Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 9th March 2014
9 March 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides-Yeldham, Chaplain
Struggling to make ends meet, a vicar was livid to learn that his wife had bought a dress costing £250.
‘How could you do this?’ he demanded.
His wife tried to explain, ‘I was outside the shop looking at the dress in the window when, suddenly, I found myself trying it on. It was like Satan whispering in my ear, "You look fabulous in that dress. Buy it!"’
‘Well,’ the vicar replied, ‘you know how I deal with that kind of temptation. I say, "Get thee behind me, Satan!"’
‘I did,’ replied his wife, ‘but then he said, "It looks just as fabulous from back here!"’
‘Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men’ (St Matthew 16:23 NIV).
Could it be that, in those words to Peter, Jesus experienced a flashback to another time and another place, to that episode recorded in our gospel reading this morning? Jesus led by the Spirit – in Mark’s account Jesus driven into the wilderness, to be tempted by the Devil.
Peter’s attempt to stop Jesus going to Jerusalem was motivated by love, for it was just as Jesus described it: if Jesus entered Jerusalem, he would undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed. ‘God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you’. Perhaps the tongue-lashing that Peter receives from Jesus – ‘Get behind me Satan!’ – reflects how close to the mark Peter’s comment was. Jesus would not have been human if there had not been some ambivalence, on his part, to what God was asking of him. How did Jesus express that ambivalence later in Matthew’s gospel? ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want’ (St Matthew 26:39 NRSV). Despite the best of intentions, if Peter had got his way, he would have driven a wedge between Jesus and God. That’s exactly what the Devil hoped to do, by way of the temptations in the wilderness: drive a wedge between Jesus and God.
Imagine it: Jesus has just been baptized by John and ringing in his ears are those words of God, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (St Matthew 3:17 NRSV), and it is in the wilderness that Jesus is to discover what it means to be the Beloved Son.
The wilderness, a symbolic place etched into the very psyche of the people of Israel who had stepped out of the waters of the Red Sea – in some ways their baptism – and then spent forty years learning more about their destiny, much in the same way as Jesus must now learn his. For Israel, the wilderness was a place where things fell apart. They were enticed into idolatry, social injustice and spiritual adultery. Time and time again, their actions betrayed their lack of faith.
Now Jesus is to be tested and what we witness is his humanity and vulnerability as the Devil attempts to ensnare Jesus, subtly manipulating him so that he will abandon his holy reliance on the Father in order to entertain an unholy alliance with the Devil.
Jesus had been fasting forty days and forty nights before the trial by temptation begins, so he is not only physically hungry; it may be that he is emotionally and spiritually susceptible, even suggestible. In this weakened state the devil shows his guile and cunning, for in the conversation that follows one could be almost mistaken for thinking that here we have two wise and practised spiritual guides, two venerable rabbis, two religious scholars simply exchanging Bible verses, one gently but determinedly seeking to out-manoeuvre the other. But, of course, Jesus knew the devil better than that.
Theologically, each temptation is rich in meaning. In brief, the first, inviting Jesus to turn stones into bread is the Devil’s attempt to abuse the goodness of creation with selfish greed. The second, inviting Jesus to cast himself off the roof of the temple, is the Devil’s attempt to infuse that relationship that exists between the Father and his Son with mistrust. The third, inviting Jesus to fall down before the Devil and to give him worship, is the Devil’s attempt to confuse that power which emanates from the kingdoms of this world with the power which belongs to God alone. For that matter, who can serve two masters (St Matthew 6:24)?
In the end, neither bribery nor manipulation can distract Jesus from pursuing that destiny to which God has called him. He emerges from the wilderness having demonstrated unswerving love and undiluted obedience to the Father.
But what of you and I? Through the incarnation and ministry of Jesus, we know what God has destined for those who are faithful to the gospel, so how might the Devil seek to drive a wedge between us and God?
Although Oscar Wilde claimed he could resist everything except temptation, and he knew a fair few, I think that temptation is much more individually tailored: bespoke rather than off-the-peg. It preys on and exploits our weaknesses, our susceptibilities, and what those are will be dependent on the person I am, my relationships, what I value, what I desire, what I prioritize, what I denigrate, despise, deplore and dread. None of us is the Son of God, yet how you and I respond to temptation can sometimes have life-changing consequences. That said, temptation is more often a slippery slope than a crossroads.
In the Screwtape Letters, satirical correspondence between a senior Demon, Screwtape, and his nephew, Wormwood, an apprenticed tempter, the author, C S Lewis suggests that any demon worth his salts is less interested in getting you and I to commit spectacular sins. Rather, ‘the safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts’ (Letter XII).
This Lent, you and I might take the opportunity to reflect on what the Devil might offer us in order to tempt us away from God: for you and I to reflect on our shadow side. Carl Jung, the analytic psychologist, wrote that ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is’ (The Collected Works, vol. 11, p. 131). Unless we are willing to face our dark side, as Jesus did in the wilderness, it might jump out and surprise us. We should be confident, not afraid for, thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, we do not have to battle with our dark side alone. We are the Body of Christ and so share what he has already won for us. This is what gives us confidence as we prepare ourselves to refuse and resist what the Devil might offer you and me, today, this coming week, as he strives to tempt us away from God? But again, I ask, what might that be?