Sermon preached by Clive Watts, ordinand at Ripon College Cuddesdon, on Sunday 28th February 2016 at All Saints’, Cuddesdon and St Giles’, Horspath.
Readings: Isaiah 55: 1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13: 1-9.
I’ve been trying to lose some weight for a while now, and I’ve had some success at doing so. However there is just one thing that I find hard to resist – temptation!
This year for lent I thought I’d redouble my efforts to stick to my diet and lose a bit more weight before the time came to try on and order clerical shirts. So I decided that for lent this year, I would give up all chocolate, sweets and snacks. But then Lent is also the busiest part of term at Cuddesdon College; with essays and assignments all due before Easter – and there in the college common room is a cupboard full of crisps and snacks and another one full of sweets and chocolate. Now I must confess that it wasn’t too long after Ash Wednesday before a New Testament essay was getting a bit too bamboozling and I found myself making the short trip to the common room cupboards, and a few moments later sitting back down at my desk in the library with a bag of mini cheddars and a mars bar. – Temptation had got the better of me!
Martin Luther, who began the protestant reformation, said that there is nothing sinful about being tempted, it happens to us all. There is nothing we can do to stop temptation, – but we can avoid putting ourselves in situations where we know that the temptations will be too strong. Situations which Martin Luther referred to as ‘occasions of sin’. He spoke of avoiding temptation by saying, ‘You can’t stop birds from flying over you, but you needn’t allow them to nest in your hair!’
The 40 days of lent are an opportunity for us to remember that we aren’t alone in facing temptation. Just a couple of weeks back we heard how even Jesus experienced temptation, as for 40 days he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. I think that for Jesus to fully know what it is to be human he needed to look at the delights of living his life in the wrong way, with pride, self-indulgence and miracles on demand, and to be tempted by them. Only then could he make the conscious decision to live in the right way, the way of self-giving love, compassion, and self-sacrifice, – ultimately the way of the cross.
The way Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is described in terms of a dialogue with Satan, reminds me of the story of Job. Job’s a good man, living a comfortable life on his farm with his family, praying and praising God. In the story God calls his heavenly advisers, and proudly points out Job as a righteous man. One of them, called ‘Satan’, says, ‘Ah it’s easy for Job now, it’s easy to be good and to pray to God when everything is going all right. But Job will soon turn into a good-for-nothing when he starts to suffer a little.’ ‘All right’ says God ‘I give you permission to cause him grief and distress, and we will see if he remains faithful to me.’ So Satan destroys Job’s health, his home and his family. Quite understandably Job is tempted to give up on God, even his wife urges him to ‘Curse God and die.’ But somehow he keeps on holding on, – sometimes by the skin of his teeth, – until he is given a vision of God the creator. He sees the wonder of God and recognizing his temptation he is able to remain faithful and is rewarded for his righteousness in the face of suffering. As a result his relationship with God became stronger because he overcame temptation.
In both the story of Jesus in the wilderness and the book of Job, it is the figure of Satan doing the tempting, and it can seem almost as if this Satan is doing God’s will. Even Jesus accuses his friend and disciple, Simon Peter, of tempting him, saying, ‘Get behind me Satan.’ So did God create Satan to tempt us, does God cause our temptations, maybe even our suffering, and if so why? – Perhaps temptation is part of what it is to live in a world that offers humanity a free choice, we make our own decisions and are free to follow the way of God or to choose our own path. Perhaps Jesus didn’t so much see Satan as a real figure but as the personification of the tempting situations in which we all find ourselves from time to time. Like the temptation I felt as I stood looking at the cupboards full of chocolate and crisps.
So why do we have temptation? Because we are gifted with freedom; and God loves us enough to give us true freedom. If we only have to choose between a variety of good options, then there can never be a wrong choice, and in limiting us to his own preferences God would be limiting our freedom – and so we would not really be free at all. The option to make bad decisions is part of being free. Perhaps we are also given that choice because it strengthens our character. For as Paul says in Romans “trials produce endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” God seems to have given us temptation because it is good for us to practice resisting it. Until we have felt how strong the desire is in us to do things which are selfish and wicked – or in other words sinful – we shan’t know just how hard it is to resist, without throwing ourselves entirely on God’s mercy and grace.
St Paul, in our New Testament reading this morning, writing to the church in Corinth, describes how the Israelites in the desert were tempted to do wrong, just as the Corinthians were being tempted to a wrong path. The Israelites had passed through the waters of the Red Sea, been fed by the Manna, and received miraculous water from the rock that Moses struck with his staff, which according to rabbinic tradition followed the people around the desert providing them with fresh water wherever they went. Yet the Israelites were still tempted to gluttony, sexual immorality, idolatry and grumbling against God. Paul compares the ancient Jews with the new Christians who had passed through the water of Baptism, been fed by the bread and wine in the Eucharist, and experienced Jesus as the living water. And yet in just the same way they still experienced temptation.
It’s worth taking a few moments to look at the temptations and failures that Paul singles out for mention. There is the temptation to idolatry. We no longer worship Idols as blatantly as pagan religions of the time, but if a person’s god is that to which they give most time, attention, thought and energy, then it can easily be seen how we worship the work of our own hands more than we worship God. There is the temptation to immorality, not just sexual immorality, but how we treat one another, whether our behavior is characterized by respect, inclusion, concern for the marginalized and love for our neighbor. There is the temptation to try God too far. Consciously or unconsciously we can fall into the idea that “it will be alright, God will forgive me”, but we must remember that we are called to live in response to God’s love and mercy, not to rely on it as an excuse for how we live. And finally there is the temptation to grumble. I don’t know about you but I know that I am guilty of greeting Monday morning with a whine rather than a cheer, forgetting to see the many blessings and opportunities that the week ahead can bring. Perhaps these resonate in your experience or bring to mind the things that cause temptation in your life.
But Paul points out how temptation was necessary to their spiritual growth, just as it is necessary to our growth and Christian formation today. Paul assures the Corinthians that “No testing [or temptation] has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” – One well-known passage from Proverbs that I keep returning to, says, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.’ Likewise Jesus taught, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” We are equipped by the Holy Spirit and enabled to resist temptation through the strength he gives us. God provides us with the way out of temptation, we can turn to him and rely on his strength rather than trying to do things in our own strength, with God all things are possible. And with the strength that comes from God we can experience the spiritual growth, and Christian formation that comes from resisting temptation.
So lent once again takes us away from the comfortable and invites us to look at a difficult subject. We are asked to look at what temptations we face; we are reminded to avoid situations where we might be tempted; and we are given the opportunity to resist temptation as a means to growing with God. Remember as Luther said, ‘You can’t stop birds from flying over you, but you needn’t allow them to nest in your hair!’ Or perhaps in my case, you can’t get rid of the chocolate cupboard, but you don’t have to open the cupboard door.