Lent I sermon

Why, then, in Luke’s narrative, is Jesus able to resist the temptation made to him by the devil to ‘have authority over all the kingdoms of the world’.  As I understand it, as the Word made flesh he is exposed to all that humanity is exposed to in good times and in bad.  That is to say that he is the Son of God but in his earthly existence he is subject to both praise and, as Shakespeare expressed it ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. Yet unlike the rest of us he does not give in to temptation.  To attempt to find out why let us turn to the Book of Genesis when Eve is tempted by the devil in the form of a serpent to eat the fruit of the Tree of Paradise and then tempts Adam to eat it also. This eating of fruit from the Tree of Paradise, which had been forbidden to Adam and Eve by God, leads to God’s punishment: they must fall from the Garden of Eden and in their fallen state must endure pain, enmity, hard labour and the final chilling sentence from God on high: ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. Adam and Eve have foregone their harmony with God and have been left in a state of original sin foisted on them by the devil.  This state of original sin has left us all vulnerable to temptation. All is not lost though when later in the Genesis narrative God saves Noah and his family from the flood he has created to destroy mankind.  He does so because Noah has pleased him as a

 

 

righteous man ‘who walked with God’. Here we see the first manifestation of God’s salvific purpose for humanity.

 

The books of the Old Testament continue with many trials and tribulations for humanity but the birth of Jesus in the New Testament heralds a great leap forward in the salvation story. It does so because Jesus as the Son of God is unique in being without sin and he can therefore resist temptation. He is then, as given in today’s Gospel reading, the perfect model of resistance.  His resistance is inspired by the Holy Spirit which had descended upon him in his baptism.  In the opening sentence of today’s Gospel, Luke writes that Jesus has returned from the Jordan ‘full of the Holy Spirit’.  It is the Holy Spirit that leads him in the wilderness so here we have the enabling power of the Holy Spirit moving Jesus in accordance with the will of God.  In the Lord’s Prayer we say ‘lead us not into temptation’ expressing the hope that the Holy Spirit will lead us too away from temptation.

 

In the Lord’s Prayer, in our petition to God to overcome temptation we are then hoping to emulate Jesus in his resistance to its allurements because unlike Jesus we need God’s help to do so.

 

We continue the Lord’s Prayer by asking God to deliver us from evil. In today’s Gospel reading good and evil are brought face to face in an all out confrontation between Jesus and the devil.  If we look at the nature of evil we can say it is of three kinds: physical, such as bodily injury and starvation; moral, being the actions taken which deviate from the moral order and metaphysical being limitation by one another of various component parts of the natural world.  That is to say that which is prevented by physical condition or sudden catastrophe.  These three aspects of evil show us that evil is essentially negative.  In the

confrontation between Jesus and the devil it appears as though the devil is making a positive offer of all the kingdoms of the world.  In real terms it is negative because were Jesus to accept his offer it would bring to an end God’s salvific purpose for mankind.  It would do so because Jesus would acquire the glory of ‘the kingdoms of the world’ and would no longer be the suffering servant who was to die upon the Cross to save mankind and ultimately bring about the kingdom of God.  It would also negate salvation by calling upon Jesus to worship the devil rather than God, hence his firm Biblical response: ‘worship the Lord your God and serve only him’.

 

There is much evil of the physical kind in Luke’s narrative.  The devil assumes that if Jesus is alone in the desert, outside the bounds of society and famished after 40 days of fasting he will readily want to prove himself to be the Son of God by commanding a stone to become a loaf of bread.  In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to ‘give us this day our daily bread’ but Jesus takes this further with again a Biblical response: ‘One does not live by bread alone’.  In Matthew’s Gospel we are given a fuller picture here when Jesus adds to the sentence ‘but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’.  Here Jesus’ faith in the Word of God is a sure weapon in times of conflict.  We find this faith manifest in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he writes: ’Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God’. Jesus trusts in God to sustain him.

 

Stones feature frequently in Luke’s narrative.  Since the fifth century it has been believed that the wilderness was the rocky and uninhabited area between Jerusalem and Jericho.  The devil, who is with him in the wilderness, takes Jesus up ‘to a high place’ to show him the kingdoms.  This place by tradition is the ‘Quarantania’ being a limestone peak on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He then takes Jesus to Jerusalem and places him on the pinnacle of the Temple,

 

 

calling upon him to throw himself off it, trusting that as the Son of God the angels will protect him.  It is not sure what is meant by ‘the pinnacle’ but it might have been a little wing or tower of the Temple.  The devil says that the angels will bear Jesus up so that he will not ‘dash his foot against a stone’.  We can find a similar narrative in the Old Testament in Psalm 91 giving the assurance of God’s protection. There it is written that the angels will guard you and bear you up ‘so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’. Stones are mentioned many times in the Bible as obstacles to Divine purpose.  In Matthew’s parable of the wicked tenants Jesus says: ‘the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’. Then there is the stoning of Stephen in the Book of Acts.  Some scholars believe that the actual places described in Luke’s narrative did not exist and they are symbolic not real.  I would argue that even if they did not exist we still have the confrontation between good and evil and the response of Jesus to it which is: ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test’.  That sentence is, forgive the pun, ‘set in stone’.

 

Having received that response the devil departs though Luke writes: ‘until an opportune time’.  Jesus will continue to encounter evil but will overcome the power of evil by obedient faith and, as given in chapter 10 of Acts: ‘he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him’.  We know that the Crucifixion was to follow but we also know that after the Crucifixion came the Resurrection.

 

With this in mind we can say with confidence the closing words of the Lord’s Prayer:

For thine is the kingdom

The power and the glory

For ever and ever

Amen.

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