because it’s a small step from this sort of reading to concluding that all of our temptations are sent to us by God, for our own good – and that’s reading far too much into this one event. Jesus even teaches us to pray that we will not be led into times of trial – “lead us not into temptation, because we can find it for ourselves”. But there does seem to be a pattern that sometimes we go through temptation, and by going through it we discover for ourselves that we have strength, courage, resolve, that we did not know, were not sure, we had. And the temptation itself is not of God. That much is made quite clear – Jesus is tempted by “the devil”, “the diabolos”, in the Greek. By itself, diabolos means someone who makes false accusations, a slanderer, or someone gives false testimony in a court of law. But it gets given a spiritual focus when the Bible speaks of “the” diabolos; not just an accuser, but the accuser. And as I’ve said before, I think it’s really important not to get hung up on questions about the nature of the evil that opposes us; whether the diabolos is a spiritual entity, a fallen angel, a psychological projection, or what; the crucial truth is in the name: the one who falsely accuses. Just look at the opening words of the temptation: “if you are the son of God”. Jesus has just come from his baptism and the declaration ‘you are my son, my beloved’; and now he is hungry, and the diabolos starts by casting doubt on Jesus’ very identity. “If you are the son of God, why be hungry? Make the stones bread!” The same pattern repeats in all three temptations; twice in the literal words “if you are the son of God”, and once by implication: “all glory and authority has been given to me”, the diabolos says, “and I can give it to you”, once more denying the truth that Jesus, son of God, is already the heir of all that God has created. It’s often been pointed out that all three temptations are invitations to Jesus to take a short cut; to get food without waiting, to get power without servanthood, to get glory without suffering. And how true is it that so much temptation follows that pattern – to get something good, but in the wrong way, without the obligations, without the working or the waiting. Seeking the comfort of sex without the struggle of developing committed relationships. Seeking material profit without the effort of work. Seeking power without the humility of service. Seeking a good reputation without the consistency of virtue. Seeking the things we want without the patience to wait for them. And in the face of such temptation, to do what we know is right, to live by the virtue, by the fruit of the spirit; that is the courage to stand firm. But the deeper lie is there in those temptations well, and the deeper lie is more subtle and more insidious still. The lie which questions who we are, which casts doubt on God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s parenthood. The lie which says that we have to take what we can get however we can get it because we cannot trust God to provide for us at the right time and in the right way. And I wonder if it isn’t the case that all temptation, when stripped back to its core, is a temptation to that same lie; to believe that we cannot choose the way of virtue, the way of the Spirit, because God cannot be trusted, because the real-politick of the world is that the one who takes whatever they can whenever they can and however they can is the one who comes out on top. And that the ultimate response, the final answer, the real courage, is our declaration that we are who God has said we are, that we are beloved daughters and sons of the creator God, and that we can – and will – choose to trust that truth. That we can, and will, have the courage to declare that we believe God’s declaration: “you are my child, my beloved”, and that however often we might have failed in the past, God’s promise still stands, God’s arms are still open, God’s welcome is still there for us. And that trusting in that truth, we have courage to stand firm in the face of temptation. Amen–>

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