Based around Luke 4. 1-13.
I have start by thanking Father Ron for the beginning of this sermon when last week he reminded us that the season of denial, as he put it, also known as Lent was almost upon us. Well as of Wednesday, it’s officially started. I say I have to thank him because I really had no idea where I was going with this sermon; even as I sat down to write it I didn’t have a single note to work with, so I’m grateful that what he said at least gave me a bit of a way in. In my own defence it wasn’t lack of thought or preparation that was the problem; I’ve been going over the readings for weeks thinking and hoping and praying for inspiration. Before I go any further, I’ll just tantalise you with this bit of information. When I first started my preparations, I looked at the reading from Luke and thought, this is great! Some really interesting ideas and questions were flowing and I’d made a page full of notes before I noticed that instead of it being Luke’s Gospel I’d turned to I’d accidentally found the almost identical passage in Matthew. It’s the same story with the same chapter number and almost the same verse numbers but the passage stops at the end of verse eleven, if you continue to verses twelve and thirteen in that gospel it prompts some very different thoughts and questions. I was tempted to go on and preach on these ideas but given that the inclusion of verses twelve and thirteen potentially change the context or focus of the passage rather a lot I thought I’d better not. Sometimes mistakes can have interesting results and perhaps one day I’ll go back to my notes and reconsider them and maybe write that sermon after all, even if it’s just for my own interest. If there’s any merit in it, I might even share it with you. On that cliff hanger I’ll get back to this sermon.
When I returned, somewhat disappointedly, to the correct passage or should I say passages for today, they provided me with a number of interesting and worthwhile thoughts but unfortunately no major theme that I felt I could get my teeth into. But over the weeks I’ve been reading them what has gradually asserted itself to me are the tones of voice of the speakers, especially in the passage from Luke. This might sound a bit of an odd idea given that much of the time when we read a passage from the Bible and then move on, it can be difficult to get a feel for the story or a real sense of the characters in it but if you have to really focus on it, as you do when you’re writing a sermon or studying, this can change and you can hear or imagine their voices and what is happening with them.
Just before our passage from Luke begins, Jesus has been baptised by John and this has been a very profound and powerful event. We are told that he is full of the Holy Spirit and that on his return from the Jordan, it leads him in the wilderness. He stays there for forty days and in that time he does not eat. At the end of that time he is said to be famished. Just stop and think about that for a moment. We’ve heard the story so many times it’s easy to not appreciate that forty days is a very, very long time to go without food. To describe him as famished seems to be a colossal understatement. Try to imagine the physical and mental state he must have been in, even with the Holy Spirit to accompany him. Starving, weak, exhausted! He was a human being after all.
Then the devil appears. In contrast to the way he has often been portrayed in art and literature, as a cloven-hoofed, horned, fiery-eyed and terrifying creature who it would be rather easy to spot as not being one of the good guys (the tail is probably a bit of a give-away too), this one seems rather different. As I read, this is where I could picture the scene and hear the tones of voice that make the encounter so powerful. In my mind’s eye, the devil looks like an ordinary man, nothing to make him stand out as different. He’s calmly regarding Jesus in his starving, weak, exhausted state; what better opportunity to tempt him, to see what he’s really made of and if he is who he thinks he is? The voice I hear is quiet, gentle and slightly mocking, perhaps even mildly amused; “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” In reply Jesus is calm and quietly strong. “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ” The devil tries again and ups the stakes somewhat. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world; “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.” He sounds whimsical, perhaps even seductive but Jesus remains calm and unmoved; “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
The devil tries a third time. He takes Jesus to Jerusalem and places him on the pinnacle of the temple; a rather terrifying sensation, even if it was in a vision. Again I hear the slightly mocking, amused tone in the devil’s voice. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Once again Jesus is calm and quietly strong in his reply; “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” The Devil has tried to offer temptations to physical hunger, vanity and fear but Jesus’ faith in his Father has enabled him see them for what they were and to resist them.
Whether you believe this story to be literally true or a vision or even the hallucinations of a starving, weak and exhausted man, it still has a powerful message for us here in our world today. We will encounter temptation. Sometimes it will be easy to spot such as the chocolate biscuits or alcohol or meat or whatever else we are trying to resist this Lent. Other times though it may not be so easy to identify, especially when our circumstances are difficult and life is hard and we’re tired and ground down. The temptation to do or have something we want and perhaps even feel we deserve or to neglect something or someone can be so hard to resist even when in our heart of hearts we know it isn’t right. I don’t think God is going to be too upset or worried if we occasionally fall off the wagon and succumb to the odd chocolate biscuit or glass of wine, but surrenders to some seemingly small temptations can set us on the path to very bad places that can hurt others and ourselves if we are not very wary and they can be very hard if not impossible to come back from. I can’t imagine many people set out to become addicted to nicotine or drugs or alcohol or food or gambling or porn or any of the other things that can eventually blight and destroy lives when they get a grip. Most people don’t set out to be cruel partners or neglectful parents or to behave dishonourably and dishonestly. It’s often hard to see where these processes start until it’s too late and we’re trapped in a situation we never imagined let alone intended.
For me the most telling verse in our passage from Luke is the last verse; “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him (Jesus) until an opportune time.”
We need to be on our guard. Evil is unlikely to present itself as such. It’s unlikely to look wrong or bad or terrifying although there are exceptions and some people are attracted by them; the situation with Daesh being a case in point. Evil is more likely to appear easy and seductive and let us think we’re in control. When temptation comes, as it will, we need to see it for what it is, examine our thoughts and feelings in the light of our faith and ask God to guide and help us along the way, to calmly and strongly stand firm, as Jesus did. Amen.