Sermon podcast: Lent 112 Feb 2018 By Peter Atkinson
Peter Atkinson, Dean of Worcester, 18 February 2018.
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‘Lead us not into temptation’. Those are words we say each time we say the Lord’s Prayer; they are among those precious phrases which Our Lord himself told us to say each time we pray. And the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent reminds us that he himself was no stranger to temptation.
St Mark wrote his gospel in Greek, and the word he used which is translated into English as ‘temptation’ has a broader meaning than we often give to the word. It means ‘being put to the test’. It is what we do if we are lucky enough to test-drive a car; it is trying something out, putting something through its paces. More challengingly, it is what is done to machinery or materials that must be have a dependable durability; the manufacturer may test them ‘to destruction’, to discover their ‘breaking-point’.
And that is what we see happening to Jesus in the wilderness. He has gone there in the immediate wake of his baptism, to be alone with God, to be alone with himself, to consider his calling and, as we say, to ‘test his vocation’. The gospel-writers use the terminology that came to them naturally, and say that he was tempted, or tested, by the devil. St Mark merely says that Jesus was ‘tempted by Satan’; St Matthew and St Luke elaborate the story into a series of questions that Satan put to Jesus. Sometimes in the Scriptures, Satan has this role. In the Book of Job, for instance, he is the prosecutor in the court of heaven. Here in the gospels, Satan is playing the same part, plying Jesus with hard questions, seeking to entrap him by clever talk. The upshot is that Jesus is ‘put to the test’; everything he believes about his calling to be God’s Messiah is questioned, challenged.
So what does it mean for us, in this sense, to be ‘tempted’: to be brought to the time of trial; to be tested, maybe to the limits, perhaps even, we sometimes feel, to destruction? St Paul, who knew something of being tested to the limit in his own life, wrote these words: ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way of escape so that you may be able to endure it’. These are words which we must read in the light of the experience of Jesus himself with regard to temptation; which is where we started.
If we look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus on the Cross, we may think we see someone tested beyond the limits, tested to destruction; and at one level we do. But at a deeper level, God remains faithful to Jesus, even though Jesus begged to be spared his cup of suffering (but he was not spared), even though he begged God to tell him why he had forsaken him, but heard no answer. But the message of Easter, beyond the Garden of Gethsemane, beyond the Cross, is that God remained faithful to Jesus, and gave him new life in spite of death. And the ultimate meaning of St Paul’s words is that for us too, even though our lives seem tested to destruction, God remains faithful even through the most shattering of experiences. In the darkest and bleakest and loneliest of places, we can never stray from the path that Jesus has already trodden, and treads it still. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read that Jesus was ‘tempted’ or ‘tested’ ‘in all points like as we are, yet without sin’. Or as Richard Baxter, one of the saints of our Diocese in the seventeenth century, puts it in one of his hymns:
Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than he went through before;
He that into God’s kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.
- Do I really believe that Jesus was really ‘tempted’ or ‘tested’ ‘in all points like as we are, yet without sin’ – or do I imagine that it must have been easier for him, because he was the Son of God?
- Is there anything in the New Testament that suggests that being obedient to God’s will was easier for Jesus than it is for us?
- What are some of the ‘dark rooms’ I have gone through. Can I imagine Jesus in those dark rooms?