Sermon for 1st Sunday of Lent High Mass Sunday 10 March 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Lent 1 HM
Today we’re with Jesus in the wilderness, or rather, perhaps, he’s there with us. This wilderness is not just a physical desert; it is also a place in which the Spirit (who has put Jesus there) is lost sight of, leading to temptations by someone called the devil (the voice who fills the vacuum when the Spirit is ignored or forgotten). This is a story for us, the church, not just a story about Jesus. It describes the times at which we think worst of ourselves, are most given to despair and to moving in the wrong direction; times of abandonment, real or perceived, ‘night thoughts’ for those of us who know insomnia.
The logic of the story is clear enough. Three times the devil tests Jesus. The temptations are to seize power for his own personal benefit. And three times Jesus chooses to serve not himself but God. He is offered the possibility of getting to Jerusalem and glory by a tempting short-cut, which comes without cost and will therefore be a tawdry pretence; or he may get there by conforming to God’s will on the way of the cross. At this season, as we recall how he chose the way of the cross, we seek to understand what that might mean for us, as we ‘keep our eyes fixed on the glory that is to come’.
That is the gospel, the good news for today: the way of the cross is the way to glory. It raises questions of service and allegiance, and what used to be called stewardship, in the broadest sense: what use we make of what we receive. Each Lent we are asked to look again at ourselves and to see whether we can place ourselves more consciously and deliberately within the vastly wide and welcoming bounds of the kingdom of God; whether we will place ourselves within that country and company in which God is the most significant authority.
When we’re faced with difficult choices and temptations we often feel alone. But it is good to remember that temptation is not sin. Only when we freely and knowingly choose to act on temptation is it sin. Those of us who hear confessions often have to remind penitents of this: it may be good to bring those testing moments to confession as a piece of context, but temptations do not require absolution.
When we look at the things which tempt us, we often find that they begin as apparently good things, which have a destructive sting in the tail. The giving of a gift that is really about manipulation; the politeness which conceals disdain; ostentatiously keeping the peace when we are really acquiescing in bullying. Lack of thought, of examined mindfulness in what we say or do, and a readiness to speak or act without considering consequences, is at the root of most sin. That’s how habitual sin gets excused by all of us, leading to our conviction that we’re not so bad really, which is a poor excuse; or even worse, ‘I’m not as bad as he or she is, so I’m OK’, which is just blind arrogance.
Many spiritual writers over the centuries have reminded us that the worst temptations are greed, pride and riches: pretty much the things put before Our Lord in this morning’s gospel. Sex, all too depressingly often the main content of confession, has never been up there with those big three. Mystics remind us that wisdom in how we deal with temptations involves naming what is going on, and attending to the pattern of temptation quickly and consistently. Hence the value of making one’s confession. And I’ll say it again, those mystics are talking about patterns of pride, greed and covetousness: things which, in our age, usually come down to competitiveness and status-anxiety. The priorities of the Kingdom are different.
What Satan fears most is the powerlessness, the low status, of God, in the humanity he has assumed, so he appeals to his divinity to tempt him; he wants God to remain God, up there. Above all he doesn’t want the incarnation to work, because it changes the game plan and puts him at a distinct disadvantage. The devil can appear as an angel of light, but he can’t offer us himself, as one of us, in our suffering and sadness, or our true joy.
We are reminded by St Paul that there is no path of temptation along which Jesus has not gone ahead of us, to show us we can choose life ahead of death. Jesus even shares our doubts – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’. As I heard a preacher say last Sunday evening, the question is not does God exist (it is philosophically very difficult to disprove the existence of God); the question is rather: is God there, is he present when I pray.
The incarnation is our pledge and guarantee that he is present, a presence extended to us daily and objectively in the Blessed Sacrament, so that we can know that his coming to us doesn’t depend on our holiness, our emotional state, our moral perfection or our ability to understand: it depends on nothing more than our accepting his invitation and being, in turn, present to him.
And faith enacts our acceptance that he is present. It isn’t about propositional belief. As St James writes,
‘You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder … faith without works is dead’.
That is, what we do in response to God, beginning with the sacramental life, which is intended to inform all our other actions, is what creates and nurtures our faith.
That’s what Lent is always about: not a season of misery and privation, but one in which we are reminded to embrace life in all its fullness, ‘with all the bounty that God has given to us’ as Moses says of the promised Land in our first reading, that destination which Easter perfectly describes and which we approach through the waters of death, enacted for us so vividly in the Easter Vigil liturgy.
That is our Lenten horizon: Calvary, of course, but beyond it, glory.