s012g99 Somerton Park 21/2/99 Lent 1a
"If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread ... If you are the Son of God throw yourself down ..." Matthew 4.3,5
This episode of Jesus' wrestling with the Devil - the tempter - occurred straight after the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. You will recall that it was then that the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and God himself spoke to him saying: "You are my Son ..." However when this connection is made between the two incidents, one following straight after another, the words of the Devil: "If you are the Son of God ..." have much more meaning. The temptation is not primarily to turn the loaves into bread, or to perform a miracle in front of the temple. The primary temptation is to disbelieve what God had only just said to him at his baptism.
I suppose that having the feast of the Transfiguration as the final Sunday before Lent, means that we have the same message ringing in our ears from last Sunday, even though it is a different occasion.
If you are the son of God ... prove it. "Prove it to me" says the tempter by turning the stones into bread. However it could as well be "Prove it to yourself" for those who have difficulty in a personalised Devil. In the end it probably doesn't make much difference at all. "Prove it to the world" says the tempter, do something spectacular in front of the crowds. And the third temptation calls into question not the sentiments of God's words to Jesus at his baptism, but God himself. The devil boasts that the kingdoms of the world are his to be given away. How often do we think that the devil has free reign, that the world lurches from one chaotic event to another - and that God is powerless. Even more sinister, how often do we think that we could do a better job at ruling the universe than God? The temptation is to disbelieve God's very ability to organise the world "better". In reality God is in charge - and that is a very comforting thought for me.
How often does the world operate by trying to undermine the confidence people have? The so-called "evangelists" going around asking people whether they are sure that they are saved - in other words do they live up to their expectations? How many people have to live up to our expectations of them - that they are Anglicans, or Anglicans of the correct shade? How many people want me to continually prove how sincere I am as a priest? It is the devil, the tempter, that tries to get Jesus to prove himself and to live up to his expectations of him.
I return to the Advent prophesy of Isaiah, and repeated by St John the Baptist. "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be laid low ..." Isaiah 40.3
What are these valleys and hills that have been done away with?
Some forms of so-called "evangelism" start by getting people to recognise their complete and utter sinfulness - and the very passages from Genesis and Romans that we read this morning have been misapplied to justify this. Then when every hope is dashed they talk about the gospel. People's own personality is removed and a clone of the cult leader is substituted. This is one of the "valley" experiences which has actually been filled in. This is not evangelism - it is subtle or less than subtle brain washing. Anything which does not start with building up the confidence of someone else as they are - is not of God.
What then are the mountains and hills? Well, another way of evangelism is to make the rewards unattainable. As curious as this may sound, if the rewards are portrayed as great enough, people will flock to climb the mountain. If something seems easy, they can happily turn away. This might seem an argument for making the expectations greater and greater; but in reality the expectations never end, and no one ever reaches the pinnacle. Life is turned into a never-ending struggle for everyone.
The coming of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, to die and to rise again for us, is all about making that pathway to God straight and smooth. We don't have to be different from whom we are, substituting our own personality for someone else's, however ideal. We don't have to live up to anyone else's expectations.
And if we don't have to do these things, nor does anyone else.
St Paul tells us in the passage in Romans that Jesus' "act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all" (vs 18). Here surely is our ground of hope and the message for the world to hear. It is in Jesus, in his cross and resurrection, that we can accept all people as they are.
I wonder how often we as the Church think that we have to make people "religious". The number of courses open to people to nurture their Christian faith is legion. I guess it is good to be busy - the saying is true that the devil finds work for idle hands. But we are not more accepted or acceptable as we know more about our faith. We exercise our faith cleaning a baby's bottom just as surely as we do when we pray or read the Bible.
A while back I heard a set of 10 commandments - they all encourage us to treat ourselves with compassion - to not try to prove to ourselves that we are anything other than children of our loving and heavenly Father. They run:
1. Thou shalt not be perfect or try to be.
2. Thou shalt not try to be all things to all people.
3. Thou shalt occasionally leave undone things that ought to be done,
4. Thou shalt not spread thyself too thin.
5. Thou shalt learn to say no when it's best for you.
6. Thou shalt schedule time for thyself alone.
7. Thou shalt switch off and do nothing at regular intervals.
8. Thou shalt be boring, inelegant and untidy at times (and the Rector, if he visits at that particular moment will have to put up with it!)
9. Thou shalt not even feel guilty!
10. Especially, thou shalt not be thine own worst enemy, but be thine own best friend.
But even as I recite them, I confess that I myself would find these commandments just as difficult, if not more difficult to keep than the ones God gave Moses, except of course number 8. Some may think my new beard is somewhat inelegant :-)
I suppose I would like to interpret them as:
God loves us, imperfect as we are, when we are unable to be all things to all people or when we try to be, when we leave undone things we ought to have done as well as when we do do the things we ought to do, when we do spread ourselves too thinly and too thickly, when we say no as well as when we say yes, when we choose to be alone for a time or when we choose to be among friends, when we do nothing, when we are boring, inelegant and untidy, when we don't feel guilty and when we do, when we are our own worst enemy and when we are our own best friend. So it becomes our choice as to if and when we decide to make changes in our lives.
I am sure that God would prefer us to be gentle on ourselves, and God certainly wants us to be gentle on others; but if we choose to be harsh on ourselves - it is our choice, not God's leading. If we are harsh and unforgiving on others we may well find God harsh and unforgiving on us.
Again they are not a standard to try to live up to - they encourage us to accept ourselves for what we are - children of God - and not try to prove to ourselves or anyone else we are anything more than this. For it is always that which is opposed to God that demands proof. God is far more understanding to have any need to do this to anyone.
I confess I don't much like the hymn "Trust and Obey" with which we finished last week's service. I know it's a favourite here, and I quite like the tune. But as I exited last Sunday, grumbling how it puts us down, I suddenly thought. Again this is my perception. Perhaps I can reinterpret the words to trust - not Jesus - but Jesus working through me - and to obey, by obeying the command to love myself as I am already, my neighbour as he or she is already, and God.
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