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Temptation

Lent 1: 21st February, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Luke 4:1-13

Testing or temptation is something that no human being can evade or avoid. It is an inescapable fact of life. If a person is alive, they will be tempted. There are no exceptions. No exemptions. In becoming human, our Lord himself laid aside, among other things, his immunity to temptation. God, we are told, cannot be tempted. But Jesus, like every human being was tempted.

His baptism in the Jordan river by John the Baptist was a kind of ordination ceremony, launching him into his ministry. As he was plunged into the river Jordan, he was given a ringing endorsement of his identity when he heard the voice of His Father say: 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased' — (words that combine a verse from Psalm 2 that speaks of the Son who will reign over the nations and a verse from Isaiah 42 that speaks of one who will serve and suffer.)

Immediately after this high moment of ordination to ministry, he is 'led' or 'driven' by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. In that trackless place the future appeared to be shrouded in threat. As one commentator puts it was the place where 'the voice from heaven' was challenged by 'the voice from hell'.

Under-girding this whole wilderness testing three things shine out:

The first is our Lord's love for God the Father

Before ever the echo of the Father's voice at the baptism had died down in the ears and in the mind of Jesus, he was tempted to the very roots of his personhood. The Tempter tries to precipitate an identity crisis:
'This is my son', the voice of the Father had said at the baptism. The tempter's whisper immediately cast doubt on this: 'If you are the Son of God' casting doubt upon the very thing which God had declared him to be at his baptism.

'In you I am well pleased', the Father's voice had declared, indicating that as a servant, Jesus role was to suffer and to die. 'But surely', came back the tempter, 'it isn't necessary. All the world can be yours, if instead of suffering in obedience to the will of God, you will worship me'.

Do you see how each of the three temptations struck at the very roots of our Lord's self-awareness, the double destiny given to him at his baptism to be God's Son who will rule over the nations and God's servant who must first die on the cross?

At the most basic level, they were temptations to disobey God; to disown God and to tempt God by forcing God's hand to act on his behalf. And what shines out from the entire narrative is the fundamental God-centredness of our Lord, his total devotion to God's will and God's purpose. Jesus' love for God had become a white hot fire. By contrast ours is often luke-warm. We are narcissists, wilfully self-centred to the core, though often socially well-disguised. Even in the very holiest things we do, there is often a subtle preoccupation with self. Preachers like myself can easily give way to the temptation to become entertainers and self-promoters. As Shakespeare has one of his characters say, 'I can see his pride peep through every part of him'. Far from being God-centred we are mostly self-centred. We do not see God clearly enough to value God highly enough.

In the temptation narrative we see first, Jesus' God-centredness, as he refuses to disown God, to disobey God or to tempt God.

Second, we see in this narrative, Jesus' submission to the Hebrew Scriptures.

It is all very well to say that Jesus loved God but how did he know the implications of his love for God in the concrete realities of his temptations? Love can be a deliciously vague feeling. How did his love for God lay upon him such precise obligations, that he saw the choice before him and made the right decisions?

The answer is surely that his mind was soaked in the scriptures and his will was submissive to the scriptures. What stood written in the scriptures was what showed him how his love for God should be expressed. It was in the scriptures that he discovered the will of God. It was inconceivable to the Jew, Jesus that he should love God and disregard the Hebrew Scriptures. The incarnate Son of God voluntarily adopted a position of subordination to the scriptures.

Real change, the kind that changes our motivation as we relate to others from getting to giving, from self-protection to self-sacrifice, happens at a deep level only when the Spirit of God reaches our hearts through the Word of God.

Today biblical illiteracy is one of the biggest problems in the church. Even many Church going people are unaware of the big picture of the eternal story of God's oceanic love. Every moment, two stories are being told — ours and God's. Our story most often centres in the hope of our lives going well — and we claim the right to define what 'well' means. God's story is always the story of God having his way in our lives; of our lives gaining meaning and passion as we tell His story. Indeed, one contemporary Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, speaks of 'conversion' as 'the re-storying of one's life in the stories of the Bible'. [1]

But it is not enough simply to understand the Bible's story intellectually. We must allow its stories to penetrate our hearts and bear fruit in our lives — as the lovely old BCP Collect for Advent 2 put it — 'to read, mark and inwardly digest' its message not until we have mastered it but until it has mastered us.

In the temptation story we see:
first, our Lord's love for God;
second, His subordination to the Scriptures;

Third, we see in the narrative how Jesus was able to resist temptation.

Let's be clear that temptation itself is not sin. The writer of Hebrews says, Jesus, our High Priest, ' was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin' (4:15).

Many of us can remember singing at Sunday School the old hymn 'yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin'. The temptation is not the sin. It is our reaction that determines whether or not we sin. John Cassian, a fifth century monk explained, 'It is, indeed, impossible for the mind not to be troubled by thoughts but accepting them or rejecting them is possible for every one who makes an effort. It is true that their origin does not in every respect depend on us, but it is equally true that their refusal or acceptance does depend on us'. [2]

It starts, says Cassian, with what we do with our thoughts. Speaking personally, I often find myself easily persuaded to dilly-dally with temptation until I begin to appreciate its reasonableness and to savour its attractiveness. Again and again, I regret to say, I have discovered the truth of the old addage:
A toe-hold, becomes a foothold, a foothold becomes a stronghold and a stronghold becomes a stranglehold. It is as I entertain the thoughts and fantasies of my imaginative world that I grant the toe-hold that eventually becomes a stranglehold. By contrast, in the case of our Lord there is no diplomatic negotiation — only vehement rebuke.

Where then can we find liberation help in this struggle that we all have with temptation?

For some, it may be through the ministry of a spiritual director, who perhaps is both a 'soul friend' and a confessor. The Anglican approach to private confession to a priest has always seemed to me to be wise and makes a lot of sense — 'all may; none must; some should'. It takes courage to step out of ourselves and say we need help. To speak the painful truth about our own darkness in the presence of God and in the presence of a trusted priest or counsellor, is a powerful thing, a transforming thing.

But its value will be in direct proportion to our radical self-honesty. As Fr Michael Casey has said of confession, 'we must be prepared to go beyond comfortable limits, to act contrary to our sense of shame and to ignore our own blushes'. Without this kind of costly confession, speaking too freely and glibly of forgiveness can turn free grace into cheap grace. There are no short cuts to spiritual maturity.

For some of us, it seems easier to believe that God has forgiven us than it is to forgive ourselves. The objective truth is that God has blotted out our transgressions and remembers our sins no more (Isaiah 43:25). But we somehow keep managing to resurrect them. If God has decreed the matter finished, who are we to keep on putting the matter back on the agenda of our minds?

Too often Protestant fears of 'confession' have resulted in isolating the individual before God. It is easy to fool oneself and pretend confession is accomplished simply by mulling it over in the mind. Contemporary psychology combines with pastoral experience to show the value of this cathartic method of dealing with the sins in which we flounder.

Don't live in denial, hiding or fear. Live in hope and courage. Get help. Whether or not we choose to make use of sacramental confession during this purple penitential season of the Church's year, may I conclude by suggesting that in our own praying we include the petitions and promises of this very real and authentic prayer of Brian McLaren's:

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen. [3]


Notes:

[1] See footnote 25 in Elaine A. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism (Backer, 2008) p.90

[2] Boniface Ramsey, trans., John Cassian: The Conferences (New York: Paulist Press, 1997) p.56

[3] Brian McClaren, Finding Our Way Again (Thomas Nelson, 2008) p.109


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