Sermons from St Faith's     


Fr Dennis Smith, Lent 1, 2013


As we heard in the Gospel reading today, soon after his baptism by John, Jesus was driven by God into the wilderness to make certain that he could cope with what lay ahead. Jesus is testing his call and God is testing him too. How he responds is both an inspiration and a help for us now.

Today if someone is seen on television in the middle of nowhere commenting on the desolation and emptiness, you know that if the camera turned around you would see several trucks full of equipment and support, with no danger of getting lost or forsaken! But Jesus was alone.

The question immediately arises: how does this story come to us. It must be something Jesus himself spoke about to his disciples, not to impress them with his personal courage or endurance, but to make the point that these temptations come our way, too, when we seek to follow Jesus.

The Gospel record has Jesus spending a lot of his time warning his followers about the dangers facing him, dangers which would eventually face them too. Looking at the story which we heard, we notice that there are apparently three temptations. Yet really there is only one, and it comes to Jesus in three ways – and to us.

Putting it bluntly, do we really trust God to see us through? The alternatives are spelt out and we can look at them in a moment, but beneath it all we are being asked to trust God: God’s method and God’s love, come what may.

Incidentally, this is what lay behind the approach of Jesus in telling his disciples not to publicise the truth that he was indeed the Messiah. The people of his time were so sure that the Messiah would be using power and prestige and even force to bring in God’s Kingdom that Jesus was afraid of being mistaken for someone like that. God’s love is strong in an altogether different way.

The first temptation is to rely on things, even necessary things. Material things are symbolised by the prospect of bread to a hungry man in his wilderness. Later in his teaching Jesus would say “If your son asks for bread, would you give him a stone?” Here Jesus denies himself even bread. There’s a great deal in Jesus’ teaching about the danger of things, or relying on possessions, of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Things will not in the end give satisfaction, however much we all dream of maybe winning some serious money to do good with. Plenty can be a barrier to trusting God says Jesus – though it seems to be the main aim in life for so many people. He is quoted saying it so often that it must have been quite a theme in his preaching. 

We cannot live by bread alone – even though we are invited to pray “Give us today our daily bread” because God knows bread is good and we do need it to stay alive. Yes, we need things; but things are secondary when it comes to human happiness and fulfilment. The apostle Paul wrote that he could cope with having plenty or having little; what matters is doing God’s will and trusting God’s gracious love. Not by bread alone.

The second temptation is the same one, exaggerated for greater effect. Imagine you were able to meet every human need, not just bread for the world, but all the other things. You could be a benevolent dictator, omnipotent and doubtlessly well-meaning at least to start with. Would this bring in God’s Kingdom? Not really. In the musical Mr Pickwick sings “If I ruled the world …” but would everyday really be the first day of spring, would everything be sorted?

God’s love implies human freedom – the very thing which the devil in the story would take away. We are able to say a willing “Yes” to God, and that implies being able to say “No”. Indeed the mystery of being able to say “No” to God remains one of the most profound questions that believers have to address.

Because God wants partners rather than puppets, God’s love is never coercive. To become supreme ruler is as illusory as being supremely rich; such power does not bring in the rule of God. Of course we often wish we could sort it when we are frustrated or angry at the mess people make of their lives – or indeed of our lives or of history at large. It’s such a hard lesson, but the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, the power of God is love. And God’s love is such a paradox, so easily thwarted by human power, a power that can become demonic. 

This brings us to the third aspect of Jesus’ temptation, again one which is not unknown to us in our times: Do something really dramatic, even unbelievable, and people will follow you.

In today’s language: Become a celebrity and you will have power over people. They will follow you, copy you, admire you, almost worship you.

Celebrity does indeed have this real power, for good or ill, in today’s world of mass media and social networks. A reporter visiting Ian Paisley’s church in his heyday reckoned that by the end of the sermon everyone there would have gone out and followed him wherever he led. This raw charisma and, like all power, can be used for better or worse – but it never brings in God’s Kingdom when it’s a substitute for love.

Three forms of power tempted Jesus in this story and still tempt us today. The power of possessions, the power of politics, the power of personality – Jesus turned from such earthly power and, as he foresaw, as a result ended up in the most powerless situation possible, nailed on a cross to die.

When he told the story of the temptations to his disciples, Jesus must have known that they too would be tempted, tempted to tactics unworthy of the end in view.

It’s much harder to work patiently at building up justice and peace and forgiveness, faith and hope and love in human lives and human society. Trusting God will often involve turning from a safer route, taking the uncalculated risk, getting knocked back twice, taking up your cross, the foolishness of God, as Paul puts it.

And yet this is Jesus’ way. Who’s to say that it’s not, subversively and eventually, more effective – more powerful in a different sense of that word?

The love which Jesus embodies and which is in itself the very life of God, this love may mean we appear powerless and even uncomfortably so; it may mean we are vulnerable and even painfully so; it may mean we are trusting and even foolishly so.

And yet, and yet, “no-one who believes in him will be put to shame” as the apostle says. To choose this way will mean that we are loved and able to love, that we are Christ’s in our own time and place, that we are not alone because whatever we face he faces with us – and as we learn to resist our own temptations, he will increase our strength and bring us safely and strongly through.         


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