A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (26/02/23): Freedom and Temptations

Matthew 4:1-11

“Speak of the devil and he shall appear” is what the proverb says. The devil is not, as some of our mythology might have it, a fallen angel. The devil is not, as he would appear when we give him too much credence, an equal and opposite counterpart to God. The devil has no existence of his own. The devil is merely the embodiment of the mystery of disobedience. God would have us love God. But God would have us love him freely with the same love that made us, that free, unconditional, uncoerced gracious love. God’s risks our disobedience in the hope we will return the love we have for him. The devil has no existence of his own. He is merely a parasite on that freedom which God gives, the freedom to obey, the freedom to love, or not. And so the devil’s only mode of operation is to tempt. The devil has no power of his own, only the power that human freedom allows him to exploit.

So the devil was there from the very start, in the Garden with Adam and Eve. They were free, but they were drawn by their freedom and the snake’s/devil’s temptation to disobey. They ceased to trust the word of God, that God does indeed love them, that the garden they live is perfect. They had to know for themselves, so they did what is forbidden, they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From the very outset the temptation has always been the same, to deny that God is real, to deny what God says is true, and to deny that God is good. Only the possibility of such denial allows our love of God to be free But such denials open the possibility of disobedience. Which is the space in which the devil/tempter finds for his existence

Jesus has just been baptised in the Jordan by John. As he emerges from the water he hears the voice from heaven confirm what he has been from his birth:
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased
At which point, right away, Jesus finds himself compelled to go out into the wilderness. It is here that for forty days and nights he too is tempted by the devil. Jesus’ temptation is a recapitulation of the Adam and Eve story. His human nature is exposed. His freedom, to obey or not, to accept God’s love and return it are under question. For the human race Jesus offers a fresh beginning, that has a different outcome from the beginning made in the Garden. But his time in the wilderness is also a recapitulation of Israel’s time in the wilderness. Their delivery from Egypt was the event which made Israel truly God’s people and gave them their mission to be a light to all the nation. This was followed immediately by a time in the wilderness where they were tempted. Jesus’ time in the wilderness is not only a fresh beginning for the human race, but it is also the starting point for a renewal among the people of God which leads ultimately to the Church and to us. Israel’s, and Jesus’ self-understanding, their grasp of who they are and what they were to do were sharpened by their time in the wilderness. As Christians and as the church, the continuing body of Christ, then we would look Jesus’ time in the wilderness for the same understanding.

The devil is a parasite. He can only ever be as strong strong as the one he is tempting. After forty days in the wilderness, fasting, Jesus is hungry. He is famished. The obvious first place for the devil to start is Jesus’ hunger:
If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread
The source of the temptation is Jesus’ hunger. The opening is the frailty of being embodied as a human being which has needs and appetites. Yet the temptation is at its core, as it always is, to deny God. The devil invites Jesus to doubt what he has just heard the Father say to him:
This my Son
And from his hunger to question God’s love toward him, despite having just been called:
The beloved
Jesus though succeeds where others fail. Perhaps he remembered that through all their time in the wilderness the children of Israel were fed by the manna that appeared from heaven. They had no reason to doubt that the real source of their lives and their well-being was God the Father. Nor does Jesus doubt it
One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus resists the temptation with the recognition that God is God and the God’s speech is trustworthy. And God can be relied upon for his well-being.

We of course are never tempted to turn stone into bread. Because unlike Jesus we can’t. But the temptation to deny God as the true source of our well-being remains very really Human beings are remarkably ingenious. And we have found ways to meet our needs. There is enough food and shelter and of almost anything we might need or want. In a way we have found technological ways to turn if not stones into bread then to turn earthly resources and human effort into anything we could want. And in doing so it has become very easy for us to fall into the temptation of denying God’s role in all of that. We are tempted to forget that the real source of our well being is not bread or our ability to secure it, but God who provides everything.

Jesus deflect the devil with scripture. So the devil seizes on that as his next opening
It is written: “He will command his angels concerning you” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
The devil once again tempts Jesus to doubt who he is. And offers the possibility of overcoming that doubt with a test. God has already promised that his beloved will be protected by the angels. So it is in reality the same temptation; to deny God, the truth of God’s speech, and the goodness of God. The devil wants Jesus to put that promise to the test by jumping off the top of the temple.

