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
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
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
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
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