Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13
Lent 1 – The Seven
There are no flowers in church, no drums, no Gloria, and the liturgical colour has changed from the white of Epiphany – the season of light – to purple, the colour of mourning. This the season of Lent, a penitential, dark season of the church’s year. Today’s gospel, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, takes us straight to its heart.
Just before going into the desert, Jesus received his call, his vocation to be the beloved Son of God at his baptism when the heavens opened and the Spirit descended and the Father spoke: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:21,22). And then straight into the desert, where Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days, meeting strong resistance, temptations to abandon the path set out for him, to go a different way.
The first test was to turn stones into bread (4:3). Very tempting, Jesus had been fasting for nearly 6 weeks – as it says in the reading, ‘he was hungry!’ (4:2). As Jesus the Christ, both human son of Mary and incarnate Christ, he could have done just that. And fallen at the first hurdle, to have caved in to this entirely human craving for food and created bread from stone. Where would that have ended? Perhaps on the cross he would find that the lesson once learned could not be forgotten: give in to the desires of the body, no need to have so much agony, just make it all right and come down from the cross. The second temptation was to worship the powers of darkness, to turn from God and thereby gain all authority over the kingdoms of the world (4:5-7). You can become king, emperor! Supreme leader! No need for those stupid disciples, the cross, no need to go to that trouble, here’s a short cut. Isn’t that what you want? Again, how strong was this temptation. It would avoid all the pain. But this was not the path carved out before time began, of showing a life of faithfulness, of love, of literally God in the world. And to turn from God? That was where all the trouble started, if we read Genesis 3 when the devil convinced Adam and Eve to listen to him rather than God. Finally, the devil tempts Jesus to thrown himself down from the highest point of the temple, to prove to himself and to everyone watching that look, I am the Son of God!! (4:8-11). What a show! It avoids so much trouble! And Jesus would have become a showman, a circus freak, a Marvel superhero. But he would not have been the beloved Jesus.
All these tests or temptations were offers to divert Jesus onto a different path, to miss his call. We might not even think that had he done so, it would have been sin. We tend to think of sin, if we think of it at all, as something that’s morally wrong, like murder or stealing or adultery. But actually, anything that deflects us from being who we are meant to be is sin. The word sin means ‘missing the mark’ in the sense of an arrow missing the target. And we, who are made in the image of God (as scripture tells us we are, Genesis 1:27) are meant to be true to that reality. The image of God, which we all share, is meant to become likeness. In fact, we are to become like the beloved Jesus. For we are the body of Christ.
Sins arise from the heart. Jesus told us this when he said this: ‘For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…’ and then he goes on to name some (Mark 7:21). They start in the imagination, fester and grow and may finally emerge as an action. It’s easier to identify the action – let’s say violence – than the root cause – which may be anger, or greed. The commandment says, ‘do not murder’, but Jesus taught that if we are angry with a brother or sister, we are already liable to judgement (Matt 5:21,22). Murder begins in the heart. Today, we’re going to look at these roots. It is going to be uncomfortable. I have found it so. Please don’t let this get you down but on the other hand don’t take it too lightly. As I read and thought about this, I was conscious that my own spirit darkened and became oppressed. There is a sense in which our ego, the up-front part of me that’s me, will fight back. I am conscious that we don’t talk much about sin these days, and if we do, it’s a bit of a joke. It’s not.
I am going to run through the seven deadly sins. These are the core fallen desires and movements of body, mind and heart that the church has historically identified, calling on scripture and knowledge of human nature. You may recognise a bit of each of them in you. But for today, notice if one is a particular issue for you. Be gentle with yourself. With God’s grace we can overcome. They are not things in themselves, they are ruined goodness. But the goodness of which the sins are a perversion are the reality: solid, lovely, full of light. Each of the seven sins has a virtue that we can follow to lead away from the sin. Let’s start with Lust. Lust mean ‘intense longing’ and we usually think of it in terms of unbridled sexual desire. Sexual longing is part of human nature and it’s not wrong, in fact it’s good and life-giving (read Song of Songs!): but uncontrolled, it can lead us to preoccupation with sex, to unwise and damaging sexual encounters. Sexual desire really begins in the body and spreads to the mind and heart. Today, the availability of internet porn and sex feeds lust. We see the tragic effects of this all around us in ruined relationships and lives. The virtue that can replace lust is chastity which doesn’t mean ‘no sexual thoughts or actions’ but sexual desire under control, directed with love and faithfulness.
