Sermon given at St. Andrew’s URC, Ealing, Sunday 5th March 2017 by Revd Sue McCoan
Matt 4:1-11 The Gospel passage is headed ‘the Temptation of Jesus’.
‘Temptation’ has become a rather trivial word – and ‘tempting’ is generally seen as something actually quite good, in a naughty-but-nice sort of way. Can I tempt you to a cream cake? Come on, you know you want one…
The other day I put 2 plates, with 2 slices of bread, on the dining table, and went into the kitchen to pour some soup. When I came back, there were 2 plates, and only one slice of bread. I was sure I’d brought two. And then I saw the dog, furtively licking up the last crumb in the hopes I wouldn’t notice where it had gone. Dogs are never bothered by temptation – they just give in straight away.
This time of trial in the desert is much more than Jesus having willpower. This is a real test – a test which will show Jesus, and us what he’s made of.
This testing time comes straight after Jesus has been baptized, when he has heard the voice of God saying ‘This is my own dear Son’. He knows who he is – but what does that mean for him? The Spirit leads him into the desert, into a period of retreat, of self-examination, of working out what this revelation means and how it will shape his ministry.
The first test for Jesus is about dealing with his own inner feelings. He’s put himself into this situation of hardship, of minimal comfort with absolutely no distractions. It’s a spiritual discipline. When there is nothing you can distract yourself with, nothing you can escape into or hide behind, you are force to confront whatever’s within you. So the first test is: am I going to go through with the test? Am I going to stick to the rules, and the deprivation? Or am I going to cheat, and create bread, and go for a bit of comfort eating?
A life lived with God has to be a life of honesty. If God is going to work in us, and with us, and through us, then we have to be open to God, and that means being honest before God. Jesus is hungry, and tired, and struggling to work out how to get a handle on this calling. But in order to get through this, in order to live out his ministry with integrity, he has to deal with those feelings and thoughts before God. And not seek for escape in food or any other distraction.
Now look. Sometimes we are distracted unintentionally. Especially in prayer. You know how it is – we sit down to pray and within seconds we are thinking about the football results or tonight’s dinner or next week’s sermon and prayer has gone out the window. It’s the way our minds work – when we stop dealing with the stuff we’re thinking about consciously, all the other stuff that’s been lurking in the background creeps up to the surface to get its turn. Distractions happen. The problem comes when we think, after a few goes, oh well, I’m no good at prayer, so there’s not much point trying. No point sitting here thinking about the dinner, I might as well get up and start cooking.
Jesus shows us what he is made of by refusing the distractions. He knows they will not satisfy for long; what we need is God. If our thoughts wander during prayer, we note the wandering, and we start again. If we find ourselves feeling lonely or sad, it’s no good eating for comfort, or smoking or drinking or whatever we do; we can be honest about our feelings before God, and see what God might be saying to us through them.
So the first test is about dealing with inner feelings and being honest in our own lives.
The second test for Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, is about dealing with the wider world. Throw yourself off the Temple, and God will rescue you. How do we want to look to those around us? Jesus has absolute trust in God as his heavenly father, absolute confidence that God loves him and cares for him and wants the best for him. So naturally, he could be sure that if he were in real trouble, God would save him. And what a wonderful demonstration it would be of this trust and of God’s power, if he were to put himself in a situation of great risk and let everyone see God rush to his rescue.
I know some churches have healing services, where those in need are invited to ask for prayer, and then someone identified and prepared for the purpose would pray with them. I know people who have been healed, after prayer, in ways which defy medical knowledge, and it is compelling testimony. But I am wary of churches that offer miraculous healings as an attraction – or who offer prosperity, or other benefits – as if these things were theirs to command, and not the gift and grace of God.
Jesus is tempted to go for a dramatic effect – a death dive and swooping angels. It would have brought him instant results – big crowds, instant converts, no argument. But how long would it last? What would become of someone, who’d come along because they were impressed by a spectacle, when the tide turned and the going got tough? How deep could someone’s faith be if it were based purely on excitement and special events? Jesus shows what he’s made of by refusing the short cut to fame. He chooses the slow way – the way of discipleship, of learning, of growing slowly into faith. A lot of people looked at Jesus and saw nothing special in him. A lot of people could have looked at the disciples, and indeed we look at them now, and think they make all the same mistakes we do. But in sticking with it, in making their mistakes and being forgiven and carrying on, they put down roots, deep roots of faith. So when the worst happens, and Jesus is taken from them and all is lost, they are still there, still holding on, still rooted in God.
The first test for Jesus was his inner feelings; the second test for Jesus is dealing with the wider world and how he appears. The third test is dealing with God. Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world and told ‘all this can be yours, if only you bow down to the devil’.
Jesus had many people following him who were seriously committed, who would have given their lives for him, some who later did just that. It would have been easy for him to take advantage of these people, to get them to give their possessions to him rather than to the poor. He had followers from among the Zealot party who would have been more than happy to start up armed revolution against the Romans, and would have loved Jesus to be their figurehead; with his speaking skills to rally support, they could have mustered a huge militia. They all knew stories from the Hebrew scriptures of God giving victory to the Israelites against vast armies; Jesus could surely have drawn on a similar divine power.
But Jesus knows that political and military power is maintained through violence, and he is heralding God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Jesus shows us what he is made of by refusing man-made means to power; he will worship only God.
This is a fine example for anybody in a position of power or responsibility. Lord Acton famously said, ‘All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this, from corrupt dictators to MP’s expenses. Psychologists have shown that if people are placed in positions of power, they tend to rate their personal morality as higher than anyone else’s, and to feel that they are entitled to bend the rules to suit themselves. And we see that when public figures are caught out – even when the evidence is stacked against them they will insist they’ve done nothing wrong.
Those of us called to responsibility, in any area of life, do well to bear in mind that we exercise that responsibility under God; that all power comes ultimately from God. Our call is to worship God, and then act accordingly.
These three tests of Jesus, then, show us what Jesus is made of: honesty about his personal feelings; willingness to take the slow and painstaking path; and absolute integrity in dealing with responsibility. This is not just a test for trainee Messiahs; this is a test for all the Messiah’s followers too.
The good news for those of us who are his followers is that God is not just our assay office; God is also our refiner, and will lead us to the purity he requires. It will be easier for God to do this, and less painful for ourselves in the long run, if we do not give in to our distractions and temptations. So if you have embraced a discipline for Lent, whether it’s giving something up, or counting your blessings, or coming to the discussion group, may you be strengthened, and encouraged, and blessed.