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Dealing with Temptation

Sermon preached by
Mr John Stubbs, Methodist Local Preacher
17th February 2002

Camping scene How many of you have been camping?

For how long? A week?  Two weeks?  Longer?

All in one place? Or on several sites? How many?

How many of you have moved house more than say three times? How many times? Did you find it easy? Did you enjoy it?

How would you fancy camping, and moving regularly for say 40 years? Can you imagine it? Some people do something not dissimilar - travellers, fairground or circus people to quote a few. Or what about the idea of the new space craft travelling for a hundred or more years, with people being born, married, procreating, and no doubt dying within the confines of that albeit huge area? Not my idea of fun. And not easy to imagine.

So I find it difficult to imagine the Israelites as they wandered for 40 years in the desert, having been led by God out from the slavery of Egypt. And you will recall how God had led them out and destroyed the pursuing Egyptian army. Packing up tents and household goods, gathering up family and flocks and moving off in a huge column from one place to the next became their way of life. No doubt they got used to it - the Bedouin have.

But it was not like that all the time - early on they came to the Desert of Sin where there was no obvious sign of food. So they moaned and groaned. "Why," they said to Moses and Aaron, "have you brought us out of Egypt to die of starvation - all of us. We were better off back there. At least we had as many pots of meat to eat as we wanted. Would to God He had killed us all in Egypt!" Moses and Aaron would have none of it. "Who do you think we are to grumble at us like that? You are really grumbling at God because you are hungry. At God, not us." And the gift of manna and quails sorted out that problem.

I found when camping that one of the necessary chores was fetching water - hopefully from not too far away. Essential in a campsite. Well, not too long after the manna incident the Israelites travelled to Rephidim. Wonderful place - but no water. You might have thought that they would have guessed that the Lord would be providing. After all they had seen what had happened with manna, and they were there at his calling. But no. "All you have done is to bring us out of Egypt so all of us, parents, children and livestock can die here of thirst. Come on, give us water to drink," they said to Moses. "Don't quarrel with me," was the response. "You're at it again, putting God to the test." And needless to say they found water.

Trusting lot the Israelites.

When Moses went off up the mountain to receive the law and was longer away than they expected, they were at it once more. "We don't know what's happened to this fellow Moses. Come on Aaron, make us some gods who will lead us." So Aaron gave in and made the golden calf for them. Moses came back, and had to plead with God to withhold his anger. And Aaron, who had completely lost it when the people had got out of control, so much so that they were a laughing stock to their enemies, pleaded his case. And Moses regained the initiative though at the cost of a large number of deaths.

So what had happened was that the Israelites had been tempted through hunger, had thought to put God to the test, and were tempted to idolatry. And St Matthew in the account we heard of Jesus' temptations in the desert sees Jesus' experience recapitulating that of the 40 years of Israel's wanderings. The devil offered the same persuasions to Jesus as many years before he had offered to the Israelites. But there the similarity ended, for Jesus neither grumbled, nor did he give in. And he responded with answers drawn from the religious heritage of his people. You will find them all in Deuteronomy.

Matthew, in common with the other gospel writers, was making a case, making it for a religious people, and showing his hearers temptations which they could understand, which would have been real to them.

They may not be as real in some ways to us - or at least not in the simple straightforward way he puts them. But while I would not suggest that there are no problems of hunger - our temptation is more likely to be gluttony. And we no doubt put God to the test in our own way. And our society has no shortage of other gods, even if people don't realise that's what they are.

What Jesus faced then, we individually and in society still face in a similar if not identical fashion. What I would suggest to you, is that we inevitably have only a part of the story. If temptation for all of us was limited to just those three examples, we might find the Christian life easier than we know it to be. But Jesus the man was only too aware of the range and subtlety of temptation. We find it in all sorts of places throughout the gospel. Listen to him.

"If someone hits you on the side of your face, don't react by hitting him, much as you are tempted to. Turn the other cheek."

"It's hard to love your enemies, especially those you know are working actively against you. You may be tempted to get your retaliation in first. But don't. Love them and pray for them."

"When you're tempted to be holier-than-thou, remember that while your brother may have a speck of sawdust in his eye, you have got a whole plank in yours."

There's an old saying - a shroud has no pockets - and Jesus would have understood it.

"Don't be tempted," he said, "to amass a huge fortune on the principle that you can sit back and enjoy it forever - you might, or you might not. To have the whole world but to lose your soul is the worst possible outcome."

I plucked these examples at random. We could go on. You will have your own examples. And as the words of the hymn put it - Those who fain would serve thee best are conscious most of wrong within.

We are not told of many of the other temptations which faced Jesus. We are told by the writer to the Hebrews that he was tempted like us but did not succumb. 

In the wilderness he faced many temptations about how he should carry out his ministry, and began to face up to the implications of what it would mean. We do not know whether he recognised that to follow the path he chose would lead to his death, then, but he was aware of that possibility before the end, and the temptation to duck out must have been very great. Thank God he did not.

As we recognised earlier, Jesus fought the devil using three precepts. Feed on God, don't put God to the test (i.e. trust him) and worship him, make him the centre of your life. 

And Lent is the time of our Christian pilgrimage when we try to draw closer to God. It is a time when, perhaps by fasting, perhaps by study or greater attention to prayer, we do try harder to feed on God, and put him more fully at the centre of our lives.

As St Benedict wrote, "In these days, therefore, let us add something beyond the wonted measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence in food and drink. Let each one, over and above the measure prescribed for him, offer God something of his own free will in the joy of the Holy Spirit." It will not be easy - and temptation will not go away, but as a Bulgarian proverb puts it, "God promises a safe landing, but not a calm passage."

On a beach after breakfast in post resurrection days, Jesus dealing with one who had been very tempted and who had fallen very heavily said to him, "Simon Peter, do you love me?" In the asking he helped Peter to find forgiveness and a new beginning. 

He says the same to us during this Lent and in the days which are still to come for us. "Do you love me?"

Amen.

John Stubbs, February 2002

Bible Readings and Notes and Intercessions for 17th February 2002

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