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The Temptations of Jesus


Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-12, Luke 4:1-13

I want this morning to preface what I say about the temptations and Lent with a comment about our faith in general and the kinds of criticisms which we get of being out of touch.

  1. There are people who will tell us that our faith is about speculation and that we need to be grounded in reality.

  2. There are those who will poke fun at Christian faith and tell us that they are more rational or scientific, as though Christian people were not capable of scientific analysis or reason.

So often we see people trying to put science and religion as opposing forces, as if one was for people of faith and one was for people of reason. It was interesting last night to hear Sir David Attenborough on Jonathan Ross speaking about his work as a naturalist and his new DVD series and programmes. He has done so much amazing work in nature and he been doing a lot of programmes on Darwin recently. He said that he was an agnostic, that is he doesn’t know if there is a God or not, yet from that position of neutrality he had found nothing in evolution which made faith in God difficult.

I want to draw attention to this because there are those who seek to ridicule faith in God, those who seek to undermine Christian belief and present our religious conviction as a failure to think, to use our minds. There is this constant attack upon our reasoning and a willingness to portray people of all religious faith and especially Christians as those with their heads in the clouds.

Not only do I claim that there is nothing irrational about faith in God.
Not only do I say that there is nothing about our faith which requires us to stop thinking

Rather as we proceed through Lent and as we go towards Easter, I want to say that not only are attempts to ridicule our Christian faith lacking in substance. Actually the contrary is true.

It is only as we look at the world through the teachings of Jesus that we can make sense of human existence and the condition of the heart and soul of humankind. It is the Christian message which provides the firm basis for authentic living.


We started Lent on Wednesday with the Ash Wednesday service. That service perhaps more than any other in the church year is a wake up call to each one of us and to all who will take time to listen. If you have never been to an ash Wednesday service then let me remind you that it has in it the opportunity to have a mark of the cross made on your forehead as the words are spoken

‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’

Christians are wide awake when it comes to our mortality, we live our lives conscious of the fact that this world is only a part of life, that God has so much more for us beyond that which we know now. We know that our bodies are dust, but we draw strength from the understanding that death is swallowed up, that God's kingdom to which we now belong goes on beyond this life.

These words reminding us that we are dust, are not so comfortable for people who live without faith, and who I want to say live their lives in denial of the reality which is all around us.

I wonder if you heard the newspaper reports this week about Simon Cowell, he wants to be frozen when he dies so that he can be brought back to life. The 'X Factor' judge announced his plans to Premier Gordon Brown at a Downing Street dinner. In spite of all his wealth, gained by all those phone calls which my wife made to vote for people who had already been chosen to win. In spite of all that wealth, Simon Cowell will meet our common fate of clay. He said

“I've decided to have myself frozen when I die. You know, cryogenics,”  “You pay a load of money and you get stuck in a deep-freeze once you've been declared dead. Medical science is bound to work out a way of bringing us back to life in the next century or so and I want to be available when they do. I would be doing the nation an invaluable service,” .

However, Gordon Brown was not so sure he would like to be frozen for the future. He joked:

“I am not sure me coming back from the dead would be quite as popular as Simon. In fact, there may be a public campaign to stop me being frozen!”

Life is like chess, eventually all the pieces go back in the box. There is no escape, no matter our wealth, our fame or our power, all things which Jesus was offered in the wilderness.
 

I abhor the current practice of embalming dead bodies and filling them with formaldehyde to make them look better. You know that we don’t allow this for the woodland burial ground, my own feeling is that we disturb the dignity of the dead by this intrusion. But one of the reasons why we do it is because we want the dead to look as though they are not dead. How lacking in realism is that !

Christian teaching is very clear about life and death, it is very realistic. Yet as people lose faith, so they become more and more bizarre. Look at the number of anti-ageing creams for people who want to capture the beauty of youth and fear getting old. Old age is in some ways a terrible thing, I remember seeing Daisy off the Dukes of Hazard recently. the way I remembered her was very different from the current reality. But she like all of us changes, throughout our lives our bodies remind us that every heartbeat takes us closer to death.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, this is supposed to enable us to be more prepared for death, to get ourselves in order. Instead people try to pretend that it is not happening or like Simon Cowell, try to think of ways to get around it.

Science might help us to live longer, but there is nothing which can prevent us from death. There are many reasons to believe that the current desire to perpetuate life and make us live longer by medical intervention is not really doing us any good, we do not get better quality of life, just longer life.

Gregory of Nazianzus (329–388) like Plato suggested that our present life ought to be "a meditation upon death."  Now that might sound gruesome but it isn't. If we live life mindful that it is not going on forever then it changes the way we live. He said

"Our cares and our attention are concentrated on one thing only, our departure from this world.
For this departure we prepare ourselves and gather our baggage as prudent travellers would do."


This means that Christians live their lives now in ways which will make sense in the context of eternity. For example we heed the words of Jesus, which warn us not to store up our treasure on earth. We consider deeply the importance of living to God’s ways not our own ways. This means that we live more meaningfully, we live authentically - not a life of pretence.

 

The point that I am making is a simple and an important one for Lent, which is meant to be a time when we take a reality check.

  1. It is the words of Jesus which make sense of our world.

  2. It is the person of spiritual faith, I would say pre-eminently the Christian, it is we who are being sane and rational about life and what is important.

To go through life without sorting out your destiny, to put death to the back of your mind hoping that it will never happen, that you can stave it off with oil of Ulay, or freeze yourself into a deep sleep, this is the position which lacks reality. The Christian is the one who has taken their head out of the sand.
 

We have a phrase don’t we when something is important. If something is really important, then nothing else very much matters, you forget social convention, you don’t worry what everybody else is doing, social convention, all these things are meaningless, we say it is a matter of life and death !

