Saturday, 23 February 2013

The tempation of security

Sermon on Matthew 4: 1-11

This is a sermon adapted from a sermon preached in the 1960s by Alan Robson and reprinted in it’s entirely in the October 2010 edition of Minsters-at- Work. I have shortened it somewhat and edited it slightly.
In our reading today ‘Jesus is in the wilderness, face to face with the Devil. God is absent. On the cross the situation is the same. Jesus is face to face with the powers of evil – alone. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus calls out.
The twice repeated taunt of the Devil in the wilderness: “If thou be the son of God..,” is echoed by those who jeered at him on Calvary: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
In the third temptation the Devil, taking Jesus onto a high mountain, shows him all the kingdoms of the world and promises, “All these things will I give you if you fall down and worship me.” Jesus refuses.
Similarly, in the story of the crucifixion, Jesus never compromises with the forces of evil. They have their way and he dies. But the story ends with Jesus – again on a high mountain – saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.”
If it is right to think that the temptation story is a commentary on the Easter story then it must throw light on the meaning of the death and exaltation of Jesus – and on its significance for us. It must reveal what it is about Jesus that makes him good news for us. The details of the temptation story are strikingly peculiar:
  • The dialogue between Jesus and the Devil.
  • The suggestion of turning stones into bread.
  • The picture of Jesus and the Devil standing together on the pinnacle of the Temple.
  • The absurd notion that from the mountain-top they could see all the kingdoms of the earth. 

The story is highly imaginative, extravagant in its imagery; it is the stuff that dreams are made of. Yet the essence of it is clear enough. There are three temptations and they correspond to the basic needs we all recognise in our lives:
  • I want bread – or economic security;
  • I want protection from life’s dangers – like falling from the pinnacle of the Temple;
  • I want to rule the world or, in more modest terms, I want to belong – to have power or status. 

Whether or not it is right in this way to find a particular significance in each of the three temptations matters little because in the end they all end up to one fundamental need – the need for security.
We are all looking for a life of security, but in our anxious pursuit of security, life itself is passing us by. It is the Devil who tempts us to look to ourselves and our security. God, in Jesus, calls us to forsake our security and get on with living. What the Devil promises in terms of bread, protection and status is only an illusion of security. The Devil’s promise is never fulfilled.
But we are called to live, as it were, in the wilderness, deprived of the usual comforts and securities which people crave. But when in that wilderness we turn to God we generally do so in the hope that he will provide just that kind of security that the Devil offers Jesus.
Note that, for the first two temptations at least, the Devil is not tempting Jesus to turn against God. He is tempting him to look to God for his personal security – to make use of God to fulfil his own needs. Jesus is in the wilderness; he is hungry and there is nothing to eat. “Go on” says the Devil, “You’re the Son of God; ask him, he will provide you with food”. Jesus is on the pinnacle of the Temple – a desperately dangerous place to be. “Go on” says the Devil, “You’re the Son of God; jump off and he will protect you from harm.”
But Jesus will not put God to the test. God sent Jesus into the wilderness not that Jesus might test him, but that he might test Jesus. In the wilderness Jesus is on his own, face to face with the Devil, face to face with temptation to seek his own security. God is nowhere about. God waits on the other side of the wilderness.
This is what the cross is all about. It is the ultimate wilderness experience. Jesus is on his own, face to face with the forces of evil. God is nowhere to be seen: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” God is found on the other side of the wilderness of suffering and death: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.”
We live at a time when there is widespread disillusionment, apathy, and sometimes open hostility towards Christianity. And when we’ve served up all the usual reasons for this – economic, sociological and so on - the fact remains that people have discovered that the gospel that the Church has regularly preached is not true.
The Church has often offered people ‘instant security’ of the kind it knows people desire and then they’ve discovered that it doesn’t work. Putting it bluntly the Church has been doing the work of the Devil: promising that if only people will turn to God all their problems will be resolved. The stones will become bread; they will be protected from all dangers; they will enjoy security and status. This isn’t true, and people know it isn’t true – but then it isn’t the Gospel either…
The Church’s real role is to lead people through the wilderness. This means that first we must accept the fact that life is often a wilderness – a wilderness of poverty, homelessness of alienation, estrangement, doubt, anxiety and despair in which not only the poor but the affluent find themselves.
Yet we also have a Gospel: we have a word of good news – for those who can take it. But it is a hard word: a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others. I talked about this word a few weeks back.
The word is that it is in losing our lives that we shall save them. It is in dying that we live. It is in forsaking all desire for security that we shall find our ultimate security. The Old Testament affirmation: ‘No man shall see God and live’ becomes in the New Testament, ‘No man shall see God except he die’. This, it seems, is the word we find in Jesus.