Gluttony is the overindulgence and overconsumption of anything to the point of waste which like lust, begins in the body. Gluttony is mainly to do with food and drink – which are both good things! But gluttony turns the good into the wrong. For example, in the UK, the average household throws away nearly £500 worth of food that could be eaten every year by people who don’t eat enough: and puts nearly 20m tonnes of extra CO2 in the air. We live in a society where overnutrition leads to serious physical diseases. Gluttony is fundamentally an expression of selfishness – placing our own immediate impulses above those of others. The virtue that can help us overcome gluttony is temperance – that is, eating and using what we need, moderation. In fact, many of us will have chosen a form of temperance as something to do during Lent – often focussed on not eating chocolate or drinking alcohol.
Greed or Avarice, like lust and gluttony, is a sin of desire but is much less to do with the body. It arises from the heart. It is the desire for material possessions, to accumulate for the sake of it, to hoard. It creates a false sense of security, where our only real security is in God. It can lead to theft, robbery, extortion and violence. Tax avoidance, paying low wages and the rise of the super-rich all stem from the sin of avarice. But we can’t stand back, we have to think: does this grip me? St Paul wrote these words: ‘People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Tim 6:9,10). The virtue to pursue, the antidote, is generosity. To see what we have as a means of blessing others, not just to give us a false sense of security. Jesus said: ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’ (Matt 6:24).
Where lust, greed and gluttony are sins of commission – something we actually do, Sloth is the sin of omission. Of not doing what I should be doing. It arises from a lack of feeling for the world, for the people in it, or ultimately for the self. It is living in my own private world, untouched by the troubles of life outside. I think we all do this from time to time: we batten down the hatches until the storm passes. That may be a form of survival! But when that becomes a way of life, it can spiral down into loneliness, bitterness and despair. It recalls Jesus’ parable of the talents: one man went and buried his talent in the ground, for fear of his master rather than making it work for him (Matt 25:14-30). The virtue here to counteract sloth is diligence. Getting on with what needs to be done. I want to add engagement here – noticing what is important and acting on it.
Wrath is uncontrolled feelings of anger, rage or hatred that persist over time and can lead to acts of vengeance. Wrath manifests as impatience and self-destructive behaviour when it is turned inward on the self. Can we just pause and reflect whether wrath or anger is infecting us? It’s not wrong to be angry about things that matter, in fact we should be, but when it leads to violence and revenge, we are in dangerous territory. Someone said, ‘People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing’. The virtues here are patience and forgiveness.
Envy, like greed and lust, is an insatiable desire. It is a sad or resentful covetousness towards someone else what they are like, or their possessions. ‘Why can’t I be like him? He is so talented, everything he touches turns to gold’ ‘Why has she got so much, and I have so little? Why is she so attractive and I am not?’ It is a sin which severs a person from his neighbour, cuts him off from his friend. It is a heavy, depressing state of spirit and it has nothing to show for it. Lust may lead to sex, greed to possessions but envy leads to nothing except misery. I wonder if that touches a nerve? The virtue here is gratitude – thankfulness for who I am and what I have and for what my talented and attractive friend has. It will probably be an effort to express that. But it is where it will start.
Pride is seen as the original sin, the most serious, and the root of all the others. It is that sense that I can do it myself, it’s my own achievements, I don’t need anybody else. There is a dignity in being made in the image of God – but pride is the corruption of that dignity. There is pride in all sorts of things: my looks, my intelligence, my capability, my possessions. It’s all about me. Possibly the worst pride of all is spiritual pride: I am more spiritual, more godly than you. Fundamentally, it is this: I don’t need God. CS Lewis had this to say about it in Mere Christianity: “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” The virtue here is humility. The right recognition of who we are: we are creatures, made from the earth (the word comes from the Latin humus, meaning earth). That we are dependent on God.
Phew. This has been hard to write about. I can see each that one of these sins infects me and leads me away from being the person I should be. At this point we need to take a deep breath – breathe in the love of God and know that we are loved and accepted. But then ask God to show us, gently, where our weak spot is. What used to be called the besetting sin. And to ask God to lead us away.