Well that is what Lent is about. It reminds us that our faith is the serious stuff, a matter of life and death importance. Everything else which you do in your life is not. Your job, the shopping, worrying about everything else, from what people think about you, to how your can get promotion at work, or where you will spend your well deserved holidays, all of that stuff is a side issue.

None of it is a matter of life and death, it is just rubbish and when you are gone nobody will probably even remember you. It is an interesting fact that when you buy a grave you do so usually for up to 70 years. You don’t own it, you just rent it, then they can take you out and sell it to somebody else. The reason why they go for 70 years is because that is how long it takes for you to be forgotten. Obviously this is not true for consecrated places like our woodland or the Garden of Remembrance where you buy your plot and it’s yours until Jesus comes. I am talking of the unconsecrated ones in the public cemeteries. 70 years and nobody cares whether you lived or died. The Bible uses some wonderful poetry to make the point and we use these verses from the Psalms at funerals

For the Lord is full of compassion and mercy,
slow to anger and of great goodness.
As a father is tender towards his children,
so is the Lord tender to those that fear him.
For he knows of what we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust.

Our days are like the grass;
we flourish like a flower of the field;
when the wind goes over it, it is gone
and its place will know it no more.

It all sounds very depressing, but it isn't. The words are an encouragement to those who have asked the big questions

What really matters?
What is important in life?

These words are for those people who have seen through the thin veneer of life and realised that it doesn't matter what dishwasher powder you use. These are words for people who have dared to wake up from the sleepy semi comatose existence in which so many people live their lives, trying to avoid thinking about the inevitable consequences of being human.

For the Christian death is a terrible outcome and not something we enjoy or look forward to, but it is given a completely different meaning in the context of God's infinite time. The words at the funeral service start off remind us that we wither like flowers, but they then go on to finish with the statement

But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures
for ever and ever toward those that fear him

So that is the preface to my sermon.

I guess we should have made it a two part sermon and I could stop now and do part 2 next week. Let me have just a bit longer to look at the temptations and allow me to continue this theme about reality and the Christian faith making sense of our world. Far from being fairy stories, made up stuff with no relation to real life. It is Christian teaching which constantly makes sense of daily living.

Take the episode of the temptations which we have today

Jesus is led out into the desert. Some make a lot of the word ‘ekballo,’ driven out into the desert. It can have that sense of being driven forcibly, but it can also just mean 'led out.' What is clear is that Jesus has had an uplifting spiritual experience and immediately he has a testing time in the wilderness. That in itself will resonate with many people, the undulating nature of human existence, the highs and the lows. Our Christian faith does not shield us from the ups and downs.

Jesus is in the wilderness and he is faced with temptations.

We know, not from Mark but from the other Gospel writers that there were three temptations which faced Jesus

  1. To turn stone into bread

  2. To perform a miracle by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple

  3. To pursue worldly glory and authority through political power

Let’s look at just one of the temptations which Jesus faced and which we face today

1. Bread.

We might not be tempted to turn stones into bread, but bread is symbolic of food and money. Jesus was offered a short cut to possessing material blessing. So much for the irrelevance of our Christian belief and the teachings of Jesus.

  1. How many people have lost fortunes lately because they wanted to make money without working for it?

  2. How many people have lost money investing in schemes which sounded too good to be true?

This is a temptation of human greed and Jesus was tempted by it and had to face that temptation and recognise it for what it was, futile. What good would it be to have all the wealth in the world, if he was not mindful of the need one day to give account.

People still today are tempted by material wealth. Look at our current banking crisis and what is it that lies at the heart of all the problems?  Human greed. People trying to turn stones into bread.
The words of Jesus are absolutely bang up to date. The more we listen to them, the more we will live our lives authentically. Obsession with wealth does not bring happiness in this life or the next. We are told the story of how the rich man came to Jesus, he had his possessions but Jesus knew that they were coming between him and his sleep. So Jesus told the man to give them all away. The man could not and went away miserable and Jesus said how hard it was for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

This was true then it is true now. Jesus knows about human greed and the dangers of it. How many thousands of pounds does one man need to live happily per week. Theoretically, if a banker had a pension of 15k per week, how hard would it be to reduce this to 7k per week, if it was found that he had made some serious mistakes which resulted in lots of other people losing their jobs and homes?


I won’t go through all the temptations this morning. There is no need to do so. We all know our own temptations, the difficulties which we all face in being true to God and resisting evil.

Conclusion

Christians will not be surprised at all at the temptations. Jesus shows us what human nature is calls us to follow his example and be different. To seek to give rather than receive, to choose service rather than power. Jesus takes human tendencies to be selfish and stands them on their head and he tells us that if we really want to be happy in ourselves we must seek the welfare of others. The ability to think of others and consider the consequences of our greed, these are lessons which must be learned by everyone if we are ever to be able to live in peace with one another and creation. We must learn to to be different. This is what Lent is all about. Lent is a time when we are called to think through our inner values and attitudes. We seek to have the mind of Christ in the judgements which we are called to make.

Our world is fast becoming a very dangerous place. There are all manner of challenges which we face and close to home those who were once comfortable in their homes, through no fault of their own, now find themselves in difficult circumstances. It has become a wilderness for the one who has lost employment, lost savings, lost a retirement pension.

The passage today from Mark gives hope to all of those who face difficulty. Jesus went into the wilderness, but he did not go alone. Neither do we go alone as we walk in dangerous places. God is with us as we seek to walk in his ways. When we walk with Christ , the Spirit of Jesus comes with us to give us strength to make right choices and live in the knowledge that this mortal life is but a brief moment in God’s time. Our lives will be filled with many challenges, but we face those challenges not with the power of one, but with the strength of our Lord.