Human freedom inevitably includes doubt. God’s gift to us is that whilst he wants our love he will not compel it. The human relationship with God is built up in trust through repeated experience of God’s love and goodness toward us. It cannot be reduced to certainty in a single dramatic test. But this is hard. The children of Israel had beyond all other people experience the love and goodness of God towards them. God’s care for them had been repeated again and again. And yet they still doubted. The complained bitterly about the hardships they endured, as if they were harsher than the slavery they had just been delivered from. Jesus knows better. He stays with scripture and replies to the devil:
Again it is written “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Jesus asserts that trusting God is the only option. Proof is not available. If you have to put God to the test then you don’t actually believe God. And you are denying or at least ignoring all the goodness that God has already shown you.

We of course are not tempted to jump of high buildings to prove God’s care for us. We are not Jesus and we are certain that no angels would intervene before a tragic encounter with the ground beneath. For us to do that would be the very definition of insanity, the epitome of mental. And yet we are tempted to make our relationship with God transactional. Every misfortune is treated as evidence of God’s failure towards us. And some of the burden of suffering is very hard to bear, and God’s goodness is at times easy to doubt. But it is just as easy to give God the credit for the positive experiences of our lives. And it is so easy for our prays to become bargaining: “If you will do this – then I will. . . continue to believe until the next time I put it to the test.” Rather than our relationship with God being like that of Jesus: one of settled trust in a God who he knows loves him and who he loves in return.

The devil has failed. The devil has failed in his attempt to make Jesus doubt who he is. The devil accepts that Jesus is convinced that he is the Son of God. The devil no longer questions Jesus’ power. Instead he questions how Jesus might use it. From the mountain top the devil shows Jesus all the glory of the world and offers:
All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.
The kingdoms of the earth are the realm in which human beings are free to act. So in some sense, the devil, that parasitic product of human freedom, that embodiment of disobedience is free to make this offer. Jesus has the power to become an Emperor far greater than Caesar or any other ruler before or since. Jesus could take hold of the world, us the world’s methods, which in the end are coercion and violence, and rule the world. Jesus could like Adam and Eve disobey God and take the world on on his own terms.

Israel hadn’t very long left the wilderness that it wanted to become a nation like other nations. Despite all that they achieved when they allowed only God to guide them, they still wanted the power and glory that other nations appeared to gather to themselves. The end result of giving into such temptation was exile, then foreign domination and finally destruction as a nation-like-other-nations The devil hasn’t even bothered to hide the really character of his offer; deny God and worship disobedience. The devil thinks he can get away with this because the reward is so great. But Jesus himself will later say:
What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
At this point Jesus can dismiss the devil. Despite appearances to the contrary this is God’s world. The real ruler of the world is God and any attempt to reign apart from God would be to usurp God. And what the devil offers is already Jesus’ in any case, if Jesus continues to trust God and continues to act only as God wants him to. Jesus is Lord, but only in the context of his solidarity with the Father. Jesus accepts obedience to God over worldly methods and worldly power:
Worship the Lord you God, and serve only him.
And for the time being the devil has nothing more to say.

Again we would hardly be tempted to seize power in the world. Though of course for the longest time the Church tried pretty much to do that. And often we still hanker after a golden age that now seems past: when the church had a great deal of power and prestige, and seemed able to make the world around it to march to the beat of its drum. Even now our attempts to build up the church may only be a means to an end, to give us a large enough weight of numbers to force our agenda onto the powers of this world. We are actually called simply to faithfulness. The patient living out of our lives trusting in the reality, truthfulness and goodness of God. That is the only method that is available to us. But we are tempted to prefer “success” over faithfulness

Where Adam and Israel failed, Jesus succeeds. In the wilderness Jesus is most human, like us. He is free. He is vulnerable to his needs and appetites. And he is open to temptation. His time in the wilderness repeats both the story of the Garden of Eden, and the Story of the Exodus, but the outcome to Jesus’ story is different. Where Adam and Eve failed, where the Children of Israel failed, Jesus succeeds. As the letter to the Hebrew points out:
We have one who in every respect has been tested [tempted] as we are, yet without sin.
He success, which leads to his ministry, death and resurrection opens the way for us to use our freedom, resist the temptations that inevitably must come. The temptations which add up to nothing more than denying God, and remain obedient to God, returning to God the love which God has shown .


Freedom and Temptations by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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