First Sunday of Lent

I know that as I publish this I am a week late with it. But here it is anyway. I preached this last Sunday at an informal service in one of my churches. I had pictures on a PowerPoint to accompany it, but don’t have time to post them all here. However, I have done a video, created using PowerPoint – something I haven’t done before. It gives a 5 minute summary of the sermon. Click here.

Lent 1 Temptation of Jesus according to Luke. Luke 4.1–13

Lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go.  And that probably sums up how many of us feel about Lent.  Here comes 40 days of denial, discipline and d….. ??? What else starts with ‘d’?

Jesus was alone in the desert according to that hymn. Or was he?

The temptations might not have been a bundle of laughs, but Jesus is not depicted as ‘lone and dreary’. In his version Mark tells us he is ministered to by angels and the wild beasts, and Luke is clear that he goes ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and with the words of his Father’s blessing and affirmation at his baptism ringing in his ears.  We had very similar words in our gospel last week – “This is my son”.  Spoken on the mountain at the transfiguration. 

We are all familiar with today’s story and it is seen as a sort of template for our Lenten discipline.  

For us, Lent leads into Holy Week and Easter, which leads into ascension and Pentecost. What happened at Pentecost?  The Holy Spirit was poured out on the church, filling the disciples with the Holy Spirit.

For Jesus, the wilderness was preparation for ministry. I think we would do well to view Lenten disciplines not so much as a preparation to appreciate what Jesus did on Calvary – let’s leave that to Holy Week – but to appreciate what he did at Pentecost to enable us to go through Lent in such a way that we are better equipped, disciplined and trained disciples for our ministry.

Have you noticed how similar the words discipline and disciple are?  We are disciples, so we should expect to be disciplined. Luke spells out the effect of this time of discipline for Jesus.

Having gone into the desert ‘full of the Spirit’ he returns for ministry ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14).

As we enter our pilgrimage of Lent let’s do so remembering our baptism and Confirmation, our spiritual rebirth and start of belonging to the church. It is no accident that the receptacle for the ash on Wednesday was a shell – the symbol of pilgrimage.  That’s why a shell is used to pour the water of baptism. When we are baptised we are joined with Jesus, into his death and resurrection.  He walks with us day by day and by his Spirit within us sustains us and strengthens us.

He is with us in our Lenten disciplines. Garry put me on the spot on Wednesday by asking me what I was going to do for Lent. It took me by surprise at the morning service, but I was sort of expecting it in the evening.

I hesitated because of what Jesus said about fasting without people knowing.  However, HE told people about his 40 days fasting and the temptations.  He must have done, unless there was someone stalking him.  Did he tell his disciples to show off?  I don’t think so.

Did he tell them because they needed to know for historical accuracy for when they write his biography?  I don’t think so.

Perhaps he told them because they needed to know for their own encouragement and spiritual discipline.  What do you think?

We are to encourage each other.  1 Thessalonians 5:11 — Therefore encourage one another and build one another up. We do that by sharing with each other in the highs and lows of being a disciple.

So after that long preamble, let’s look at those temptations and what was going on.

Jesus was famished, very hungry.  That tells us that he was 100% human and not a super human or God in disguise and playing at being human. 

Jesus was the first and only perfect human being. He is the first of the new Humanity. Through Jesus, God reversed the disobedience of Adam and the failures of Israel to enable people to come to God, to be gradually changed, from the inside.

Let us journey through Lent, each day inviting the Holy Spirit to fill us afresh to face the temptations of each day.

In the temptations the devil was trying undermining Jesus’ sense of identity and security. IF you are the son of God. In a similar way he will whisper in our ear… IF you are a Christian you wouldn’t do this or that….Having planted the idea of it in the first place.

Now Jesus didn’t retaliate by telling the devil about hearing God’s voice declaring him his son.  He didn’t rely on his experience. Instead he quoted scripture. Similarly, our spiritual and religious experiences are not enough on their own. They need to be backed up or in some way fit in with scripture.  We need both reason and experience.  And when we have both the assurance of scripture truths plus experiences then we are better able to withstand the temptations to doubt who we are in Christ.  And as the image I found says, they lead to changed lives.

And going back to that idea of encouraging one another. When you do share with someone a positive experience in your faith, it can help to build you up, to make it more real plus it may encourage someone else.  We are all in this together. That’s why mid-week groups are important.

Stones and Bread. Jesus was hungry – he could have turned the stones into bread.  But he didn’t. He called to mind the scriptures that would have been familiar since childhood and his Bar Mitzvah at 13 – Deuteronomy chapters 6 – 8.  Jesus was human and rooted in Judaism as one of God’s people.

Jesus was able to resist where God’s people had failed in the wilderness.

They had been freed from slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years to travel complaining about their hunger. And when God gave them bread they got bored and complained. So he gave them quails.

All the kingdoms of the world.  When the Israelites had to wait for Moses to go up the mountain and get the commandments, they were impatient and soon made a golden calf to worship.  This temptation is one that I think Putin has fallen for.  He won’t be satisfied till he has world dominion. Power corrupts. We need the power of the spirit to prevent us from falling for small circles of power.  Are we prone to exerting power where we are? 

Pinnacle of the Temple.  The devil’s final temptation, the culmination of the period in the wilderness is to take him to Jerusalem.  This was probably a vision rather than physically going there.

Luke has moved this temptation to last place because he wants to  emphasise the temple.  His gospel starts with lots of temple activity with Zechariah and then the Presentation. The final conflict between Jesus and the authorities is in the temple and the life and focus of the early church was in Jerusalem before spreading outwards.

But this reordering also opens up the temptations to be seen as undoing not only the failure of Israel, but the failure of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  They could not resist the allure of the delightful fruit to eat, when the tempter put the doubt in their mind about God telling them not to eat the fruit. They ended up serving the interests of the tempter, rather than remaining devoted to God, when they tested whether God’s word to them was true.

Jesus and the devil are at the top of the temple and the devil quotes from Psalm 91 saying that the angels will rescue him.  Jesus again quotes from Deuteronomy 6 – Do not put the LORD your God to the test as you did at Massah

This refers to the time that the Israelites in the wilderness complained to Moses about being thirsty and wouldn’t they be better off back in Egypt as slaves. So Moses who asked God what to do. He told him to strike the rock with his staff and when he did water flowed out of it. They named the place Massah, because the Israelites quarrelled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Ex 17:2-7)

So let us not grumble, asking where God is when things get difficult.

Conclusion  The temptations are often preached as though they were moral examples for us to follow: we should go into the desert; we should face our demons or the things we know are bad for us, like sugar, caffeine and alcohol; we should quote Scripture, etc

But if we do this, we are in danger of treating ourselves as the most important subject.  We need to note what God is doing and what God has done. The focus for all three gospels writers is that Jesus has undone the failures of both Israel and Adam; when we are incorporate into Jesus, we are incorporated into this victory, and we share in it by grace rather than by our own efforts. That does not mean, as we face temptations and challenges this Lent, we can avoid the challenge of discipline and effort. But we face these things knowing that Jesus conquered them, in the power of the Spirit, and that the same Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it is his presence that brings victory and enables us to be ‘more than conquerors’ (Rom 8.37; compare Rev 2.7 ).

To the Church in Ephesus

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.  Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

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