Luke 4:1-13 First Sunday of lent.
Lord God, may the words of my lips be from my heart and acceptable in your sight and may they be fruitful for those who hear. Amen.
Well, it’s the first Sunday of Lent and the reading from the Gospel is, surprisingly enough, about temptation, and that is what I’m going to talk to you about. It’s not what I want to talk to you about in these truly awful times; but it is more important than what I want to talk to you about. We see in today’s reading the enemy attacking the Christ. But the attack takes a subtle form. There are no legions of demons brandishing flaming swords, no thunderbolts, no swarms of biting insects. There is only temptation. And why does the enemy restrict himself to temptation? Could it be that the object of the attack is not to harm or destroy but to distract? This is not an earthly conflict as we understand it. This is the forces of evil confronting the Lord of Hosts on a purely spiritual level but within the earthly plane. The enemy is not interested in destroying our Lord Jesus because he knows that is not possible. The enemy is seeking to block and frustrate the mission of our lord Jesus the Christ by corrupting it; by tempting our Lord Jesus to deviate, to change course, to change the focus of His aim, which is the saving of humanity and creation from the anarchy and fear and hatred that we had fallen to and restoring us to our rightful place as the stewards of God’s creation. Our Lord Jesus has come to complete the creation story.
Now I want you to think about that for just a second; our Lord Jesus has come to rescue us from our own stupidity and rebellion against God in order to complete God’s creation. We are the stewards of God’s creation and God loves us and values us and it is one of the enemy’s most effective lies that we don’t deserve that love and we cannot deserve that love. Like all lies it is partly true. We may not deserve the love of God, but we can if we but try and that is all God asks of us. That we try. No, the enemy is only interested in turning the Christ away from God, even if by only a millionth of a degree. He is singularly focused upon turning the Christ from the path towards God onto the path of worldly considerations or what is worse ego, because this was the enemy’s last chance. The enemy has seen the incarnation of the word of God into a human form and is gambling that this signals a weakness, a chink in God’s armour, a chance to finally win a battle in the eternal conflict between good and evil, love and hatred, fear and hope. Our Lord Jesus is fully human and fully divine and the enemy is grabbing this chance to attack the fully human part of our Lord. Now our Lord Jesus could very easily have reacted as the Son of God but He doesn’t do that. God doesn’t cheat.
Our Lord Jesus defends himself using only the weapons available to the Human part of His nature; the only weapons available to us. He defends Himself as the Son of Man. He defends himself against this spiritual attack in a way that sets the perfect example for all time for us to follow. As we can see our Lord Jesus turns every attack by quoting scripture, supplemented by His strength of character and His determination to stay focused on the mission rather than the rewards. Can we do the same; we can only try our best and how do we do that? The Bible is our field manual; our book of instructions on how to stay out of trouble and how to get out of trouble if we can’t stay out of trouble. Sixty-six books of advice, example, warnings, instruction, encouragement. It would probably be a good idea to read it; a lot.
Another line of defence is our church; this community; our brothers and sisters in Christ. We keep an eye on each other, we build each other up; we support each other; we advise each other, we rebuke each other; like stones in the sea rubbing the corners off each other to make us beautiful pebbles on God’s beautiful beach. Another line of defence is prayer; private prayer, intercessions and group prayer. But I believe our ultimate defence is our faith in God. Because without faith in God none of the others will work; without faith it’s all just window dressing. So, how can we use the opportunity of Lent to build up our defences against the relentless probing and testings of the enemy. In order to try and examine that question today allow me to make a couple of suggestions. The common habit of many Christians during lent is to abstain from something, usually chocolate, then wait for the shares of Cadbury’s to go down and make a small profit. This it would seem to me rather misses the point of Lent. It moves the object of the exercise, the focus, from being a spiritual one to being a physical one. By focusing on the thing you are abstaining from you’re in danger of missing an opportunity to gain in spiritual maturity. You are in fact missing the opportunity to engage in a spiritual exercise by replacing it with what is in effect, a diet. Whenever we are tempted we shouldn’t try to fight the temptation because that is in effect doing press-ups to build up our legs. When you focus upon fighting the temptation on your own you are in effect fighting with your hands when you have a shield on your shoulder. Use the opportunity to practice using the shield, which is, of course the Holy Spirit. Whenever we are tempted we should say a little prayer; we should make a little bit of room for the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our lives, because one day you may wish you knew how to use a rifle. Use that temptation to build up your spiritual defences by involving the Holy Spirit in your struggles.
You may be perfectly capable of winning that battle, but that is not the point of what is going on. The point is that there will almost certainly be other battles further down the road that you have no chance of winning on your own and if you haven’t practiced spiritual warfare during Lent then you may not even realise you’re in a battle until it is too late. There is a saying in the British infantry; “train hard fight easy”. It might not be a bad idea if we adopt the same attitude. I hope and pray we never need such defences; but let’s face it, history shows us again and again that this is a forlorn hope and a foolish policy. Watch the news if you doubt it. The enemy is prowling around like a hungry lion seeking someone to devour, and the lion is always hungry.
The enemy is not primarily interested in actually attacking us. His focus is upon attacking God by distracting us with temptations that turn us away from God. The enemy is intent upon corrupting God’s creation by denying us our rightful place in God’s creation. The thin end of the wedge is his sharpest weapon. Just one biscuit can’t hurt, surely? Distraction, my greatest weakness, is the enemy’s main aim in his temptations. The enemy is focused upon moving us away from God; inch by inch, step by step bit by bit, nanometre by nanometre. Because he wants us to miss the target. He wants us to wander off the path. He wants us to fight the wrong battles. He wants us to fear everything and anything but God. Matthew 7:14, “for the gate is narrow and the path is straitened which leads to life and few are those that find it”. But we have a protector, we have a guide, we have a stronghold in times of trouble. The Holy Spirit sees spiritual trouble coming and sometimes He will send us a smaller affliction to keep us from another bigger affliction. Sometimes God will flatten the battery on your car to keep you from having an accident down the road. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will lead you into the desert in order to keep you from drowning in the oasis, and we should always look upon these trials and testings as opportunities to build up our spiritual strength. A spiritual nine mile run to build up our stamina. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: 7-11. ‘And to keep me from being puffed up and too much elated by the exceeding greatness of these revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh to keep me from being exceedingly exalted.’ The Holy Spirit knows best. Trust in the Lord.
So Lent is indeed a time of prayer and preparation for the festival of Easter but I would put it to you that it could also be a time of preparation for the life of faith that we have decided to embark upon. Lent is a time of spiritual exercise. A visit to the heavenly gym. Press-ups for the soul.
We have the Holy Spirit on our side but He wants us to do as much of our bit as we can in the struggle, there are no participation trophies in Heaven, because He knows that at some time in our future, if we stay the course, if we keep our faith we will find ourselves sitting and eating at the Lord’s table and He wants us to be reassured that we do indeed deserve to be there; May it ever be so.