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.


  1. my initial reaction: grim stuff. . . and how to see a way through when the gospel itself, the so-called "good news", is so immensely difficult and only "for those who can take it"?
    Not the first lenten sermon that has made my heart sink (and probably not the last).
    On thinking about it though I disagree with a number of points. I disagree that everyone wants "security" in the first place. We seek security when love fails. Security is a second-best option. Our search for security comes as a result of getting hurt and then giving up on love. We try and we fail and then, instead of going into the "attack" and trying again we decide to defend instead as a safer bet because we feel we can never really be up to it. And I would agree that there is ultimately the fatal mistake: security instead of love. In loving, security of an entirely different kind does follow - without us actually seeking it - and that may be what he is driving at. In seeking security for its own sake, of course, nothing else follows, however secure we may believe ourselves to be - which isnt very, because security is, I suppose, a false god anyway.
    I think that he is very harsh to blame "the church" for offering "instant security". I know there are corners of "the church" which may preach this, or imply it when they talk about intercessory prayer and the like, but not many and not, I suggest, widely. It is true that most young Christians go through a preliminary stage of believing that all prayers will be answered if they wait patiently enough,(knock and ye shall find etc) but that isnt necessarily because it has been preached to them, it is because that is what often draws us to God in the first place. When we persevere, we come through that very quickly. . . .
    No, what people find hard to believe in the Christian message are, more often than not, the clashes with modern science: miracles, resurrection, feeding five thousand, walking on water, virgin birth, transsubstantiation, three-in-one, Jesus as God. It´s a lot for a materialistic society, educated far more in general scientific principles than we are in poetry and the imaginative arts, to be expected to absorb without suspending all our powers of disbelief - which, on another note, is perhaps why we get fundamentalists because that IS what they try to do: suspend their disbelief; making it a Kierkegaardian "either/or" when it really shouldn't be.
    All the supernatural baggage of Christianity also creates a convenient excuse for people who really simply can't be bothered with it - seeing it as just an extra problem which they can safely add to the bottom of a list of what may be very humane and valid priorities.
    One more thing: the most dangerous point of this sermon is where he states that the gospel is "for those who can take it". Such a can of worms. It puts me in mind of a biography about Shakespeare I once read. Calvinism hung in the air like a thick cloud at that time and the author proposed that since 'few are chosen' Shakespeare had probably decided that he was unlikely to be one of them anyway and that this moulded his own view of life and the world.
    And, so I dont go away in despair (I wonder how many people go away in despair after a difficult sermon?), I will just add that it is absolutely alright to seek security if we seek it in God Himself. (Come to me all ye that labour. . .) He soon pushes us back out there - just like a parent with a child who bangs his knee. The false securities are in investment accounts, pension plans, double locks, high electric fences, alcohol and the like.
    And finally: when Jesus was out in the wilderness, he wasnt there on his own (apart from the devil I mean). He wasnt trying to be some sort of superhero. He was just being faithful and he did have his father there with him every step of the way.

  2. SJY: Thanks very much for these comments. I agree with them all almost entirely.

    I worried about this sermon when I delivered it (luckily to only three people so only three who might have gone away in despair) and then again when I published it (I hope readers will read your comments.) I couldn't work out what was wrong with it but now I think I see. Thanks. 'Good news ... for those who can take it' is surely oxymoronic and also ridiculous. And of course it now seems odd to accuse the church of offering cheap grace. I agree that it is generally not its problem. Was it ever?

    I liked the sermon initially because I have been struggling recently with the notion of 'letting go' as being a necessary pre-requisite of finding 'life in all its fullness'. (See, for example, my sermon on ‘Losing yourself’ published in January). Perhaps part of the answer is that 'letting go' is not something that we can do on our own.

  3. Mike, I was thinking again this morning about this sermon and my initial response to it. As despair (Merton uses the word 'dread', which is perhaps closer to the real feeling.) is something that can easily follow from a simple reading of a single chapter of any one of the books of the New Testament (For me, this morning, chapter 5 of Matthew aaargh!!) it made me ponder the fact that this sensation of the apparent impossibility of living a truly Christian life is somehow very central to the core of the way we have to live. Jesus does rail so much against those who try to justify themselves. Could he be driving at the fact that, the moment we seek to do that - using obedience to the law as a sort of means of self-defence against the possible judgement of God - then we have already lost the battle? Perhaps the "security" we really seek is in our very relationship with God but if we do this by trying to be "good obedient Christians" following the letter of the law then we have missed the point entirely. So Jesus drums things up to a point where He knows we are all doomed to fail and leaves us there - in our dread and our despair - until we can see that God does not give up on us merely because we fail . . . . . which takes me back to your sermon on loss and gain in January. When we realise we have lost and that all we can do is throw ourselves into the hands of God as failures, then we are on the right path: it is our spiritual security that we have to surrender . . . .
    and so the Christian life is bound to be lived over that chasm of despair (uncertainty) anyway .. . . which isnt to say that we need to be falling into it so long as we hold his hand. S