Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for Sunday 26th February 2023 – The First Sunday of Lent

 Today we are in the first stages of our Lenten journey which began with Ash Wednesday last week and the challenges begin in earnest. For as we encounter the temptations faced first by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and then by Jesus in the desert, we too are called today to think about the choices that we make.  How do we make them? What are the criteria that we use? What can we learn from these accounts in the scriptures today, and guiding principles that may help us in the choices we have to make?

It can feel odd that, as we learn from St Mathew’s gospel, that Jesus is driven immediately after his Baptism by John the Baptist, to face the temptations in the wilderness. You’d think, wouldn’t you, after witnessing the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and that tremendous affirmation of both of which occurred at the point of his baptism, that Jesus would then immediately start the ministry to which he was called. But no – we’re told that he was led by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Why and what is going on here?

Part of the answer lies in Jesus’ role as the one who, as Messiah, will bring the fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel.  For Jesus is, in some sense, the embodiment of Israel and as such, lives out the life of his people, but in contrast to them, does this in faithful obedience to God. There are strong parallels between his life and ministry and that of the people of Israel, rooted on the experience of the Exodus which is the foundational story of God’s people.

So as the Israelites, first go at the time of Joseph into Egypt to seek bread because of famine in their land, so Jesus’ parents flee with him as a baby to seek sanctuary there to escape Herod’s murderous intents.  God calls his people out of Israel to freedom in the Promised Land and Jesus is called to lead his people to the freedom of God’s kingdom which he is ushering in through his incarnation. The Israelites flee across the waters of the Red Sea and  Jesus enters into the waters of healing and new birth at his baptism.  The Israelites are led and also wander for forty years in the wilderness as they are tempted and learn what it means to trust God and to be His people before they enter the Promised Land. In the same way, Jesus will enter the desert to find God and to discern his calling. Part of this experience will involve learning to hear God’s voice and to discern His will amidst the pressures of other voices, desires and choices.

For Jesus, these temptations occur in these 40 days in the desert yet they echo those which the Israelites had faced in the wilderness and had succumbed, often in a spectacular way, for example demanding bread and meat, creating a golden calf and then worshipping it.

So Jesus enters the wilderness to enable the fulfilment of the calling of God’s people to start a process of discernment. Today and during this period of Lent, it is a time for us too to discover in a deeply challenging way, what it really means to live by faith in God. In the process, we can learn to see more clearly how the choices and temptations we face in daily lives either enable us to walk more closely with God or can drive us to self-obsession and ultimately disappointment and even harm.

 For the temptations of Jesus and also that faced by Eve and Adam in the garden, help us think more closely about the choices we make in our lives and their implications. For God has made us in His image to love Him and to grow daily more like Him. He has created us with freedom so that we can choose to worship Him or not, God will not coerce us.  But from God’s perspective, this is risky.  We have the freedom to choose and the freedom to reject.

Adam and Eve make their choice. On the surface it seems as if they have made the choice for freedom.  They choose to eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil to understand more fully – to seek life in all its fullness. But we see almost immediately, the impact of their choice and the sin they have committed. For by seeking to act as God rather than to be guided by Him, they have created alienation and separation, not only between themselves and God but also between each other. Before this action, we’re led to understand that God walked with them in the garden and presumably as they spoke and listened, began to learn what it meant to be made in God’s image. Yet, through the act of disobedience, that closeness with God is shattered.  Instead, they become aware of their nakedness, their vulnerability and see to hide.  What is more, when God calls them and then asks them to account for what they have done, the culture of blame begins as Adam blames Eve an Eve blames the serpent.

We see here encapsulated the paradox of the heart of the choices which face us. That paradox is that it is those choices which on the surface appear to offer us more freedom to please ourselves, more power, more gratification, in fact lead us to ever deepening dependence, loss of freedom and diminishment.  This is because we are choosing a life, not rooted on God but on the hollowness of our own ambitions. By looking now at the temptations of Jesus, we can see more clearly how this is the case.

For in the first temptation, the devil encounters Jesus at the time of deep vulnerability in the desert.  He has fasted faithfully, he has endured the cold, danger and loneliness of the wilderness and now he is physically extremely hungry and tired. How tempting that internal voice must have been – “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to becomes loaves of bread”.  Tempting on many levels. First of all, to meet the gnawing demand of that physical hunger – how great it would be to satisfy that desire. But beyond the physical temptation lay another – contained in those subtle words. “if you are the Son of God”. As Jesus starts to work through what his calling might be as God’s Messiah, how tempting it must have been use those powers in a spectacular way. How much it would help his ministry if he could win friends and supporters by giving them bread.   

But Jesus rejects this temptation, citing the words of Deuteronomy, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every words that comes from the mouth of God”. It is God who is the source of our bread and we need to wait on him.  Jesus will indeed feed his people but it will be in obedience to God’s will and in God’s way.  It’s significant that after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus challenges those who have started following him because they see him as a meal ticket – a way of getting free food on demand. He urges them to look at the significance of what he’s done – it is a sign – pointing to God who provides and is offering us in Jesus, the source of living bread and living water.

It’s worth pondering on what this means for us. In a world when we have ruthlessly exploited its natural resources to meet our own desires and often regardless of its impact on others – this Lent perhaps we should stop, think and pray about this. Have we become enslaved thorugh our desires to the point we no longer see clearly what we are doing? Do we need to demand less and hallow that which we do receive?  What do we know about the food and clothes which we want at the cheapest prices possible?  How have they been produced – what sort of conditions have those who have harvested and produced the food or made our clothes, worked under – were they properly paid? Is it sustainable?

In the second temptation, Jesus is offered by the devil, the opportunity to perform the ultimate stunt by throwing himself off the top of the temple, trusting that, if he is indeed the Son of God, then God will save him and everyone will be amazed. But again Jesus rejects it – pointing out that we should not put God to the test. What is at stake here is two things – trying to force God’s hand rather than trust in Him; and also compelling people to have faith in him rather than enabling them in their full dignity as human beings in God’s image, to choose freely to trust and to follow him.

Again – this challenges us to think – how far do we exercise the power which we have in a way which affirms God’s kingdom and builds up rather than diminishes human dignity. Particularly with the freedom we enjoy in Europe, are we thinking and questioning enough about how power is exercised especially as regards the poor and vulnerable.  Or are we settling for the comfort of bread and circuses?

And the third temptation is about power but from another perspective. The devil takes Jesus up a high mountain – shows him all the kingdoms of the world and promises him that all these will be his, if (and everything hinges on this little word), if Jesus will fall down and worship him.

It’s a temptation which challenges directly the first and second commandments “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down and worship them” (Exodus 20.3-5). What is at stake here is the choice between human power based on force and powerful attraction or a kingdom based on God’s values. Just as the Israelites called for a king – one who would lead them, control them, make decisions for them, so to here is the offering of glittering political power – a messianic king whose kingdom which will rival that of the all–mighty Caesar. Jesus rejects it again with words of scripture for Deuteronomy, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him”.

As Jesus refutes the devil these three times, we start to see his growing discernment of the ministry he is being asked to exercise as God’s Messiah. It is a ministry based not on using the gifts of the earth and human power to fulfil his calling as God’s Messiah.   Instead, in the choices Jesus makes, we see his true character as God’s Son, and the true nature of God’s kingdom which Jesus will usher in which is rooted on God and God’s will.   It is a kingdom in which each person is offered freedom to become their true selves in God and one in which Jesus himself, as God incarnate, offers himself for us and for the world as living bread and living water poured out in sacrifice.

As we reflect on Jesus’ response to the devil today and think more deeply about the reasons which underlay his rejection of the devil’s tempting offers, may this guide us as we reflect and do a spiritual audit this Lent of the choices we make in our lives.