SERMON FOR 1st SUNDAY OF LENT 2013:
THEY’RE BACK: THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL
We have celebrated a number of baptisms in the past few weeks, as you may have noticed. Each time the candidates or their godparents were asked to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil. It’s easy to mock this old-fashioned language and to think of Christians as somehow avoiding modern life, running in fear from physical pleasure, and cowering under the beady eye of Beelzebub.
But I noticed something for the first time the other day when I was practicing lectio divina. This is a form of praying with the scriptures that goes back to the very early days of Christianity. A few of us gathered last Sunday evening to try it together and we agreed to use it on our own and report back next month.
So a few days ago I sat down with the gospel for this morning and did the four things that lectio divina calls for: reading the passage, reflecting on it, responding in prayer, and resting in God. And while I was reflecting I saw that the temptations of Jesus are the same ones that we speak about in a baptism service. Far from being special temptations that only a Son of God would have to face, they are the temptations that face all of us all the time. The world, the flesh and the devil are shorthand for things that continue to be a problem for us all in our daily lives.
The temptations in Luke’s gospel begin with the obvious issue for a person who is fasting: hunger and the desire to eat. If you have ever fasted for more than a few hours, you will know how obsessed you can become with the idea of food. It seems to enter your head every few moments. Once I saw a drawing made by a man who had been in a concentration camp, showing a man’s head filled with a loaf of bread. It was a powerful reminder that when our basic needs are not met, we cannot concentrate on anything else.
So what does it mean when the gospel shows us Jesus resisting the urge to turn a stone into bread? There is nothing wrong with bread or eating. There is nothing wrong with our physical appetites in general – we were created to eat and drink, dance and sing, hug our friends and make love with our partners. There is nothing wrong with any of that – indeed when God made human beings, according to Genesis, he said that they were very good, not merely good like the earlier parts of creation. Jesus doesn’t say to the devil – Bread? Yuck! No, bread is just fine. We consider it a disorder, such as anorexia, when we begin to loathe the act of eating.
But Jesus does say to the devil, One doesn’t live by bread alone. Being embodied with physical needs is a very good thing, but it isn’t the whole story. You may know the work of the psychologist Abraham Maslow who in the middle of the last century proposed that there are different levels of human needs. It is important to meet the physiological needs that enable us to survive. But we won’t be fully human unless we also satisfy our needs for safety, for love and belonging, for esteem, for self-actualization and finally for self-transcendence. When Jesus says we don’t live by bread alone, he is talking about the need to have meaning in our lives. If we are content to be consumers of material goods and nothing more, then we have fallen prey to the temptation of the flesh.
The second temptation in Luke’s version is the temptation of the world, the temptation to power. Notice how the devil lies, as he did in the Garden of Eden story, claiming that authority over the world has been given to him and he can give it to whom he likes. It is in the nature of temptation that we listen to a false view of things. And few temptations are more seductive than the worldly promises that we can be important, have an inside track on things, be looked up to and admired, lord it over others. We all know the pleasure of becoming “one of us”. There is the secret language of our club or profession or hobby that separates the insiders from the outsiders, and the gossip that we can’t resist listening to and passing on.
Just like the temptation of the flesh, the temptation of the world starts with something good that gets out of proportion. Of course it is good to have a gang of friends that we share things with, and to have the ability to get useful things done. Power by itself is not the problem. It is when the lust for power and belonging takes over as our chief value that we are in trouble.
One of my children has a friend who got a job after university as the aide to an MP. He was full of idealism and passion for changing the world for the better when he began, and he was thrilled to be walking the corridors of power and meeting the people who make things happen. But three years later he is a cynical and bitter young man. He has seen at first hand how the scramble for power can turn good people into corrupt ones. The world is a temptation not just to MPs or journalists or bankers but to every one of us who wants to walk tall in the playground, to be the centre of our own little universe. And isn’t that all of us, from time to time?
Finally we come to the devil, though of course he has been in the picture all along. What is the devilish temptation? The gospel passage suggests that it is the desire to test God. You remember that in the book of Job, Satan suggests putting a good man to the test to see if he renounces God when things go wrong for him. Here is a similar temptation: insist that God do something miraculous according to our plan, in order to prove himself to be truly God. I am sure we have all felt this temptation too at some time or another. You know the way it goes: I’ll believe in you, God, if only you will save my mother from cancer – otherwise I’ll give up on faith!
The devil uses the approach now made notorious by the New Atheists, picturing God as some kind of superman figure with the power to do whatever we want. If such a god is incredible, then the whole structure of faith is supposed to collapse. But God is God. He says to Moses, I am who I am. We can throw ourselves off a pinnacle or take any other kind of stupid risk, and we will still end up smashed on the ground even if we call for God to rescue us in midair. God is not a magician or a genie who can be summoned at will to do what we need. Creation has an inherent rationality, and cause and effect will not be suspended just because they are inconvenient to us.
But the temptation of the devil, like the temptations of the flesh and the world, is the twisting into something wrong of something that is profoundly right. There is a real sense in which we have to launch ourselves into the arms of God. The American writer Anne Lamott once famously said, The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty. The followers of Jesus must never attempt to claim that we know all the answers and that we are never in the dark. Following the way of the cross means trusting that God is with us whatever befalls us. Faith seeks understanding, but it doesn’t begin with intellectual conviction. We have to be prepared to live provisionally and trustfully, taking risks when we are called to action.
This way of stepping out in faith is beautifully captured in a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks:
Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling,
they are given wings.
Each of the temptations, the flesh, the world and the devil, shows us the dark side of one part of the life of faith. As we reflect the way that Jesus resisted them, we can notice that his response in each case was a quotation from the Bible. This isn’t just a flashy duel of capping one proof-text with another. It shows that Jesus began his ministry already steeped in the knowledge of God’s love, learned through long study of the Hebrew scriptures. If we want to follow him on this journey through Lent, and our whole earthly pilgrimage, we need to become deeply familiar with the Bible too, so that we have wells to draw on when temptation strikes. Joining on of the Lent groups on the Psalms is a very good way to help fill those wells.
Put Jesus’ responses together and we have a prescription for Christian living:
“One does not live by bread alone…Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him…Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
You may notice a certain resemblance to Jesus’ teaching on prayer later in Luke’s gospel: Give us each day our daily bread … Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come … Do not bring us to the time of trial. His prayer in the wilderness formed the basis of the prayer that he taught his disciples. Out of his experience of being tempted came the spiritual wisdom of the Lord’s Prayer. Our own temptations will help us also to grow in faithfulness, if we trust God to lead us through them.