Despite a moderately busy day on call on Friday at Tilehurst Surgery, I found myself responding to an inner call – perhaps even a temptation – to cash in on the ‘Valentine’s day £20 meal for 2’ offer at a supermarket on Oxford Road. Finding 20 minutes, I headed in to a foyer positively blooming with pink and red roses, wove past the special offers of chocolate, wine, heart-shaped coasters and joined the happy throng choosing their 3-course ready-made dinner plus bottle of plonk. And came away triumphantly with a very nice selection of starter, main, 2 sides, dessert and a bottle of Rioja. And jolly good it was too.
What on earth was I doing? Why did I feel such a compulsion to plunge in to the cultural tide that is St Valentine’s Day and happily just go with the flow, a sucker to smart advertising? Was it wrong? I think probably not and at least I was aware of just letting go and happily doing what everybody else was. Hold that thought, we’re coming back to it.
Who exactly was St Valentine? Well, we’re not quite sure. There are several legends about him and I have unashamedly chosen the one that fits best with the day’s sentiment. Although most of the legends do have a common thread so it may not be far from the truth. According to one legend, he was Bishop of Terni, in Italy, in the third century. He performed marriages for Christian couples at a time when it was still illegal to help Christians, and was arrested by the Emperor, Claudius II. He and Claudius seemed to get on well, but Valentinus refused to stop his ministry to Christians and so was clubbed and beheaded on February 14th, 270AD, thus permanently ending the friendship. His unflinching support for Christian couples wishing to marry is why he has become the patron saint of love. In addition, he is patron saint of epilepsy, bubonic plague and beekeeping (seriously). One thing all the legends about him agree on: he was martyred for his faith in Christ and that at least should give us pause for thought in the midst of the sentimentality of the modern festival.
In the liturgical calendar, this year the festival of St Valentine falls on the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a season of penitence, of reflection as we prepare for Easter. The two themes of St Valentine and penitence seem rather clashing but I’m going to try and trace a line between them.
Our gospel reading today from Luke 4 was about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. I want to connect this with the sermon that Vince delivered a couple of weeks ago about the gospel. That we have here in this book 4 gospels, texts written by 4 people – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Recording as they do the story of Jesus – his life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection, it becomes gospel for us as it is read out in the body of the church, in this event of worship and holy communion, as we stand and turn towards it, as we honour it. How is this gospel for us here, now? How does this story speak to us?
This story comes just after Jesus’ baptism by John, a high point when he was affirmed in his role by the coming of the Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ . And right before the start of Jesus’ public ministry of preaching. It is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke although Mark gives very little detail. All 3 agree that it was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and testing. We might imagine then that this was something Jesus needed to do, had to do. What he did was to face the enemy.
Firstly, this was a period of withdrawal from normal life for 6 weeks. That puts a person in a completely different headspace. 4 years ago Rosemary and I spent 6 weeks walking the Camino de Santiago on a sabbatical. Now I wouldn’t draw any parallel with what Jesus went through, for us it was a very joyful experience, but the experience of withdrawal from normal life was quite profound and helped us to see ourselves and our lives in a different way, unencumbered by our normal responsibilities. Even more so for Jesus, alone, deliberately fasting, apart from his family and friends, his work, the Roman occupiers. It would have given him time to reflect, to understand his mission, to see and identify what it was he must face in order to fulfill his calling to be Messiah, Christ, the anointed one. And to have a clear sense that there would be no short cuts.
His first temptation came through his body, through hunger: turn these stones into bread! Go on, you can do it! What fast track to success and fame that would have been when he got back: ‘Want something to eat? Watch those stones, guys!’ And the second, an appeal to his spirit: ‘Worship me and all this will be yours!’ So give in to the spirit of the age, don’t choose the hard path, prioritise material gain, popularity, license: anything but the worship and service of God. And wow you’ll be great! And the third – interesting one. ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.’ What was that? A temptation to overreach himself? To be absolutely sure, one way or the other, of who he was? Or was it the temptation to commit suicide? Was the magnitude of what was facing him so immense that he almost couldn’t face it, so end it now? It’s an intriguing thought.
How did Jesus face these 3 temptations, these appeals to follow an easier path, or to prove beyond doubt who he was, or perhaps even to end it all? Jesus had a clear sense of mission, grounded in a knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the OT. Three times he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy records the law as given to Moses during the period when the Israelites had escaped from Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness, before they were able to enter the promised land. Just as Jesus in the wilderness was a ‘between time’, after his calling but before his public ministry, so this was a ‘between time’ for the new nation of Israel. Deuteronomy tells how the people are to behave, how they are to act in relation to one another, and to God, and lists the promises given to them. It is from this book, the ‘wilderness book’ if you like, that Jesus finds wisdom to face down the enemy. ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ , in answer to ‘turn stones into bread’. (Matthew adds that bit about ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’ that isn’t in Luke but is in Deuteronomy.) He refuses the appeal to become a showman, a performer, gaining short-term popularity but failing in every other respect. ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’ to push back the appeal to worship satan, the spirit of the age. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ in reply to the temptation – backed up by scripture – to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.
How does this speak to us? I think a lot of the time we don’t see – or perhaps don’t want to see – what it is that compromises us, that leads us away from perhaps the best that we can be. I mentioned the sense of almost compulsion I felt about the special offer on a Valentine’s day dinner because on a trivial level, that’s the kind of thing I mean. The influences on us that pull us this way and that that often we just give in to and go with the flow. A lot of that is neither here nor there, like buying a ready meal from the supermarket, just like a load of other people. But even that might be the thin end of the wedge: the appeal of advertising, the sense of wanting to be like everyone else, to have and buy more than I actually need ‘just because I can and it feels good’. To count my worth in possessions. The classic temptations are these: money, sex and power. Cast your eye around politicians, celebrities, judges and all the rest and it won’t take long to see how easily men and women of talent and promise fall victim to one or all of these. How does it happen? The opportunity, the sense of being invincible, no-one will find out…until they do. And then we should look at ourselves. There is no-one in this place who has not felt the pull to compromise, or who has not given in in some way to the attraction of money, sex or power. Then there are more subtle, or not-so subtle ways that we fall in with the crowd without even noticing: holding a grudge, bitching, thinking the worst of others, blaming others, gossiping.
I’m not going to go on. The challenge of Lent is to take time out and reflect on what it is that tests us, that tempts us, what our enemy is. To be aware is more than half of the battle. I’m going to ask us now to keep silence for a minute or two to reflect: where is your battle?