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1st Sunday of Lent

24 February 2022

6 March, Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Psalm 91.1-2,9-end [or 91.1-11]; Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13

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BARBARA PYM is out of fashion as a novelist, but she sketches a marvellous moment when a grumpy clergyman is selecting books for the bedside table of a house guest. Out of spite, he chooses a grammar of Icelandic. His comeuppance is swift: the next day, his unwelcome guest enthuses about how much he enjoyed reading it.

Some people love words, and cannot get enough of etymologies and linguistic nuances. Other people find them intimidating and opaque. I have always enjoyed languages, whereas numbers fill me with a leaden awareness of incompetence. Luckily, today’s Gospel is a contest of words.

Instead of enigmatic parables, we have a straightforward story: a form of combat between Jesus and the devil, between good and evil. This is not the only time in scripture when a human being strives against a supernatural one. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with a being variously described as man, God, and angel (Hosea 12.3-5). Sometimes, our contests with those who seem to be our enemies turn out to be the means of bringing us to fresh insight, or deeper understanding.

In this story of the temptation, the form of the verbal exchanges between the two principal characters is an important clue to how to understand the story. But it is also a pointer to an underlying eternal truth about the natures of the divine and the diabolic, and the great gulf between the two.

Jesus uses what linguists call the indicative mood. This means a form of words pointing to (“indicating”) definite statements: these can stand on their own and make a sentence. He responds: “It is written. . . It is written. . . It is said.” The devil makes conditional statements (things that depend on something else — another statement — before we can say that they are definite). All three of his challenges to Jesus are framed in the same way. Each statement about Jesus’s true identity is conditional. It cannot stand on its own, but requires corroboration to be definite.

By structuring his attacks on Jesus in this way, the devil is trying to undermine Jesus’s sense of self and purpose, just at the moment when he is both physically weak (he has fasted for 40 days) and spiritually vulnerable (tempted, in the reality of his human nature, to prove to himself that his Sonship is real). The contrast could not be greater with God as we encounter him in the reading from Deuteronomy, who acts “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders”.

As a piece of verbal combat, it is brilliant. The devil attacks Jesus on his own ground. He does not engage in theoretical questions about the nature of evil: instead, his specialist subject is trivial human weakness — whether that takes the form of appetite, or vanity, or the endless quest for reassurance that we matter.

In the olden days, when, if you wanted to find a Bible verse, you had to turn actual pages of an actual book, I once searched the New Testament for what eventually turned out to be Romans 10.9: “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.” I had heard the verse quoted as the key to everything, a “faith in a nutshell” teaching. I did not know what being “saved” meant, but I knew that I wanted it.

Going by most of Paul’s letters, his newly founded churches did not understand properly what being “saved” meant, either. He would not waste time writing guidance to churches that were sticking to the plan (or, if he did, the letters have not survived). Most of the letters that we have are to churches that were going astray, which skews our understanding of his teaching as a whole.

Romans 10.9, though, is an exception. I am convinced that it was part of his original “good news” to the communities that he evangelised, not least because it still works for that purpose today. It is pure good news, shorn of historical and theological argument. Our belief in Jesus may be conditional, but his reality (human and divine) is definite.

Paul understands what some preachers forget: keep it simple, and keep it positive. Jesus is the Son of God: indicative, not conditional — or, in non-specialist language, no ifs, no buts, no maybes.

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