Sermons 2015 ~ Lent 1

In Jericho today you can make a journey on the world’s longest below-sea level cable car up to to the Mount of Temptation. It is supposed that this is the place where Jesus was tempted by Satan, from which he was invited to survey and rule all the kingdoms of the world, in return for serving Satan. The site was identified by the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena in 326.  It was through Helena that Constantine began a Christian, and it was under the banner of Christ that he won the battle of Milvian Bridge in October 312. Consequently the Roman Empire became Christian, and the rest, as they say, is history. Helena followed local tradition in saying that the mountain outside Jericho was the mountain on which Jesus had been tempted by Satan. It is indeed tempting to believe it. For it overlooks the Dead Sea and the River Jordan, there are fantastic views to be taken in, and a real sense of Holy Land geography to be gained.

The key thing about that place is the view it affords. Every high place in the Holy Land has significance: Mount Tabor, Mount Hermon, Mount Sinai, Mount Nebo: all these high places have spiritual and Biblical significance, not only for the events associated with them, but for the view they afford. To admire the view is a spiritually uplifting and reflective thing to do.

And when we consider the temptations of Christ, presented by John and the other gospel writers near the beginning of their gospels, we are standing at a high place, looking down on the unfolding of Jesus’ life and ministry like a highway forging a path ahead of us. Becvause first, before we read about healings, miracles, teachings and controversies, we meet Jesus baptized and then tempted. We read of Jesus the immaculately conceived child, grown through a precocious childhood (of which we have but a glimpse in Luke’s gospel), into a man with a mission. Yet, before that mission can become a ministry, it is tested, by Satan himself.

John mentions Jesus’ temptations in passing, in fact, but we know more about them from Matthew. In the story of Jesus tempted, we have three classic manifestations of how Jesus could have failed at the first three fences:

Firstly the temptation to be put human desires first,

Secondly to test or control God, and

Thirdly to sell out and take the easy route.

Each of these was a real possibility for Jesus: to use his powers and connections to satisfy his own needs and desires; to dictate terms to God of how he would go about being the Messiah, or to do it the easy way, justifying the end by whatever means. In response to each temptation, Jesus quotes scripture, grounding himself and his ministry to come, in Jewish tradition, spirituality and obedience. For ultimately his response to the three temptations is threefold: trust God, obey God, worship God.

With these three maxims in mind, we can survey the scenes of Jesus’ life, ministry and death and resurrection, and also our own lives. From Jesus’ perspective, the view from the place of temptation is the road to redemption. In the distance we can see Calvary and the shining light of resurrection behind it, opening up the way to glory and eternal life. Before walking the road to Easter, it is good to survey it from a distance, to memorize and mentally map out the landmarks en route. This is why the temptations are often heard in Church as we begin Lent. And it is so traditional to begin Lent by singing the hymn ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights”.

The journey of Lent begins on the Mount of Temptation and ends on the Hill of Calvary, with many ups and downs between. In the final, Holy Week, we welcome Christ with palms, and look in horror as the crowd turn against him. We watch him betrayed, arrested, wrongfully tried, flogged and crucified. We walk the way of the cross, and we stand and weep at the foot of the Cross and then lay Jesus in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. And then, with the dawning of Easter day we go with Mary and Peter to the tomb and find it empty. This is the view from here and now as we stand with Jesus on top of the Mount of Temptation.

It is the view of the journey that the Son of God must take, one step after another: the comings and goings that lead to suffering and death, after which comes resurrection hope and light. We know what to look for, and we know what we shall see, because we have looked and walked along this route many times before. We can see into the future, liturgically, as it were, because the future looks very like the past. We know how the story goes, and so we can see it coming. We can do this whenever we enter a liturgical season that climaxes with Easter, Christmas or Pentecost. These seasonal rhythms refresh and renew us in remembrance and reflection.

Yet we must not be tempted to believe we know the way, for God always has some surprises. Every Lent is different, because every year we are different. Births, deaths, illnesses and other things have changed us since last year. Today we lay Stan Mabey to rest, he who walked the path of Lent with us last year, and now who rests and rejoices in glory with the risen Lord. What a profound and comforting and challenging thought that is. Who will walk with us this time, and not next year? We can never know, but we can walk, and we can enter Lent with a spirit of penitence and self denial and renewal.

Or, as I put it on Ash Wednesday, with the 3 Rs of Lent. But rather than reading, writing and arithmetic - I propose regret, repentance and resolution. These are three Lenten Rs. And these three Rs might help us to navigate through the period of Lent.

Firstly, regret: there is so much to regret at every level - the personal and the worldly. We watch the news bulletins with a mixture of sorrow, anger and helplessness. Many have inured themselves to simply not notice, not care or not worry. Yet many others cannot do this: it does affect us, we do care and we do worry. And because we care about the world we regret for the world. We wish it could have been different and hope that it can be different. We sigh with regret. And it is a depth of regret that penetrates our very soul. So it is that regret is what makes us sigh.

But it is repentance that makes us cry. For when we realise and remember that all humanity is in everything together then we realise that regret is not enough and repentance must follow. The sins of the world are our sins. Which means there is also something fundamentally human in repenting of them. We lament and repent, for we regret what happens and we resolve to make things different.

So while regret makes us sigh, repentance makes us cry and that leads to resolution. And resolution makes us try. Try, that is, to do better, try to change, try to help. Resolution has two meanings which are connected and both are helpful here. For while we can resolve to do something - that is to try to make it happen - the very making of it happen can itself be a resolution - an ending as it were. Lent is a good time to try to resolve things. A time to put an end to some things. Or a time to resolve to do new things. A time that is, to make new out of old, or rather to change. But it is likely that such change - such resolution has to come out of repentance and regret.

So, we have the Lenten 3Rs, through which we can admire the view of Lent ahead: Regret, Repentance and Resolution.

Regret is what makes us sigh.
Repentance is what makes us cry.
Resolution is what makes us try.

Every year we look at our lives through the prism of the gospels, and we find we see something different, because we ourselves have been changed, not only by the world, the flesh and the devil, but by God in Christ. For it is he alone who gives us the power and the will to resist temptation; to see things as they really are, and to move forward in our lives in faith, and hope and joy.

Amen.


The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/2/15

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