St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Canon Claude Schroeder
Sermon on Matthew 4. 1-11.
The Gospel lesson for the First Sunday of Lent is the same every year. It’s the story of how Jesus after His Baptism was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasted 40 days and 40 nights and was tempted by the devil.
Starting today and for the next two Sundays we are going be considering the reality of demonic temptation, which are the obstacles that we face on our journey to Jerusalem where at Easter we will celebrate the Paschal Feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
For converts to Christianity preparing for baptism at Easter, these lessons would have been very instructive. Christian baptism begins with a triple renunciation of the demonic powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil. But just because in baptism and in confirmation you renounced the demonic powers and received the Holy Spirit, doesn’t mean that the demonic powers are going to leave you alone. St. Peter, in a letter to the newly baptized, wrote, “Be sober, be watchful, your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. (1 Peter 5, 8,9)
So what happens in temptation?
In temptation a thought enters the mind. What kind of thought? Is it a good thought or a bad thought, an angelic thought or a demonic thought?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Through fasting and prayer the soul becomes highly sensitized to these spiritual realities, and is able to tell the difference. It was for this reason that Jesus fasted in the wilderness, to be ready for the devil.
The root of the word “to tempt “is the same as the root of the word “to pierce.” In temptation a piercing thought enters your mind, which provokes, disturbs, agitates, upsets, and robs you of your peace.
We actually have little control over the thoughts that enter our minds. It’s like sitting in front of big screen television, and somebody else has the remote, and is channel surfing. We sometimes have experiences that serve as a trigger for certain thoughts that are not good.
I remember a friend of mine telling me about his experience as a young man going to The Canadian Bible College here in Regina, where the number of young men and young women were equally divided.
Guess what 99.99% of young men are thinking about 99.99% of the time? The young men are thinking about the young women. They didn’t call it “The Canadian Bridal College” for nothing.
But what kind of thoughts were the young men thinking? My friend told me about going to his dorm after class to work on an assignment. He would sit down at his desk, and say to himself, ” I’m not going to think about sex, I am not going to think about sex, I am not going to think about sex…” But then realized in thinking about not thinking about sex, what was he thinking about? He was thinking about sex.
The Greek word “pornea”, commonly translated as “fornication,” the thoughts about sex has been identified as just one of 8 thoughts that typically afflict the soul. These thoughts go by the names of Gluttony, Fornication, Avarice, Sorrow, Despondency, Anger, Vainglory, and Pride.
Each of those thoughts probably deserves a sermon on it’s own. Suffice to say, for today, that falling into sin begins with one of these 8 thoughts. You may not be troubled by thoughts of fornication, and I might believe you, but tell me that you are not troubled by any of these other thoughts, I will not believe you.
So the thought appears in our minds, you then enter into dialogue with the thought, and then consent to the thought, and then act on the thought. This is the moment when temptation becomes sin. Death enters your life, and your communion with the living God is broken. This is what took place between the tempting serpent and Eve in the garden.
Then next time the thought appears, there is always a next time, because you have fed it, it is stronger. And so you no longer have the thought, the thought has you. It has taken you captive as a hostage. If this is allowed to continue you become obsessed, or as we might say demon possessed.
Now what? You need an intervention, to separate you from your thoughts, to cats out the demon. In the service of Holy Baptism for adults the priest prays: “Cast out of their hearts every evil imagination and every thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of thee.”
Our Gospel lesson today we hear how Jesus Himself was subjected to demonic temptation. This is really good news for us who find ourselves tortured by thoughts of various kinds. It shows us that in temptation we are not outside the realm of God’s grace. The Lord is with you. He understands and sympathizes with you in your weakness.
But Jesus not only experienced temptation, He overcame it. He defeated it, and therefore shows Himself to be your Savior. And so in the midst of the trials and temptations of your life, you know now you need to do, that is to call upon His name.
“Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy upon me and cleanse me a sinner.”
As one ancient write put it, “Flog your enemy with the name of Jesus.”
When we come together on Sunday to pray, be attentive, focus all your attention on the actual words of the prayers, and guard against intrusive thoughts and distractions. Forget about yourself and hold fast to the Christ, with whom you have Communion through His Word and Spirit.
As we consider the specific temptations that Jesus underwent in the wilderness, I think we see with greater clarity the nature of the ongoing struggle that we are involved in, and the profession we made in our baptism to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil.
To renounce the flesh is to refuse to allow your life to be defined by your appetites, which is quite a remarkable thing for people like us who live in a consumer society, that is constantly encouraging and inciting us to pander to our appetites, whether it is food, sex or comfort.
This is the situation that Jesus found Himself in when the devil, noticing that Jesus was hungry approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”
But for Jesus the temptation was not simply to use his special relationship with God to manipulate the situation to satisfy that appetite, but to believe the lie the devil was feeding him, the lie that says your life consists in eating.
This is of a piece with the temptation which the devil presented Adam and Eve in the garden of eating. It wasn’t simply a matter of eating the fruit which God said they must not eat, but of swallowing the lie, the lie which said, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Jesus does not swallow the lie, that is because the Word of God is his food.” As Moses declared to the congregation Israelites as they wandered hungry through the desert, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds form the mouth of God.” ( Deuteronomy 8.3).
With this Word Jesus unmasks the lie, and restores our relationship to food, to life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break very day of our lives. So it is in and through the practice of fasting, and this includes fasting in preparation for Holy Communion, that we seek to live into the truth concerning our complete dependence upon God for life and for food. And wouldn’t you know it, God comes through. He come to church, and He feeds us, with the truth of His Word, with the very Body and Blood of His Son, and then after the service, with the kindly fruits of the earth, and kindly relationships with members of the family. This is salvation, and it strengthens in the struggle that awaits us of the rest of the week. It is because of the intensity of that spiritual struggle that we have Holy Communion on Wednesday nights in Lent.
Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you, ‘ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone. “‘
Here Jesus faces the temptation of the world which is the desire for vain glory and spectacle and show. Can you imagine the response of the crowds at the sight the angels zooming down to catch Jesus as leaps off the temple and plummets to the earth? Cirque du soleil couldn’t hold a candle to that stunt. Here at St Mary’s we would be playing to sold our crowds every week. Would’t that be something! Full churches and full coffers.
As was the case with the first temptation, hidden within this second temptation, was a lie, a deception. While God’s providence and power to save is very real, and work miracles is very real, it is not something to be played with, and is not subject to human manipulation.
Jesus declares, again quoting Moses,” Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
God faithfulness to us does not need testing. It is our faithfulness to God that needs testing. Here Jesus passes the test, and shows himself to us to be the faithful Son of God, whose faithfulness to God unto death, even death on a Cross, saves us in our unfaithfulness. This is what has been given to us to proclaim in the Church. No publicity stunts.
And finally there is the temptation of the devil himself. What might that be? It was the temptation to Adam to be God, to make himself, and his plans and his projects the measure of ail things. I will decide for myself what is good and what is evil.
That is really to worship the devil.
He showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Devil worship: it’s more common than you think, and it’s not simply Satanists and their Black Masses.
As in the case of the previous two temptations, this last temptation also contains a lie, an illusion, a deception.
Do not all things their creator bless? Absolutely. All creation worships the creator. What the devil was proposing was simply untrue of the reality of God and his ordering of the universe.
As previously, so also now, Jesus unmasks the lie, again quoting Moses, ” Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.”
These three temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil which Jesus encountered in the wilderness called into question Jesus baptismal identity, and call into question our own baptismal identity.
What does it mean for us profess Christian baptism?
The answer is found in the temptations of Christ, and in the renunciations and the affirmations which He made.
These are no simple slogans which to be trotted out. They belong to our daily struggle of faith to make visible the truth and glory of Christ who did not live by bread alone, but by every word that came from the mouth of God, who did not put the Lord his God to the test, and worshipped the Lord his God and served Him alone.
May God give us grace to resist temptation, and save us in the time of trial.