Sermons from St Faith's   

It's very tempting!

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday 14th February, 2016

During the second World War, one little boy couldn’t resist the temptation to eat sweet things. Packets of dried fruits received from Australia disappeared from the store cupboard. Sweets and chocolates suffered the same fate! So the rest of the family found a hiding place that he never discovered. It was in the bottom of the grandfather clock!

In the bible the word “temptation” means more than the impulse to do something we shouldn’t, for it refers to being tested”.

Today’s Old Testament reading reminds us of the physical, moral and spiritual testing the children of Israel faced as they journeyed from being nomads to slaves in Egypt; and as they escaped from bondage to face years in the wilderness, before settling in their promised land.

They were tested about belief and trust in God, by the hardness of slavery, by the privations of the wilderness years, by the commandments God had given them through Moses, and by what it meant to be a nation living in their own land. So, at the annual liturgy, they recalled their incredible testing journey by reciting, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor … he went down into Egypt … . When the Egyptians treated us harshly we cried to the Lord … sand the lord brought us out … with a mighty hand … and brought us to this land flowing with milk and honey.”

Their testing history continues to unfold down the centuries until it brings us to the personal journey and temptations of Jesus. After his years of formation and family life, he answered the call of God, was baptised, and, like his ancient forebears, was led into the wilderness to face the test of deciding the right ways to carry out that calling. He was clear that his heavenly Father wanted him to meet human need, but could feeding bodies alone, by tuning stones to bread, be the best way of achieving this?  

“Bread alone” is insufficient, as the negative side of our consumer society keeps reminding us, for we can have many possessions but still be lonely, vulnerable and afraid; selfish, greedy and aggressive.  Jesus’ goal was to establish God’s truth and reign over the whole earth, so what about using the world’s methods of dominance – political, economic and military power?

But then, force of arms, or the methods of totalitarianism, instead of the power of self giving love, would surely not produce a Kingdom that has anything at all to do with God. In the battle to win hearts and minds, what if Jesus was to jump off the high point of the temple and survive, thus proving himself as God’s Son? Some might follow a Messiah who, like Superman, is physically indestructible; but wouldn’t avoiding the possibility of suffering make God into the servant of misplaced ambitions and values? At the send of the temptations we are told that, “The devil … departed from  him  until an opportune time.”

The wilderness wasn’t the only place of testing for Jesus. Through the circumstances of his daily life he passed every searching test of character with flying colours, never using power for his own benefit, but always unstintingly for others to bring hope and wholeness to  people who were lost, sick, sad or afflicted by guilt.

Jesus never sought to win the battle for hearts and minds in ways that compromised the love and integrity of God.  Near the end of his ministry Jesus faced the greatest of all tests, that of suffering.  Teaching that “The Son of Man must suffer many things” he went to Jerusalem, faced his enemies, and drove the unjust traders out of the temple. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he faced the greatest struggle of all’ such inner anguish that St. Luke tells us the sweat dripped from his face like drops of blood. But still he said to God, “Not my will be done, but yours”.

The consequence of saying ‘no’ to the wilderness temptations is to bring him to the cross, where the earthly powers he rejected are confronted and defeated by the power of perfect love. Through all of this, Jesus gives us the example to follow. As Hebrews chapter 2 verse eighteen puts it, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

So we come to our own journeys, temptations and tests. Like Jesus we need to decide what we will not do, the means we will not take, and the ends we will not pursue. We must reject the ways of self-centred survival that ignore the needs of others; we must turn away from manip0ulative power that seeks to dominate others; we must forego trying to control god to become our servant, seeking instead to be servants of God.

Then, just like Jesus, we face tests of character every time we face a choice. Will we choose truth or falsehood, selfishness or altruism, greed or generosity, and so on?

Some of the tests are far from clear cut. A married man with a family is offered the opportunity to work abroad and the tension between ambition and concern for his children’s education tests him hard. A career woman finds that she is pregnant and the new situation tests her sense of what is really valuable.

The choices we make mould and shape our character and therefore the direction our life takes. Weak, indulgent, soft choices make for weak persons. Principles, thoughtful, caring choices make for more rounded and creative people.

As with Jesus, our greatest tests come through suffering. When we are in danger, when someone we love falls ill or dies, when our sense of security is suddenly rocked, our strength, character and faith, can be tested to breaking point.

In Kaled Hosseini’s insightful novel about Afghanistan, “A Thousand Splendid Suns", Mariam is so overwhelmed by the cruelty that surround and mistreats her, we are told, “The past held only this wisdom; that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion.” Yet despite the depths of her despair she finds the courage to die for her friend.

There are two sides to every testing experience. We don’t want it, nor would we wish it on anyone. In fact Jesus teaches us to pray to be saved “from the time of trial”, though that petition probably asks that we should not be tested beyond our strength to cope. Yet we also know that through testing circumstances we learn important lessons and grow as the result. When we see children tested by disappointment or love tested by disloyalty, though we feel nothing but sympathy for the sufferers, we know in our hearts that such experiences can often have value in later life.

Tough present experience helps us to face what may be yet to come. The whole adventure of human life is about growth and being shaped and changed into something other than we are now. As it's been said, “God doesn’t create us ready made; it is the process of development, the growing up into maturity of body, mind and spirit that makes us the opposite of puppets, that makes us true children of God. God wants us to grow and the medium of growth is the bitter-sweet soil of daily life and experience.”

For the Christian the goal and aim of life is to be made perfect in love, to attain to mature manhood and womanhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. These weeks of lent give us another chance to bring our lives into line with his, so that something of his faith, his courage, his stand for truth and right, his concern for others, and his invincible love in the face of testing, may come to light in us.


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