This Sunday's readings: 1st Sunday of Lent

by
22 February 2007

byJohn Pridmore

Victory over Satan: Duccio di Buoninsegna's The Temptation on the Mount,1308-11, a panel from Maestá altarpiece Frick Collection, New York

Victory over Satan: Duccio di Buoninsegna's The Temptation on the Mount,1308-11, a panel from Maestá altarpiece Frick Collection, New...

Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13

"THE HOLY GOSPEL is written in the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke, beginning at the first verse." But my errant eye is caught by the last words of the previous chapter. Luke gives us the genealogy of Jesus. The long family tree ends with the words, "son of Adam, son of God". This conclusion is not just the record of Jesus's earliest ancestors. Luke tells us not just whom Jesus came from. He tells us who he is. Jesus is "the son of Adam and the Son of God".

But - one moment - so am I. I too, am the child of Adam and the child of God. If that is who I am, then Jesus's temptations are mine, too. We tend to detach ourselves from the story of Christ's wilderness encounter with Satan. We see his solitary struggle as not touching us. The three temptations add up to one: the single temptation for Jesus to settle for some other path than the lonely way of the cross.

As his role - to "give his life as a ransom for many" - was unique, we suppose that his temptations, too, must have been unique. "There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin." If no one else is asked to pay, no one else will be tempted not to. Anyway, most of us find the urge to jump off temples resistible.

Certainly Jesus's debate with the Devil is over the nature of a messiahship that is his alone and the priorities of a mission solely his. His temptation is to be the Messiah who would host the messianic banquet, the "feast of rich food and of well-aged wines" (Isaiah 25.6) that was the dream and hope of a hungry people. It is to be the Messiah who would "slay their foes and lift them high", to deliver them from their oppressors. It is to provide some overwhelming proof of who he is, and so to convince the sceptical that God has indeed visited his people.

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Thus spoke the voice, the voice not from heaven, to Jesus, as he pondered and perhaps began to question the mission that only he could fulfil.

But the same voice whispers in my ear, too. "If you are the child of God . . ." The tempter's tone is mocking and gleeful. "You are, you say, a child of God. You read your Bible and claim its promises; you say your prayers, believing they will be answered; you go to church and seek sacramental strength to love and to serve. And yet the stones at your feet are still stones. The desert of your days is as arid as ever. The hunger in your heart, for you know not what, is unabated." The temptation is to despair.

The same seductive voice seeks to persuade the Church, as it sought to persuade the Lord of the Church, to be a power for good - to be a power for good. To use power to achieve what must be done may be a necessity for the army, but for the Church to do so is always idolatry. The temptation to "worship the devil" is not to do weird things in the woods at midnight. It is the temptation to stride the corridors of power. And, ever since the conversion of Constantine, there has been little evidence of the Church's attempting to resist it.

The consequence has been "Christendom", the triumph of what Kenneth Leech describes as a "mutant of Christianity", the Church that colludes with the institutions and instruments of the world's pomp and power. (Not to speak of plundering its wardrobe.)

Perhaps these days "the enemy of souls" no longer seduces us with crude promises of power, dangling before us the perks and peacock feathers that go with it. He is subtler in his overtures, suggesting that positions of greater "influence" can better serve the gospel and the Christian cause. (In a recent sermon in Westminster Abbey, it was claimed that "The establishment of the Church of England means that there is space for religious thought and action at the heart of our national life.")

Are we tempted to jump from temples? Perhaps not, but we still like to impress, and it is the same Father of Lies urging us to do so. We're not averse to stunts. We broadcast our successes, and conceal our failures. A famous church that boasts of converts borne up on angels' wings stays silent about those dashed against the stones.

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I am tempted as he is. Baptised child of God I may be, but I must still learn to respect the utter recalcitrance of how things are. I was signed with the sign of the cross. One day I'll exchange that cross for a crown, but meanwhile I mustn't try to swap it for a seat at the top table. I am defended and equipped by God's Holy Spirit. But I really must stop showing off.

Deuteronomy 26.1-11

Moses spoke to the people, saying: 1When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.’ 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5you shall make this response before the LORD your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, 7we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

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Romans 10.8b-13

8What does scripture say?
‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Luke 4.1-13

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’

5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.”’

9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
11and
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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