Vicar’s Sermon – 6th March 2022

First Sunday of Lent          Luke 4.1-13

Music has the power to stir memory. One of the great things about music is that, in the hands of a composer, just a few notes can recall an atmosphere, a person, a situation. You all know the theme from Jaws? Just two notes (da-da) on the cellos and you know you are going to need a bigger boat.

Or again, the theme from The Lord of the Rings. Pastoral, gentle…and wherever Frodo or Samwise Gangee might be as they trek through Mordor and battle with Sauron you know that they are thinking of getting home to The Shire, and Sam marrying Rosie Cotton. Film composers know how to use their gift: they can tell us what is going on inside someone’s head and heart even if this isn’t shown on the screen. They draw from the opera tradition before them: Wagner, in his epic operas created a leitmotif for every character in his operas so that these musical characters could bounce off one another. And before Wagner, Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz and Beethoven did much the same if in different forms.

Our scripture writers use this technique: not with music but with words. Just a few words…just a phrase and we are meant to connect what we hear with when we first heard it…with the development of that particular theme through scripture.

And so we come to Luke chapter 4 and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness…and a rather curious passage from Deuteronomy that describes what the people of God are to do as they celebrate Harvest. The two readings are connected but you have to work to make the connection, you have to hear the resonances of the story to understand what’s going on.

The temptations all link back to the people of God and their journey out of Egypt to the Promised Land. They all connect to the wilderness wanderings: the forty years that it took Israel to travel from the Red Sea to the River Jordan. The first two are obvious: bread and worship.

Jesus was, we’re told, famished. Not just hungry, famished: His body had long started burning up any reserves of fat to sustain his life. Physically his body was at the edge of turning upon itself and total collapse. It is at this point, pretty well on the edge of death, that Jesus was tempted to turn stone into bread but chose rather to reaffirm his trust in God’s provision, to trust God’s generosity and care. It is much easier to claim you trust in God’s goodness when all is well, the bank balance is healthy, there is food in the fridge and you have a roof over your head. Not so easy when this is all gone, when your health is failing and life is a struggle: I wonder how my faith might fare under bombardment in Ukraine…or on the road to a refugee reception centre? How does one hold to a belief in the goodness of God?  Just as Israel in the wilderness had needed to learn of God’s provision through ‘manna’, the bread from heaven, so Jesus is tested to the limit here. He knows his frailty – ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’ we said on Ash Wednesday – but he trusts in the grace and goodness of God. Here we have the creature in right relationship with the Creator. Jesus receives all life as a gift from the hand of God. He points us to a way of living that has gratitude at its core. He will, of course, fight this battle again at Calvary.

And the second temptation? – To accrue power at the cost of worshipping the devil as another God. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, mind and strength’ was the commandment but Israel had fallen short in the wilderness. The people had created their own gods, they’d used up all their wealth to fashion the golden calf and then they bowed down to what they had made. The capacity for us all to serve other gods is immense. We all believe the ‘fake news’ that our hearts pump through our minds. It’s not just President Putin who is capable of self-deception and gross miscalculation: we are too. How much room do we have in our hearts and minds for an opposing point of view or a difficult opinion? How easily do we believe we are ‘right ‘and the other person is wrong. False gods demand everything of us but they are actually far too small. Jesus knew the fear of the Lord: he chose to worship God alone not his own ‘created’ false god. If the first temptation showed Jesus recognising that he, as a creature, relied on the grace and goodness of His creator God this temptation shows us a man getting his priorities straight. ‘Whether we live we live to the Lord. Whether we die, we die to the Lord. Whether we live or die we are the Lords’ said the apostle – everything else is secondary but we know only too well everything else wants to dethrone God in our hearts, marginalise Him from our individual and corporate decision making, treat Him as an added extra rather than the giver of all life who is worthy of all worship. Jesus does not let this happen: I do, often.

And finally, the third temptation. This one is harder to grasp because the story of Israel, or really Moses and Aaron, testing God in the wilderness is confusing. There was no water, the people understandably complained. Moses, in Numbers chapter 20, was told by God to take the staff he had used to show the power of God in Egypt and to command the rocks to yield up their water. Stand…and command the rocks. But instead Moses ‘struck the rock’ and water poured out. We, and the scripture itself in parts, see this as a miracle but not so the Lord in Numbers chapter 20. God tells Moses ‘because you did not trust in me to show my holiness before Israel, you will not bring this assembly into the Promised Land’. Moses had done with his staff what God was going to do through His divine command: Moses had used an old shepherd’s trick to release the water stored up in the layers of rocks whereas God was going to release this water through His word alone. Do you see the connection to the temptation Jesus is offered? Moses had usurped God’s role and taken God’s glory to Himself through his disobedience. Jesus, tempted to ‘show off’ passes the test with the reminder that for all that human beings are made (as the psalm say) a ‘ little lower than the angels’ our chief aim is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ Our lives are to point to God’s life.

The thrust of these temptations and the lessons we might draw from them appears at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy where Moses explains to the people how they are to live a ‘blessed’ life. This is the connection to our first reading. The Old Testament reading assumes the wilderness wanderings are over. Moses here speaks of a time when the people have entered the promised land and are enjoying the fruits of this new kingdom –the ‘kingdom of God?’ But to get to that point of being able to rejoice in God’s presence the people of Israel need to have learned what we have learned this morning:

Firstly: ‘Man does not live by bread alone’: rather we rely on the grace and goodness of God in all things. Those who are sore pressed know this far more than we who live sheltered lives but it is a lesson for us all. God is good. He cares for us. He is generous. He knows our needs and He also knows these needs are not the same as our wants. He asks us to trust him: and doing that is hard but it’s an attitude of heart and mind that can be learned.

Secondly: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve only Him’. The struggle to enthrone God in our hearts and lives is constant, indeed without his grace we cannot hope to please Him, but this faith business is costly – we are signed with a cross. Our prayer might be those words from the old hymn: The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be, help me to tear it from thy throne and worship only thee.’

And Thirdly: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. In the end, our Christian journey is more about Him than it is about us. Self-centredness cripples us. A wrong opinion about ourselves does not help, and humility is a virtue that Christ celebrates when he says ‘Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the earth.’

This is the Lenten way we follow, the way to our inheritance. This way lies the Promised Land. This is the way towards our Easter celebration.

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