On 14 February, the First Sunday of Lent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 91:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13.
I’m sure you’ve come across the saying: ‘Less is more’. The idea is that it’s not necessary to overdo something to make a point. If something is done subtly it is often the best way.
The devil is the master of subtlety. He’s been practising since the first people were around, according to the account in Genesis 3: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” What God had actually said was: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” As you probably know, this introduction led Eve to be persuaded that God was denying her something good in saying she could not eat from just the one tree. The rest, as they say, is history.
Jesus met the devil in the wilderness just after his baptism in the Jordan. It was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus there. It seems a bit odd that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into a situation where he would face temptation. Why leave Jesus vulnerable to the wiles of the devil? From the way Luke writes this account, the temptations that Jesus endured didn’t happen in just one incident. Luke says that Jesus was tempted for forty days, on and on, day after day.
Perhaps Jesus needed to face the same temptations many times over in that period in order to be sure in his own mind what his response was. At the beginning, before he had fasted for long, we might expect that Jesus’ resolve would have been stronger than at the end. What was needed was that his resolve become stronger the longer time went on. The Holy Spirit was aware of what Jesus would face in the years of his mission on earth. This time of tempting was a time of refining for Jesus’ mission. In this time of forty days, Jesus was setting the direction that he would follow. It needed to be one that would not waver, no matter what happened.
Luke tells us of three temptations which the devil presented Jesus with. The first was to turn the flat stones of the wilderness into bread. Surely as days went on and Jesus became weaker and hungrier, that temptation must have grown. Jesus had the power over nature. We know this from later events in his life. He could have turned the stones into bread. The devil used his subtlety by the way he phrased the temptation: “If you are the Son of God.” He was implying that there was something to prove here. Rather like with Eve, the devil was trying to undermine what God had said. At Jesus’ baptism, God had affirmed that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. Had Jesus given in and worked a miracle in order to prove himself, he would also have proved that he didn’t trust God’s word. How could Jesus possibly have faced the hostility of those who didn’t believe he was the Messiah if he did not believe the Father’s word on the matter? Jesus was able to answer that bread was not the priority, even though he was famished. Relying on God’s word was far more important, even than life itself.
Doesn’t something similar often happen to us? The Bible tells us we are God’s children, brothers and sisters of Jesus, heirs of the kingdom, holy priests of God, and so on. According to the Word of God we are phenomenal. But do we feel that way? As often as not we feel insignificant, failures, useless, a disappointment to ourselves and everyone else. Whose voice tells us this? Can you hear the hiss? “If you are a ssssissster of Jesssusss, where’sss the power in your life?” “If you are a priesssst, what kind of minissstry are you carrying out?” “If you are God’ssss child, why do you behave that way?”, “If ..”, “If…”, “If..” “Go on, prove yourself. I dare you!” But we don’t have to prove ourselves. God’s view of us is the true one.
The second temptation finds Jesus seeing all the kingdoms of the world spread out below him. The devil promises to hand authority over them to Jesus. Wouldn’t that be brilliant? All those kingdoms currently under the devil’s sway would have passed to Jesus. Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords, would govern them. This would have provided a short cut to what God has planned, that all things should be under Jesus’ feet. However, although this would be a quick fix, there was a price to pay. Jesus would have to worship the devil. It would be a hollow victory because those kingdoms would not pass to a new king; they would still be under the governance of the devil with Jesus as a figurehead only. Jesus knew that God was the only one deserving of worship. In choosing to reject this temptation, Jesus took a much longer and more difficult route to bringing all the kingdoms of the world under his rule, but at least the rule would be genuine.
The same can happen to us. We can sometimes see a way to achieve something that is quicker and easier than we thought. However, what is expedient is not necessarily what is right. We need to stop and think. Would the quicker way bring honour to God? Or would it involve a few moral compromises? Would it cause ‘collateral damage’ as the military phrase is for those injured inadvertently in the pursuit of some goal? Would it involve being ‘economical with the truth’? Can we bring our new improved plan before God and ask him to bless it? If not, we need to think again.
Finally, Jesus could see himself high up on the pinnacle of the temple. It was a long way down. Once again the devil tempted Jesus to prove himself: ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.’ The devil was referring to the Word of God as written in the Hebrew scriptures. If Jesus was the Messiah, the words would apply to him. If he threw himself off the pinnacle, the authorities could not fail to believe in him as the Messiah. Job done, front page headlines in the local paper, people queuing up to join the Messiah’s band of followers. Probably Jesus had little if any doubt that God would do as he promised (though the devil did his best to sow the seeds of doubt). However, in order to prove that, he had to test God, to see before fully believing. As Jesus later said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” As St Paul was later to confirm, “We walk by faith not by sight.” Had Jesus drawn people to him via his miraculous jump from the pinnacle, they would likely have been those with little faith. He needed people of strong faith to spread the word of the Kingdom of God throughout the world. This temptation was rather like the first two combined. If Jesus had followed the devil’s suggestion, he would have proved himself as the Son of God and built his kingdom instantly. Fortunately, Jesus rejected this temptation also and the devil had to retreat to rethink his strategy while Jesus proceeded to carry out his mission in the right way.
We must expect that we will face temptations, probably persistent ones. We could give up on ourselves and take this as a sign that we are useless Christians or remember that it’s a chance for us to develop our faith. Jesus fought back by remembering what God said in his Word and so can we. As Paul says in our reading from Romans, that word “is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” It’s available to all of us instantly. And in Ephesians Paul refers to “the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.” We have what we need to fight temptation. We just need to use it, as Jesus did.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor