Collateral Damage,fashioning idols and performing stunts: A Lenten antithesis

by AC Swailes

Sermon for Evensong, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 1st March 2020

Temptation in the Wilderness
Temptation in the Wilderness

The gospel we have just heard is the conventional one for this Sunday of the year, the first Sunday of Lent, in many of our Churches, but perhaps our familiarity with it obscures the oddness of this choice.

Lent, obviously enough, is the period of the Christian year immediately prior to Easter, prior, then, to our communal reflection on and celebration of the victory of Jesus over the death of the Cross; and these texts, presumably, are supposed to orient our thinking and praying during these next six weeks.

But Jesus, equally obviously enough, didn’t go straight from the wilderness to his crucifixion: that circuitous journey would take not forty days but three years. Why do we not read tonight something closer to the action that we will be commemorating in six weeks’ time?  Curiously, though, I wonder whether wrestling with the choice our lectionary makes for us this evening doesn’t shed light on precisely what we are doing during Lent. And I suspect that is something with which many of us need all the help we can get.

Potential misunderstandings are legion here: the disciplines many of us practice during Lent – cutting down on what we eat and drink, reducing the time we devote to leisure activities or presence on social media, increasing our commitment to prayer and to charity -  can seem artificial at best, a pernickety abiding by arbitrary rules for the sake of it – at worst, such projects can feed into the notion that Christianity is opposed on principle to fun, to the things that make life worth living. Alternatively, our Lenten practices can foster a kind of assault course spirituality, in which we push ourselves harder year on year to endure more, refrain from more, give more, only to find that we end up either self-righteously proud if we succeed in keeping our resolutions, or somewhere close to despair when we fail.

What all of these interpretations of what we are doing at this time of year have in common is that they tend to view Lent as an end in itself. The ambiguities of the English language don’t help us here: we naturally talk of giving up things or taking up practices “for Lent”, but it would be more profoundly true to speak of giving or taking up for Easter, for the sake of Easter and our celebration of Easter.  How can our gospel tonight help us to get our priorities right here?

The practice of reading this story at the beginning of Lent is an ancient one, and so too is the choice to pair it with the Old Testament lesson we also heard this evening.

And, from the earliest centuries of the Christian Church, both the connections and the contrasts between these two narratives have been remarked, with preachers and writers regularly noting how the response of Jesus to the suggestions made by Satan provide a kind of mirror image of Adam and Eve’s fateful dialogue with the serpent.

 Adam and Eve, in the first place, were offered something – the fruit of the tree of knowledge -  that promised both to fulfil their appetites for pleasure and beauty as well as for nourishment, and to bestow divine status upon them, if only they will disobey a previous commandment of God, and, of course, they swallow the serpent’s lies along with the forbidden fruit. And the devil  attempts to persuade Jesus to reprise all of this: first, he is enjoined to obtain food for himself, the bread which, after forty days of fasting would surely be as alluring as the most delectable banquet imaginable; then encouraged to use divine power to get what he wants – since, presumably he would win innumerable followers to his cause by such a knock-down display as drifting to earth from the temple borne by angels , finally promised kingship over all the world, providing he is content to rule as, so to speak a puppet king, turning his back on the obedience to his Father in which he has formerly known perfect freedom in order to become a vassal of the devil instead. But, whereas at each step, Adam and Eve said yes, Jesus says a resounding, unequivocal no.

We might be impressed by the narrative symmetry here; even persuaded that there are resonances with our own lives, both personal and communal. Take the first of the temptations: there is, of course, nothing wrong with a hungry man seeking food; nothing wrong with satisfying the appetites that are natural to us, and whose satisfaction makes for our flourishing. But stones are stones, not foodstuff. In refusing to turn stones into bread, Jesus is saying no to all those temptations to use the creation for ends other than that for which it was made, which is, fundamentally, to show forth the beauty and goodness of its creator. We can think here, then, not only of the obvious sins of greed and gluttony, but of all those other ways in which the misuse of God’s good gifts to us, supremely, perhaps, the gift of each other, can pull our desires out of shape, and wound both ourselves and others; all those battle zones of our world  in which God’s children  made in his image, are treated as so much negligible collateral damage in the power struggles of the mighty, and all those contexts shamefully so much closer to home, in which they are turned into playthings and thrown away when they are no longer diverting. Jesus, in refusing to turn bread into stones refuses all such distortions of reality, these failures to see creation for what it is.

Or think of the second and third temptations. The devil, in suggesting the publicity value of a leap from the temple parapet is confronting Jesus with something that has perhaps all too obvious a parallel in our own experience: our attempts to use God for our own ends.  God, in fact, will not allow himself to be so used:  what we can do instead is fashion idols to put in his place who, just because they are of our own making, can be relied upon to tell us what we want to hear, or what we think we want to hear, at any rate at first. We can make a god of material possessions; more subtly and probably more commonly, we make gods of prestige, popularity, brute strength. But, precisely because these are not the living God, they cannot give us freedom; rather, they enslave us, mock us for not being rich, or prestigious, or popular, or strong enough. In saying no to Satan here, Jesus is saying no to all the damaging idolatry of which the human heart is capable – and notice that he does so in words that strangely prefigure the rebuke he will later administer his friend Peter, who cannot cope with the idea of Jesus being crucified: Begone Satan, get behind me – you think not divinely but humanly.   God is almighty, but if we think he is some stupendous magician, performing stunts to get us what we want, we are thinking not divinely but humanly; God is immortal and his life is eternal joy but if we refuse to believe that he wills to undergo the sorrowful passion for love of us, we are thinking not divinely but humanly.  In sending Satan packing, Jesus is saying no to all these distortions of reality, these failures to see the creator for who he is.

