Tempters and resistance

A sermon draft for Lent 1a – February 26th 2023 at St Mark’s Leamington

Readings: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, one of the seasons of the church’s year. These seasons are gifts of time in which we can grow as disciples. There are 40 days in Lent as there are 40 days in the Easter season, from Easter to Ascension, as there are in the season between Christmas and Candlemas, and as many think that there should be during Advent. 

40 is just how long it takes to wait. In the Bible it is always 40 – years or days. 40 is the measure of waiting and testing. For example,

  • God flooded the earth for 40 days
  • The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land after being freed from Egypt
  • Goliath mocked and taunted Israel for 40 days
  • Moses and Jesus fasted 40 days

Lent gets its name from Old English and refers to the lengthening of the days during the spring following our wintering – as in lentening days.

Ancient wisdom has carved out these gifts of time for us. What shall we do with this gift of time? 

Our two readings are both dramatisations
– the dramatisation of what it means to be human and loved by God. 
And Lent is a time for staging the drama. 

There is a beginning which is dramatised in the reading we heard from Genesis, which is reenacted on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, when the dust from which we are made is inscribed on our forehead.
And there is an end in sight, the day of resurrection, and a day without darkness when every tear will be wiped from our eyes, when death will be no more and when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (Revelation 21 and 22)

Lent holds the drama of the time between, the drama of the everyday and the here and now which, for us today is dramatised in the reading we have just heard about the temptations faced by Jesus.

The time between the beginning and the end is here and now, in the mean time when time can be very mean. 

These are the days of war, hunger, suffering, poverty, corruption, injustice. This is the mean time, a difficult age, a dangerous age when we get anxious about so much and when there is so much temptation. 

It is in this mean time  and in this difficult age that God shows his love for us.

There is no other time for God to show his love for the world.

The gift of Lent is the opportunity to look our time in the eye and face up to the challenge of how we are going to live in this mean time. 

What are our disciplines going to be as we live with temptation in the wilderness and wildness of our lives?
What is our resistance to evil going to look like? 
How shall we build resilience? 
What are the virtues we are trying to inhabit?

There is so much wrong and there is so much broken in our society.

That is what makes this mean-time and a difficult age.

There is temptation everywhere we look.

I know someone who hears the sound of children in the story we know as the story of Adam and Eve. He sees this as a story about growing up, of growing up from an age of innocence and discovering what it is like to be grown up.

We have a new granddaughter. She is two weeks old and she has a sister who is two and a half. The baby is totally innocent. She sleeps mostly. But we know she will soon grow into a toddler who tests boundaries and begins to know right from wrong (and we look forward to her living that life).
The terrible twos will turn into the terrible threes, into the terrible teens, and then terrible old age, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

There isn’t any age of our lives, which isn’t a difficult age.

Temptation takes different forms as we go through all our difficult ages. Temptation in old age is different to temptation for those who are younger.
Temptation when we are tired, run down or ill (which can lead to despair) is different to when we are feeling fresh and on top of things (which can lead to arrogance).
The temptation of those who are poor may be different to the temptation of the wealthy.
The temptation of those living desperately, with disaster, in, for example Ukraine, Northern Syria and SE Turkey is different to when their lives were more comfortable.

Temptation is contextual. We are all tempted differently.

One of our temptations is to trivialise temptation.
Another temptation we fall prey to is the temptation to individualise temptation – temptation isolates us, then shames us. We hide in our shame and focus on our self as the victim of temptation and as the one to resist temptation.

What is wrong is not individualistic but is societal, systemic and thoroughgoing and is of unimaginable scale.
But the tempters who prey on us are socially networked. 
They are in all our systems,

They are inside us – the voices we hear demeaning us and hardening our hearts. 
They are all around us.
They don’t have horns and a pitchfork. They are well groomed to groom us for their own selfish ends.

They come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Tempters look just like us.

The powers in our lives aren’t always kindly intentioned. 
Think of those who try to scam us,
and the bots used to manipulate our thinking and undermine our democracy,
and the empire builders who groom us and use us to profit their purposes. 

They all come with their tempting offers. 

Even those who are kindly intentioned make unreasonable demands which often show that they don’t really understand us.
Work harder, look better, grow faster, spend more.
They’re all orders that disorder us – these are the temptations of our day and age.

These are temptations in our difficult age in which God, even now, shows his love for us.

I have painted a dark picture of our times – and I have done this deliberately because there are so many whose own interest is to persuade us that now is ok – that “we’ve never had it so good”. That is a temptation. The tempters would love us to believe that everything is hunky dory. That way they can get away with anything.

It is tempting to make light of our darkness.

The tempters would love us to believe that giving up chocolate for Lent is enough resistance to temptation. Hopefully we realise that such gestures are only token gestures and that they need to be first steps on the path to building resistance and resilience. 

But many of these gestures are things we take on on our own. And it is not good for us to be on our own in times like these, in mean times and our very difficult age.

If God created our relationships from the beginning to the end of our difficult age, then it is only through those relationships that we can resist. 

It is by being together as a church and as a family that we can resist. 

It is not good for any of us to be alone in our difficult age. 

It is often by talking things through with those who love us in our homes or church – with those who love us with a love that is divine – that we can make sense of things and find the heart to resist.

All of us are living through that “very difficult age”. It’s not good for any of us to be on our own at this time. 

God recognised that from the beginning and created relationships.

Together we can remind ourselves that the only effective resistance to temptation and tempters is through God, that it is only God who can deliver us from evil.
And so we pray, just as Jesus taught us – Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

This is our greatest act of resistance – to pray together. This is our greatest resistance to the tempters, the powers that be and the wrongs of the difficult age we find ourselves in, however old we are. 

And it is through this particular resistance that we find that God answers our prayer to be led from temptation and to be delivered from evil. That is how we come to know that God loves us – however difficult our age, however mean our times.

This is a reworking of Psalm 139 by Cara Heafey. She had LGBT Christians who may have been wounded by the church in mind when she wrote it. For me, it shows just an example of the importance of our scriptures as texts of resistance. It shows God’s love for us in our mean-time and these words spite the temptation to think that we are not good enough for God’s love.

I made you myself, carefully and lovingly.
I gathered your molecules together,
Scooping them out of the dust, warming them into clay.
I formed you, deftly
With the skill and vision of an artist
Into a unique creation.
A tiny masterpiece.
Your contours bear the imprint of my fingers.
Your imperfections and irregularities are a part of my design;
They are what make you beautiful.
I breathed life into you with my own breath.
To behold what I have brought into being in you
fills me with pleasure and pride.
As I cradle you in cupped hands, how could I feel anything but love?
It is my love for you that brought you into existence.
I know you more intimately than you could ever know yourself.
I know your thoughts before you think them, your words before you speak them,
The pattern and purpose of your days before you live them.
There is no point in hiding or pretending; don’t even try.Who told you that I did not love you?
Who taught you to be ashamed?
Listen to me. Hear the very words that I whispered into you
At the moment of your beginning:
“You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.
You are my beloved child, I will never let you go.
You are my beloved child; do not be afraid.”

God is our resistance.