Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
12 March 2000, the start of Lent
Prayer—The Collect of the day
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
Mark 1.9-15 Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
Temptation—In the lent series in the chapel this year we will be looking at three Christian writers and teachers. One of them will be C. S Lewis. Lewis wrote a very interesting book called 'The Screwtape Letters.' This a humorous but challenging book which records letters from a senior uncle devil 'Screwtape' to a junior devil his nephew 'Wormwood'. In the popular book 'The Screwtape letters C S Lewis says
'there are two equal and opposite errors into which we can
fall in considering devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The
other is to believe in them and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest
in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a
materialist or a magician with the same delight.'
One of my favourite passages is instruction concerning church going (page 81.) The advise given is to either keep the Christian away from church altogether or have the Christian go to lots of churches so as to become a 'critic of churches.' Do you roam around the churches looking for a good one? I remember being told that the moment we joined any perfect church it would cease to be so!
Now we looked only a couple of weeks ago into the existence of evil forces, devils and demons. This week we have a record of an incident in the life of Jesus when he faced such evil in his own ministry and the record of the incident can only surely have come from Jesus himself. Jesus records these temptations in this very graphic way. What was going on? For many people the mention of the word Satan conjures up images of Jesus being met by a horned creature with a tail and scaly flesh. Is that what took place? I would think not. But in that lonely wilderness place Jesus was challenged about his ministry and Satan may well have been an even more formidable enemy as he spoke as a quiet voice inside the mind of Jesus and challenged him to forsake that ministry to which he had been called. Isn't that how each one of us confronts evil and lives out the demands of the Christian life as we seek to be obedient?
The Christian life is written about in the bible as a spiritual battle. The Christian life is not, as some suggest, a crutch to support the weak and those who can't cope in life. Rather the Christian life is a challenge in which we are faced by opponents not only of an earthly but also of a spiritual nature. This spiritual opposition was something known in a very real way by Jesus himself. Mark's Gospel is marked by brevity. Jesus moves from Baptism to Wilderness in a few short verses. But this is important—the two do go together. Jesus was affirmed by God and then he was right into the thick of it. He was given that assurance so that he would be able to endure. Brief moments of assurance and then straight back into the path to the cross, no false promises of an easy life.
What was the temptation of Jesus about? Jesus faced temptation similar to each of us, at its most basic level was the choice between right and wrong. Doing this God's way or doing things a different way. There is nothing terribly difficult or theologically demanding about it. For Jesus it meant giving up the ministry to which he had been called and being a different kind of Jesus. Satan the 'deceiver', the 'liar' told him not to be obedient to the call of God as the suffering Messiah. Instead feed yourself supernaturally by turning stones to bread—use your miracles to your own purpose, take the shortcut road to the top and inherit the kingdoms of the world. Jesus is tested to see if he can discern good from evil.
What is our capacity to judge good from bad? Clealry the closer we live our lives to God the more likely we are to be able to judge. The more we move into our own way of doing things the more our conscience become blunted and incapable of choosing the right thing. What are the temptations we face ? You really don't need me to tell you. We all face temptation of various kinds and its much more subtle and deceiving than facing a horned beast with cloven feet The demons of · lust · power · personal ambition. · selfishness · complacency.
There are two ways of looking at ourselves which the devil is supposed to like and they each prevent us from serving God.
1. When we look in the mirror and think that we are so much better that we really are.
This demon prevents us form serving God in a whole host of ways because they are beneath us. Our abilities are too good to be used in mundane and ordinary matters for which others are more suitability unqualified. The ministry of the Christian is very often unglamorous and there are only so many who can occupy the posh seats. The majority of Christian service goes unnoticed and unthanked and it is very ordinary and even unpleasant. There was a very interesting letter in the Church Times this week (churchtimes.co.uk) which was from a minister. He was quite abrupt and hard in many ways in a response to a letter from a woman who had suffered improper treatment in her ministerial position. This minister had a short answer, get used to it! Now that must not excuse us from seeking justice and proper behaviour, but I can see that he had a point. Christian ministers know that we have to develop thick skins to deal with the sometimes thoughtless comments which are made about us. Those imperfections which we all have will not be easily forgive or ignored by some and we do have to just get on with it. It is the same for all Christian, there are many who will seek to disparage us because of what we believe. Any chinks in our Christian armour will be quickly exposed by those who want to draw attention to the failings of the particular Christian as evidence of the weakness of our faith in general.