But while this may be terribly inspiring, how does it help us? Adam and Eve failed a test; Jesus passed it with flying colours, but how can we be sure that we will follow his good example rather than their less happy one? Here, too, the ancient wisdom of the Church in her reading of these stories comes to our aid.

St Augustine once remarked that, though God created us without us, he will not save us without us. He does not of course mean by this that God is incapable of bringing us to heaven without our doing some of the heavy lifting for him; that we somehow have to earn, or buy, our salvation. That view, early condemned by the Church as a heresy, was one that Augustine spent much of his life very publicly combatting. It was invented, incidentally, by a Welsh monk, Pelagius, so it’s our very own home grown British heresy, and St David, according to legend, whose feast we keep today also preached notably against it. No, we need not worry that we are too frail to make our own way to heaven; God knows that we are – that, on the Christian account of things, is why he comes to get us and bring us there. That is what the whole of the life of Jesus, and supremely the events we celebrate at Easter is all about: God stepping into our world with all its crucifying pain and chaos, to bring us through that pain and chaos back to himself. Again the connection and the contrast between our two stories tonight is telling: Adam and Eve make their choice in the Garden of Eden, a place of surpassing loveliness and fertility; Jesus mounts his rescue bid for humanity not merely by coming down to earth from heaven, but by coming down into the most lifeless, the most sterile, of all earthly landscapes. In struggling with the devil in the desert, he offers hope to anyone who has ever felt that they have spurned and spoiled God’s good gifts, made of their lives an irreclaimable desert of disappointed hopes and disabling fears, where nothing fruitful will ever bloom. 

And if we ask again just how the example of Christ can help us here, Augustine has an audacious, but strangely compelling answer. The temptations of Christ are our temptations he tells us, not simply in the sense that they are, as we have seen, relatable; with uncomfortable analogies in our own experience. Rather, the temptations of Christ are our temptations because we and he are one person: the Church is Christ’s body, and we are, in a quite literal sense members of that body, as closely allied to Christ as are the limbs and organs and cells of a human body to its head. If, therefore, Christ is victorious in his struggle, we can be confident that we shall be so too, because his victory will be ours, since our struggle is his.  Have you noticed, Augustine asks rhetorically, that Christ was tempted, and failed to notice that he has overcome temptation?

But if I am only victorious against temptation because Christ’s victory is my victory, in what sense is it mine?   Here, we might do well to remember those other words of Augustine:   God does not will to save us without us. That means, above all, that God wills to save us as the kind of beings we are, indeed, that our salvation consists in our being set free to become the kind of beings we are; beings, that is, made in the image of God, and endowed with a share in his freedom, his capacity to relate in love. Our Lenten penances, our prayer, our giving of material goods and time and attention to those in need, our fasting from the good gifts of God to us, are designed to help us grow in the use of that freedom, to prize loose our grasp on possessions, or on people treated as possessions, so that we may open our hands to receive and give love.

And here there is one further source of consolation to be found in the gospel we have heard tonight. We most naturally read the story of Christ’s encounter with Satan as an account of a dialogue in which one party simply tries to persuade the other to act against their conscience, that, after all, is what the word temptation means, in our everyday usage of it

But there is another venerable tradition which gives the word conventionally translated as temptation a subtly different force: on this account of the matter, the devil is trying Jesus: trying not in the sense of forcing him to do something contrary to his conscience, so much as in the sense of forcing him to reveal his true colours. He suspects that Jesus is God incarnate, but he wants to make sure. The very language in which Satan casts his challenges suggests this, after all: if you are the Son of God. And herein, I think, lies hope for us.  The devil has his own reasons for employing this tactic: he wants to know his enemy, in order to give himself the best chance of defeating him. But what if we thought of our Lenten penances in a similar light, not so much a struggle with sin, as a fact-finding mission, a means of revelation of ourselves to ourselves?

The dramatic irony of our story tonight is that there is, of course, no possibility, ultimately, of Satan being victorious in any kind of combat in which he engages Jesus, precisely because Jesus is the Son of God, is God, at any rate on the Christian account of things, and the devil, in Christian theology at any rate is in no sense God’s equal, however much he is his opposite.  But our case here is the very opposite of the devil’s. We truly are, here, in a win-win situation.

Whatever we learn about ourselves, whatever is brought to light by our Lenten penance, is victory for us. On the one hand, we might find that our condition is not so parlous as we feared: there’s such a thing as spiritual hypochondria, and Lent can provide powerful medicine against this real and debilitating condition. Our choice of Lenten disciplines may disclose to us a real, healthy appetite for prayer, for fasting, for giving of our goods and our time; we may even, by God’s grace, find that our actions correspond with those desires, at least a little. But even if, on the contrary, our Lent is in every obvious sense a miserable failure; if we give up on giving up, and never get around to going the extra mile we so fervently promised on Ash Wednesday, it nevertheless bestows a gift on us, a gift, curiously enough, not unlike that which Adam and Eve sought in Eden, because it is, precisely, a gift of knowledge. Self-knowledge, first of all, knowledge of our creaturely frailty. But, beyond and behind that, knowledge, perhaps, of the one who comes to meet us in that frailty, bent before the howling wind of the desert, to bring us home

To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.