from Mark 1:9-15
How can temptation be Good News?
SERMON starts with a video Clip: ‘Only the penitent man’, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
You may have recognised the clip, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana, aka Harrison Ford, has to pass three tests that others have failed, at the cost of their lives. If he doesn’t pass these tests and get to the Holy Grail his mortally wounded father will die. The way ahead is littered with the corpses of those who have presumed to know how to find the Holy Grail. The first clue from the battered notebook is ‘only the penitent man will pass’. At the last moment, he suddenly falls to his knees and avoids the deadly slicing wheels that would’ve cut ofF his head. The penitent man is humble before God; getting to his knees has, literally, saved him.
Lent is a penitential season and today is the first Sunday in Lent. I don’t know about you but it’s beginning to feel as though we’ve been a whole year in some sort of wilderness, given that we were just into Lent when we went into lockdown last year.
At times like these I’m grateful for the shape of the liturgical year. When days and weeks merge into each other and working from home and being at home don’t feel very different, we can at least look to the church year as a framework for our worship and reflection.
The reason for liturgical seasons, is that by marking the significant events of the life of Jesus Christ, we rehearse the Christ-event over and over again and make ‘chronos’ time into ‘Kairos’ time.
By that I mean that the ordinary passing of time gains some spiritual significance as we remember and rehearse the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Kairos time is God’s time and it shapes us.
So, we rehearse the incarnation at Christmas and Epiphany. We recall the start of Jesus’ ministry as Epiphany leads us through his baptism and his first miraculous sign. The temptations of Jesus mark the beginning of Lent; his Passion is rehearsed in Holy Week and his resurrection at Easter. Ascension follows, and six weeks later, Pentecost – the outpouring of his Spirit on the first disciples.
So by the passing of liturgical time, we live the life of Jesus from start to finish and beyond. There’s an older liturgy in use in some places for Ash Wednesday, where the congregation pray to God to be delivered, or forgiven, or perhaps even saved. The response is good Lord, deliver us and you may even have prayed this prayer in other Ash Wednesday services.
It’s an interesting prayer because it traces a path through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, just like the liturgical year. It is in four couplets and the first says:
‘By the mystery of your holy incarnation;
By your birth, childhood and obedience;
By your baptism, fasting and temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us’.
I’ve always liked the prayer because it suggests that our deliverance (by which I take to mean our forgiveness, or salvation) is achieved, not just through Jesus’ death, as we often sing, but through his life as well. We’re saved as much by his life as by his death. It’s an interesting angle, and one which you might want to sit with for a bit, if it’s not so familiar with you.
How has Jesus brought for us salvation, healing and forgiveness? By his incarnation, birth, childhood, obedience, baptism, fasting and temptation, as well as the other, more obvious events of his death and resurrection (which the prayer goes on to mark too).
By all his life, we are delivered. It means that the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, which the gospel alludes to this morning (although being Mark, it’s a brief allusion) is fully part of our deliverance.
What does this really mean? How can Jesus’ own temptations be part of our salvation? It must have something to do with his humanity. Is it heresy to say we are as much saved by his humanity as we are by his divinity? I’m not entirely sure, but that’s the angle this morning!
The idea that we are saved just as much by his temptations as by his death and resurrection I find strangely comforting. His temptations are Good News! If we stay a few moments with this idea, I wonder if we can all catch hold of that comfort too? Can it really be Good News that Jesus was tempted?
How can Jesus’ temptations be part of our own healing? Firstly, to clarify terms, we use a lot of religious words in church and there’s often not a single meaning to any of them – they tend to carry multiple meanings. So: sin, salvation, sanctification, repentance, penitence, healing, wholeness. In Lent we traditionally use words like repentance, penitence, confession, fasting. All things that address our fallenness and signpost us towards forgiveness and holiness.
But sometimes these words can accuse us in ways that are not appropriate. Yes, we are sinners, and we say the confession every week (and a stiffer one in Lent) but we are also ‘in Christ’ and therefore ‘there is no condemnation’. We find it hard to imagine that even as sinners, we are also beloved children of God. How do you feel when you sit before God in silence? Do you feel his gaze of love, or do you imagine God being rather dissatisfied, or even cross with you?
I’ve been having an extended conversation about Christianity with a friend who has stopped going to church. They described to me the images they had picked up from Sunday worship.
In this set of images, God is the headmaster; the bible is the book of rules; the vicar is the teacher and the Church Wardens are the prefects. If you believe the wrong things you go to hell; if you believe the right things you go to heaven. If you go off piste to explore different ways to be a healthy human being, you are met with puzzlement.
My guess is that she isn’t the only person to have been put off God by an over emphasis on how sinful we all are, and unworthy and full of shame. It’s not a very healthy image to dwell on. The language of sin is difficult to use with wounded people, people who have suffered trauma and people who have mental health problems, which is a large proportion of the young (and a not insignificant number of us).
On the other hand, society is interested in concepts of health and wholeness. It’s here that we can meet other people who are seeking these things. Especially after the effects of lockdown become more and more apparent, we might increasingly be involved in thinking with others about health and wholeness. But as Christians we will know that sin and salvation, healing and wholeness CANNOT BE SEPARATED.
So what is temptation? To be tempted is to come face to face with the depths of yourself. It’s a lot more subtle than ‘can you give up chocolate for 6 weeks?’ If we fast from something over Lent just for its own sake, all that will happen is that we’ll end up with a little bit of spiritual pride that we didn’t have before (but perhaps a healthier waste line).
Our challenge therefore is to know, as Jesus had to, what form our temptations take. There may be several. They probably change over time. It’s much easier to say the general confession and much harder to know explicitly what your areas of wounding are. Because we all have different strengths and weaknesses.
It wouldn’t be so hard, for example, for me to give up chocolate for a while – as a child I competitively saved Easter eggs so that I could crow about still having some left when all my siblings had eaten theirs. I got a perverse kick out of self-denial and I wanted to win. There’s a bit of spiritual pride for you. One of my other temptations is to fend for myself – even when the Spirit is saying ‘reach out because I am generous’, I am saying ‘I don’t believe you’re generous so I’m going to hoard my resources because I’m the only person I can really trust’. That would be one of my temptations: trust only myself. There’s a bit of healing needed there.
To identify where you need healing, think: when you let the Holy Spirit lead you into your alone time with God (as Jesus did) to face the crux of who you are, what happens? Does God look on you and say ‘well, at last this sinner has come clean and realised just how bad they really are’? Or does God look on you as a loving parent would and say: ‘it’s great we’re here together; I’ve been longing to lift off that heavy thing that’s weighed you down for so long’?
I wonder if salvation, sanctification and healing are much closer than we imagine? Linguistically they are basically the same thing. That’s why the Good News is more than just a feel- good moment. Christ offers forgiveness when we fall, which is our ongoing sanctification. AND it feels like healing. We are saved by Christ; we are being saved (made whole) by Christ and we will finally be saved (safe) with Christ.
So, the Good News this morning is that Jesus faced his temptations so that we can face ours. He faced himself so we can do the same. We are loved, not condemned. And the promise of God is that he draws us into deeper fellowship, especially through Lent, and this is for our salvation and healing and for the healing of everyone we meet.
As Mother Julian of Norwich said: First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.’