Sermon Text: Gospel of Mathew 4:11The Rev. Richard L. Cogill
Sermon: 1 March 2020
Let us pray: By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning and never fails to greet us each new day. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Sermon Text: Gospel of Matthew 4: 1-11
The opening prayer is taken from the words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote this poem in a German prison during WWII as a New Year message to his friends on the last New Year’s Eve of his life, 31 December 1944. It was written in and smuggled out of his prison cell and captured his struggle with the evil one and his unwavering faith in that God “who never fails to greet us each new day.” For opposing the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9 1945, less than four weeks before Germany surrendered.
The temptation of Christ is one of the most famous and evocative stories in all of Scripture. In today’s gospel reading, we encounter Jesus at his most human and his most vulnerable—and the devil at his most devious. Throughout the gospels we normally see Jesus among others—with throngs of people— teaching his followers, helping those in need, confronting the scribes and Pharisees. But here Jesus is in the wilderness, isolated, and weak and alone—engaged in the ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil, much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his prison cell.
Scholars have long wondered whether this confrontation between Jesus and Satan was an actual historical event, or whether it was a parable that Jesus might have used to illustrate a moral lesson for his disciples. Some theologians see this story as a metaphor for the type of internal struggle that all of us will endure throughout our lives both individually and communally—for we each will have to makes choices, every single day, about which path we will follow.
Christian tradition holds that the actual temptation took place on Mount Quarantania—a great rocky summit of limestone, located in the remote land between Jerusalem and Jericho. This Judean desert was as hot and dry in the time of Christ as it is now—no one can survive there for long. So it was an appropriate location for Jesus to endure his 40 days of self-denial and hunger—for there simply would have been no food or water available to him there.
Incidentally, you can still visit this Mount of Temptation today—though you don’t need the devil to whisk you to the top of its steep peaks. Since 1998, a cable car has been available to carry visitors up the 360-metre mountainside. Having said that, I did encounter a rather devilish monk when I visited there. Perched again the side of the cliff in scorching temperatures of 122 degrees Fahrenheit, we made our way up to Mount of Temptation only to encounter a monk who refused to open the door, shouting at the top of his lungs, perched in a top window, that he was sleeping… at 4 in the afternoon… “go away!” he shouted, as he slammed the window. Our tour guide immediately called the hospitality police who then forced him to let us in, which he begrudgingly did with a scowl on his face that would make even the hardest of hearts weep!
It is significant that the Devil chose to tempt our Saviour at a time when Jesus had just been greatly blessed by John’s baptism. Jesus was literally and figuratively filled with the Holy Spirit, radiating unabashed joy as he pondered what had just taken place. He must have felt the way we often do—following a moment of grace, after we feel closest to God—an experience of euphoria that we hope will be sustained forever, but which so seldom does. We may walk out of this church with great resolve and courage and faith—but when we are tested, we wonder–where is that feeling—where is God now–where is the strength we need. When we are strong in body and spirit, it may be easiest to make the wisest choices, but when we are vulnerable—weary in heart and poor in spirit—then, any test before us become all the more profound.
Matthew tells us that it was the nearing the end of his time in the desert–when Jesus was absolutely famished and exhausted–that the Devil chose to make his move.
When we are truly alone, and tested and vulnerable, as Jesus was—when we allow ourselves to feel the real pain and sorrow that is within our hearts—that is the time we discover whether we can overcome our obstacles. The seduction of despair is palpable and real, and frightening and challenging all the same as we yearn for the way things used to be, whether it be in our own lives or in our life as parish.
Currently as a parish, you are in that desert of uncertainty as you struggle to discern what is possible for you. With your limited resources you are being challenged to re-imagine what it means to be a beloved community in the coming years, and it is scary. During this season of Lent—I would like to invite you to stop for a moment—to truly feel your discomfort. Don’t deny your longing or put it out of your mind. Allow your soul to feel its own discontent and displeasure—even if it is small—especially if it is great.
When Jesus himself did that—when he knew the agony of deprivation, and the enticement of temptation– he showed himself, and the devil, what kind of man he could and should be.
When he rejected what the devil had to offer—Jesus discovered the resolve and strength that perhaps he never knew he possessed. He refused both earthly pleasure, and earthly power. He would not be the Messiah that the Israelites had for so long been expecting—Jesus would never become the powerful ruler of a new Jewish state—and Jesus would not use his considerable abilities to live a life of comfort or ease. He would not be a new David or King Solomon. His reign would be in a glorious new heaven and a new earth—outside of our time, and beyond our comprehension.
After 40 days, after his suffering and hungering and testing—Jesus was no longer the same man. Jesus had prepared himself to be more -–to be better–than what he had been before. Through sacrifice, and abdication, and want—Jesus had discovered more about himself, realized what he could be, and what he should be—and was therefore able to go out in the world again. He would be among the people he loved—both those in his own community, and among those who despised him. Jesus would preach to those accepted him, and to those who would plot against him. Jesus was prepared for all that he would face in his new life.
Armed with this newly found determination and zeal, Jesus knew that he could and would conquer any obstacle he encountered. He would begin his great public ministry—he would meet strangers, and make them his beloved his disciples. He would meet the most learned scribes of his religion, and confound them with an unsurpassed logic and passion and imagination. He would confront those who wished to destroy and execute him—and overcome them in so miraculous a manner that it would change the entire world, and all of our lives forever.
–He achieved all this, by taking himself, just for a time, out of his old life—away from the complications, and interruptions, and confusions of the world he knew. When he no longer had his friends of family—when he had no diversions or amusements, he was able to focus, not on what he wanted for himself, but on what God needed him to achieve—and on what the waiting world so desperately required.
It is not normally necessary for us to go through quite such a harsh ordeal as Jesus did—and perhaps none of us are capable of so resolutely surviving an actual encounter with the evil one. But we can learn a great deal from the example that Christ has set for us.
The first line of today’s Gospel tells us exactly how and why Jesus was able to conquer evil–how he was able to achieve victory, even when he had few if any resources available to him: He was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Just before his ordeal in the wilderness, Jesus had stood in the River Jordan. There, in the cool waters, God the Father addressed Jesus, directly and intimately, when God said to him: “You are my beloved Son—In you I am well pleased and delighted.”
Jesus, from that point on—for all his days on the earth—knew that no matter what– no matter what his trials in this life might be, that God was watching, and that God was delighted with him.
Jesus was not guaranteed a life of ease, as indeed none of us are. Jesus was met with the most determined resistance and hostility, just as we often will be. We too will feel the evil one, in all his forms and disguises, testing and tempting and seducing us to despair… but we are never alone, and we are never not loved.
Julian of Norwich, some call her saint, reminds us “that before ever God made us, he loved us. And this love was never quenched nor ever shall be. And in this love he has done all his works, … and in this love is our life everlasting.” (Julian of Norwich: “Revelations of Divine Love”)
Beloved of God, during this time of transition, remember, to borrow Paul words in his letter the Hebrews, that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Let us pray:
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)