1st Sunday of Lent

11 February 2016

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Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Psalm 91.1-2, 9-end (or 1-11); Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13

 

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

PREPOSITIONS are small components of sentences that punch above their weight. The NRSV translators’ decision to begin the story of Jesus’s temptation by reporting that he was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4.1) differs from other translations, which prefer “into”. The Greek word behind it is ambiguous, but in English, there is a large difference.

What appeals in the NRSV version is the idea of an accompanied journey. This does not mean that what Jesus underwent during those 40 days was easier, thanks to the Spirit’s guidance: it simply reassures us that God was present in the experience, keeping faith with the public proclamation of Jesus as God’s Son at his baptism (Luke 3.2). Now it is Jesus’s turn to discover what it means to keep faith.

Luke’s short summary gives the impression that the devil saved up the most extravagant temptations for the end of the 40-day sojourn. For the most part, he maintained a constant, niggling presence, getting in the way of prayerful communication with God.

Astute psychology bides its time, and the devil waits for Jesus to be conscious of real, pressing hunger before mentioning the possibility of food (Luke 4.3). He waits for the lightheadedness of low blood-sugar to make implausible and dangerous proposals (Luke 4.5-7, 9-10).

Jesus could have faltered, accepting earthly power on the devil’s terms (Luke 4.5-6). He could have performed a stunt in Jerusalem to announce himself as David’s nominated successor (Luke 1.32, 69; 4.9-11).

Strength to resist all of these avenues comes not from any sudden prophetic inspiration, but from the scriptures that were part of his formation as a faithful Jew. He draws most evidently here on Deuteronomy 6-8, the chapters that set out what it means truly to love the God who has brought his people out of Israel into their own land (Deuteronomy 6.4-5). This is the God who never left the people in the 40 years of testing and humbling in the desert to make sure that they would honour the covenant that he offered them (Deuteronomy 8.2-5).

What is the point of recapitulating this in contracted form in Jesus’s life? It was not necessary to test someone who was “without sin”. But that is where the category mistake lies. God and the devil are testing for different things. The devil wagers that Jesus might sin. God wants to be sure, and wants Jesus to be sure, that he can remain faithful to the calling he embodies, even when the devil finds the “opportune time” (Luke 4.12) and renews his campaign in Gethsemane (Luke 22.39-46).

Jesus keeps faith by holding firmly to the law in all his responses (Deuteronomy 8.3, 6.13, 6.16; Luke 4.4, 8, 12). In that sense, he offers an interesting corrective to Paul’s stark contrast between “the righteousness that comes from the law” (Romans 10.5) and “the righteousness that comes from faith” (Romans 10.6).

This is the righteousness referred to by “it” in the verse that unhelpfully begins Sunday’s New Testament reading (Romans 10.8b NRSV). Paul, Craig Hill points out, is using “righteousness” in a “distinctly new Christian sense, even in reference to Judaism” (“Romans” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, 2001, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman).

For him, it means a transfer from “unsaved” to “saved” status. What it requires is acknowledgement that “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10.9). Israel’s adherence to legal righteousness thus stands in the way, even though God would make “no distinction among those who turned to him in faith” (Romans 10.12).

Jesus’s own example challenges this opposition. What he has taken from Deuteronomy, and will later develop for his own followers (Matthew 22.38, Deuteronomy 6.5, Leviticus 19.18), is the critical association between law and love (Deuteronomy 6.4).

Somewhere in fifth- or sixth-century North Africa, a Christian community composed collects to be said at the end of each Psalm. The collect matching Psalm 91 captures the relationship between a loving God and a weak but persistently faithful band of believers, threatened by Vandal invasions, but also tempted in small ways:

 

O God our refuge, save us, we pray, because we have hope while we shelter beneath your wings. Free us, we beseech you, from the snares of the hunters, and set the lash far from the tent of our souls.

 

The literal sense of the word used for “snares” is “mousetraps”. As Lent begins, we pray to be protected from the mousetraps on our path as well as from great trials.

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