Preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 10th March 2019 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor.
(Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Luke 4.1-13)
Nearly 40 years ago, to keep the wolf from my proverbial door, I went for a job at a rather large night club near where I lived. I had a short interview with the manager at 7.30 one evening, was told to start the next night, wearing a bow tie, and went home. A couple of hours later I was telephoned and asked whether I could come back straight away and meet the owner. Rather bemused, I did so, noticing, as I passed through the foyer, the many photographs of him in a flamboyant dinner jacket alongside various celebrities and members of the royal family.
I realised at an early stage that this was not likely to be a normal conversation. His first remark was: ‘So you’ve been to catering college’, to which I said, No, Cambridge University. His second sentence was: ‘I need you to manage my sports centre.’ Me: ‘Thank you, but I’m going through the selection process to become a clergyman in the Church of England.’ To which his immediate reply was, ‘So you’re honest, then’, followed by ‘I’m a charity man’. And he then went on to lay out before me a choice which sounded oddly familiar.
‘This is how it is’, he said, reaching for a note pad and illustrating his meaning with a pen. ‘There are two ways in life: one way is steady and dull and in the end full of regrets; but then the other one is up and down, win, lose, exciting and full of possibilities. I’m offering you the chance of that one.’ Gentle reader, I did not accept Bob Potter’s offer.
All these years later, I think that remains the only time in my life when temptation - presented as a clear cut choice between two possibilities - has ever been put before me. It is not, of course, the only time I have been tempted. The rareness of the event should therefore serve as a warning to me, and for anyone inclined to think of temptation as a binary choice, that the ‘opportune time’ for which the devil went off to wait after being rebutted by Jesus, may come rather more often than is apparent. In Luke’s account of Christ’s moment of decision after his time in the wilderness, there is no implication that fresh temptations were never to beset him.
What Luke, and the very similar account in Matthew, give us is temptation as drama; a scene which drives the narrative forward and illuminates the characters. The particular lures are simple human hunger, the chance to exercise and revel in power, and doubts about whether he actually has the backing of the Almighty. At this moment the armour is being probed in these areas. They, we must assume, are representative rather than comprehensive. Remember, for example, that much later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wanted to avoid the horrible fate the anticipated. There will have been for him, as for us, numberless occasions where choices were not clear, when it was far from easy to know the right path, the right thing to do or say. Do I speak out, or do I hold my tongue till a better time?
One thing Luke has done with this dramatic rendering of temptation, of course, is to provide us who follow Jesus with a model, an example, a set of tools. Tasty as are these titbits put before the budding Christ, Jesus knocks each back with a ready quotation from the scriptures. Now, as naive and assertive understandings of the Bible have grown more strident, denying scientific insights and demanding particular moral norms, it has become rather common for more reflective Christians to join the bulk of our society in knowing little about the scriptures. Yes, every service contains texts from the Bible, but do we really listen, do we strive to know and understand, do we look for the wider background and meanings which surround what we hear?
It is a bit naive to scoop out a biblical quotation for every moment, modelled on the way Jesus does here. Things are rarely so simple that a sentence really closes the issue, and indeed we don’t see much more of Jesus himself modelling this approach. But are Bibles, while complex, multi-layered, and often difficult, contain vast riches, and can provide comfort and pattern when we are rudderless. This Lent you could do a lot worse than to find and to learn a few of those nuggets - you never know when they may help.
Some risks are clear in this account of the temptation of Jesus: the third time round the devil shows he can quote scripture just as easily as Jesus. So there’s nothing magic about scripture, it isn’t an amulet warding off evil.
What truly combats temptation is the clear vision of God. The point of Lent, of fasting or all the rest of it, is to set aside some distractions and see afresh. Sin, as the ancient Christian writers John and Paul make clear, is a state of being and not a list; it’s not really about the many things we’ve done wrong - Paul helpfully points out we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is to be not with God, having our eyes and attention elsewhere.
So, useful as it can be to remember the extensive list of our individual and corporate failings, to live as a follower of Christ isn’t achieved simply by a process of particular rebuttals of the devil, making the right choices in a finite binary process. The best answer is to align ourselves with God, to turn our attention afresh to him. Which is probably why we had today’s passage from the Old Testament book Deuteronomy: God’s people are about to be given all that they had been hoping for. And they are instructed to take the first produce of their land to God in thanks because of what he has done for them. To see God in advance in everything that they have hoped and waited and worked for.
For the peace of God does not come as a result of our strivings, but through finding him to be all, in all.