I have pondered long and hard about this sermon. I have read books, I have shared in long discussion about all the passages on Tuesday morning with our merry band of Bible studiers, and I am not happy with what we decided, nor with what my Boys Own Big Book of Lent tells me.
If you want, we can read all those passages today as typological. That is, Adam & Eve are types of humanity, the snake is a type of the Evil One, and Christ is the new Adam, the new Moses, and his people are the new Israel. How do we know this? Because my Boys Own Big Book of Lent says that all of Jesus’s answers to the temptations come from the book of Deuteronomy, which is, as you know, a recapitulation of the story of Israel from the Red Sea to the border of the Promised Land. They took 40 years to get through the wilderness, Jesus spent a symbolic 40 days in the wilderness, they succumbed to three temptations – food, water and the worship of a golden calf – Jesus resists all three temptations – refuses to interfere with creation for his own physical needs, refuses to go for the big public act to encourage belief in his Messiahship (unlike Moses, who struck the rock to get water out, when God had told him to speak to it), and refuses to bow down and worship the tempter. Just before these temptations, Jesus had been baptised – viz Israel crossing the Red Sea in safety, from slavery to freedom, as we say in our baptism prayer over the water) – and afterwards Jesus calls his first disciples. There we are, a nice knock-down argument, neat, convincing, complete.
But the answer to that is, “So what?” That unpacking of the story and piecing it back together again only tells us that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the Church is the new Israel. All that temptation stuff is merely to re-assure us that Jesus could triumph over the issues on which the People of Israel failed – but that doesn’t do anything for us, weak, wandering, timid human beings that we are.
So we turn to another page of the Boys Own Big Book of Lent, and we read a neat, three point explanation which will sort us out good and proper. These three temptations are about our spiritual life, that is, the temptation not to be spiritual, but to do things for ourselves, the temptation to be super-spiritual – to overdo our spiritual abilities and boundaries, and the temptation to become a spiritual megalomaniac.
Well I’m sorry, I may accept the first one, but the other two are unrecognisable, even in an O so humble parish priest as my poor, struggling self. Those three pat answers are just that, easy preaching, sermon done and dusted in minutes.
No, I want something more than that out of this story of the temptation of Christ. I want something more than a folk tale to reinforce the social hierarchy, by blaming human failings on the first woman. I want something that might just be helpful in today’s complex and interconnected world, and I want that to be as hard as going 40 days without food – which, by the way, can be life-threatening and certainly life-altering, so don’t do it.
No, I want an acknowledgement that temptation is real, it is physical, it is spiritual, it is deep within our psyche and our soul, and that this is a hard world in which to try to sort it out. And the temptations are different today to those which Christ underwent. The temptation to go with the flow, not to rock the boat, is a real one, but leaves injustice unchallenged and unjust structures intact. The temptation to think small, to think of a narrow world around ourselves which is to be protected at all costs, is a real one in a global world, where our narrow-mindedness can have a negative impact on peoples’ lives around the world. And the biggest temptation of them all is the temptation not to think, not to engage our brains and our energies in analysis, debate, struggling through all sides of an issue until a reasonable and beneficial answer is found. Where are those temptations faced in the wilderness?
They are, of course, all there. Narrow, selfish thinking is the stones into bread temptation, not thinking at all is leaping off the pinnacle of the Temple, and going with the flow is bowing down and worshipping the tempter. We may live in a complex and interconnected world, but our basic humanity is unchanging, merely our context.
What we have to get through to is the effort that Christ had to put in to resist these three temptations. The story reads as if he had the quotations from Deuteronomy at his fingertips, ready to be used as soon as an appropriate temptation came his way. That is not human, that is unrealistic. No. Christ struggled to come up with those answers, as he craved food, as he looked forward to his ministry across the Jewish nation, and as he prepared himself to bring in God’s kingdom of love and mercy. And so we too have to be prepared to struggle, to work hard at countering lazy thinking, at piercing to the heart of an argument or a policy, or an attitude, to be able to put it properly within the context of God’s standards of love and justice and then live appropriately as the children of God – if it is wrong, we fight against it. If it is right, we uphold it gladly and say so publicly.
Some matters are relatively straightforward. The government’s decision to abandon the Dubs amendment on bringing migrant children to the UK is quite simple wrong on any count, under any analysis. False news, lies, black propaganda – call them what you like – are wrong, as we are a holy people who live and speak the truth. The current squeeze on social care is much more complex, and there are many options to be taken into consideration, not least everybody paying a bit more tax to make it happen properly.
But this is not just about politics. This is about personal relationships, the workplace/homelife balance, our interdependence with creation, our wellbeing as individuals, as families and as a community. Lazy thinking, going with the flow, does not improve a deteriorating situation. Thinking small about a big problem does not advance a wider solution. Opting out of debate does not ameliorate that debate, it merely closes it down without resolution. Lent can be a time to get to grips with things, to knuckle down and come to a decision, and to have the boldness to follow it through.
Christ in the wilderness puts in the hard thinking, does the analysis, works through the situation to find the mind of God – and so Scripture comes to his aid as he explains his decisions. May we equally, in our Lenten discipline and in our Lenten spiritual journey of prayer and worship, engage fully with all that life and reality throws at us, work through it, and find the mind of God. And then God’s Holy Spirit will enable us to put into practice everything that she has taught us.