The point which I making is that we have a cross to carry and we must not expect others to carry the cross for us. We must be prepared to stand up and be counted and take the fiery darts! same for our Christian duties, the church needs people who will cut grass, clean gutters, visit the elderly, spend hours in front of the photocopier or answering telephones. The rotas need filling and all the 'jobs' are honourable, none less so, when we do them in the service of Jesus. Neither you nor I are over qualified. We might have cleaners who come and 'do' for us at home, gardeners who cut the lawn. Few of our churches can financially support such luxuries for all of the menial tasks.
It is just as holy to dust the lectern on which the word
of God is read
as it is to read from the good Book to God's people on a Sunday.
2. Secondly when we can look in the mirror and think we are so much worse than we really are.
This demon is self-loathing—which is every bit as destructive as self-adulation The Christian is called to serve as has Jesus been called, but the small voice which Jesus heard says to us something like
'well you might like to think that God wants you to do it but actually there is just no way that you are up to it, you haven't got what it takes'
In his temptations Jesus is made to question himself. He is not asked to question God directly, the presence and existence of God is accepted by the Devil. The temptation is to question himself. That is perhaps where we are vulnerable too. We have no doubt about the power of God. But we do question ourselves, that is where many of us are most vulnerable. Introspective self questioning and doubt, sometimes masquerading as having an air of holiness about it, afraid to be to vocal in support of God in case we should discredit him in some way by not being good enough.
A Christian acting in good faith has no need to worry about letting God down and doing the wrong thing. When we reach out in honesty in service, then in our weakness God's strength will supply our need. God is too big for you to ruin his reputation. There is an urgent need for Christians to be witnesses to their faith. I am not speaking of carrying sandwich board types of witness, I do not want you to make a nuisance of yourself and make everybody cringe when you walk into the office, I mean just basically owning up to who we are and being prepared to invite folks into the family of the church. Why are we so poor at this? Well perhaps some people hear this - 'You really are not much of an example of a Christian you had better not say too much about it or everybody will laugh'
Are you afraid to speak of God? Are you afraid? The greatest and most destructive temptation of all may be the illusion that we need to be frightened, that we are all alone, friendless and unloved, as we face the demons. When we decide to face and befriend the wild things in our souls we must remember that we are not alone. As Christian we need to be reminded that there is no evil of which we need be afraid. We need to remember that just as Christ was baptised before this temptation, so we are baptised too. We are named with our Christian name to show that we are God's. All we need do is remember the Good News. Before any one of us is sent into the wilderness we are baptised. So we too have been named as God's beloved children and we can 'fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against the world and the devil'.
There is an interesting verse in a hymn, 'If you will not bear a cross you can't wear a crown.' To put it another way, we can only know the power of God to sustain and protect us when we are engaged in the activity of Christian life and witness.
'Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war
with the cross of Jesus going on before
Christ the royal master leads against the foe
forward into battle see his banners go.'
This expresses the same theme. We will not be with Christ the royal master if we are sitting at home thinking ourselves in some Christian equivalent of a reserved occupation. The Holy Spirit is not needed or given for the spiritual equivalent of sitting at home of the couch. It is in the course of Christian service that the Christian finds the God given resources and blessing to achieve his will. God is within us, around us and before us, is enough to sustain and encourage us, no matter how the wild the demons become. The same God who provided for the needs of Jesus and sent his angels to minister to him, that God our heavenly father cares for us too. We know that the same God who cared for Jesus will provide for our needs in direct proportion to your service.