29 February 2004 Sermon for Lent 1 – Temptation

How often we ask God for things that cannot be given.

This morning, we read the story of Jesus going into the wilderness and being tempted by the devil. The standard way of preaching about this is to speak about our own temptation and our own wilderness moments. We liken ourselves to Jesus ? ?Oh how hard it is to be a good person.?

?How hard it is to be holy when there is such wickedness which tempts us night and day ? how hard it is to be a good Christian when there is so much naughtiness in the world which looks so much more fun?.

If you have come looking for that kind of preaching, you have come to the wrong place and come to the wrong preacher. The story of Jesus in the desert is not to be dismissed with some camp exposition of how terribly hard it is to be lovely.
I am not sure how hard it is to be good person ? most of the people that I meet do not seem to me to be intrinsically wicked. What I want us to think about today is whether this story is told so that we would think that we are like Jesus, or rather whether our identity here is with the tempter.

Are we those who tempt the Lord?

It it we who throw these temptations at him. Bread. Power. Magic.

Or to be more specific, are we those who ask God for things that cannot be?

No-one knows what really happened to Jesus in the wilderness. This is not a story written by anyone who was there. What Luke is telling us is not a description of what happened but rather, his attempt to say something about who Jesus was. And who God is.

Like much in the bible, this kind of writing is what we might now call magical realism ? ways of telling us things that are important though the device of telling a story so strange and odd that we have to take notice.

All the gospel writers invite us to speculate that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. All four of them invite us constantly to make the comparison between the person of Jesus and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had been known to the Jewish people for generations.

The invite us to think about how Jesus fits in to the constant clamour of the prophets who tried and kept on trying to call the people back to God through the centuries.

The gospel writers make us dwell on Jesus and ask ? who is this? Who is the man Jesus who walked in wilderness and wasteland? Was he at one with God when he was there? Or was he troubled and tortured by the experience.

I?ve been to the desert places in the middle east and I know better to romanticise them. It is a harsh environment. We may find beauty there, but only if we know we are safe and have food and water and shelter.

My assertion this morning is that some of the things that Jesus is faced with in that harsh environment are the things that human beings routinely throw at him. No, I will be more specific ? he has to deal not only with the blazing sun but with the unreasonable expectations of the rest of us.

How easy it is for us to see prayer as a shortcut to what we want God to do for us. What a temptation though.

Prayer is not a shortcut to give us what we desire.

Maybe we want bread without having to work for it. Maybe we want power without authority. Maybe we want to believe that we can do the impossible and take to the skies and fly.

Well, if we ask God for these things the answer will be ?no?.

Notwithstanding the bounty of the sharing of the loaves and fishes, no amount of prayer alone will put bread on the table.

Notwithstanding the fantasy that we might have that if only we had power we would use it better than anyone else, God is not in the business of giving or withholding human power.

Notwithstanding the incredible potential we have for human achievement, there is nothing that we can do that will make us able to jump from temple towers and fly. And any altered reality which tempts us that we can ? whether it be drugs, religion or simply fantasy is merely that.

What Luke invites us to do is to recognise that we can only make progress in the spiritual life when we recognise the world as it really is and get a realistic sense of perspective on our place in it. (For those interested, I will be returning to this theme in the Lent course).

The invitation in Lent is to see things as they really are. It is an opportunity for honesty. The temptations thrown at Jesus are not shortcuts to a wholesome spirituality but are dead ends leading nowhere.

There is no magic shortcut to turn stones into bread.

There is no religious shortcut to political power that will ever benefit the world.

There is no shortcut that will enable us to overcome the limitations of being human.

Being human is incredible enough. Being human means to be one of God?s beloved children. Being human means having the chance to share bread; work for a better world and put whatever knowledge we might have of God to good use.

Prayer is not about making impossible demands of God. It is more, much more about seeing things as they truly are. Asking God for the miracle of sharing God?s perspective on things. To gain wisdom through understanding. Living with and in the world ? breathing in all the contradictions and sadnesses of human life and breathing out the love of God that turns sorrow into joy. That is prayer.

All the rest is temptation.

Being human is everything. And as we begin Lent, we are invited to reconsider the fact that we are human, just as Jesus was, with all the limitations that come from being born.

Seeing things as they really are is one of the messages that we reflect on for the 40 days of Lent.

It is all about being human; being whole. Knowing that there nothing more incredible, extraordinary or magical is needed, than being loved by God in the first place.



  1. Anonymous says

    Re: 29 February 2004 Sermon for Lent 1 – Temptation

    This, the sermon of 22 February and the “Litany of Prayer” o­n Ash Wednesday “struck home” for me and have given me much to think about.

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