“It Is Written…” Choices between Truth and Temptation

Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester on 25th February 2010
Luke 4: 1–13

I’m sure many of you heard this reading in Church last Sunday. Its certainly a passage I’ve heard many times. But I don’t always hear it the same.

I think at first when I read this passage I saw a triumphant Jesus, dispelling temptation with the sheer force of Scripture and his own will. I read Jesus’s voice as a booming James Earl Jones “It Is Written…” this was the Son of God staking his authority over Satan.

More recently his voice has sounded different to me, this reading has become more and more about Jesus’ humanity. I love that verse two tells us not only that he fasted for forty days, but that at the end of them he was hungry! Then we are immediately told of the first temptation; to conjure up some food. Why not? You’re the son of God aren’t you?

Jesus wasn’t fasting in the desert because he could or because it was easy for him; he was hungry, he was tempted. Here again is a picture of our Saviour knowing exactly what it is to be human. And here we see that there is something important, perhaps purifying about facing temptation…

When I first saw that this was the reading for this week I thought ‘oh, we had Ash Wednesday last week, I can’t really talk about Lent again…’ I mean, we don’t really want to think about words like discipline or obedience two weeks in a row, that would be crazy!

Does any one else feel like we ‘do Lent’ on Ash Wednesday, then give up chocolate, maybe caffeine, even go to a bible study, but don’t really give much thought. How many of us treat it like a season?

Our guest preacher last week talked of Ash Wednesday and Lent as a time to contemplate our mortality. Within that, or perhaps wider than that, it seems from this passage to be a time to contemplate our humanity, flaws and all. Lent shows me that we can’t even give up chocolate for 40 days without moaning about it, which flags up a very human flaw; our sense of entitlement.

I like drinking and shopping and eating, why shouldn’t I? It’s fun? I’ve earned it. What’s the point of giving it up any way? These sentiments scream entitlement and can be found both within us and writ high in our society.

Not only the specific temptations we read of here, but also the very nature of Jesus’ time in the desert highlight this, the 40 days in the wilderness was no doubt intended to mirror the 40 years spent there by the people of Israel after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. This is a time that Israel is instructed to remember literally hundreds of times in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 8:2 reads “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you.” Perhaps Lent is a time to do this too. The American theologian, Ched Myers asks if we are still a people defined by the Exodus story, or have we abandoned it?

The Israelites time in the wilderness was one of God’s provision, a refutation of the idea that the world needed to provide you with everything, even as they rage at Moses and Aaron for bring them out in the desert to die of starvation, manna falls from heaven. As slaves in Egypt they had so internalised the empires appetites and desires that they cannot imagine another way — the season of Lent asks if we too have conformed to the belief in worldly provision and fulfilment.

Perhaps Jesus’ constant reprieve ‘It Is Written’ is not said in the voice of James Earl Jones, echoing his Messianic power, but is breathed in a quiet voice to himself, reminding him of the old stories “it is written”. When confronted with temptation, he is turning back to a tradition of truth, or perhaps clinging to it.

So let’s briefly look at these temptations and see if they echo Israel’s story of human greed, and indeed our own…

“If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Here Jesus, newly affirmed after his baptism, having heard the words “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased” has this vocation taunted. You are not who you think you are, if you were you get what you wanted.

Do we think that? If I were really a child of God then all this struggle and hardship would fall away… I could do anything I liked, or I can do anything I like… There’s that entitlement again.

Satan’s challenge to make stones into bread also communicates a primal anxiety about subsistence and belittles any belief in God’s provision and a “divine economy of grace” demonstrated in the Exodus story and also later in Jesus’ feeding of the 5000.  Which economy do we believe in?

The second temptation: "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours."

The second temptation is all about power. Would it be better to be a vassal king of Satan than a humble servant of God? Would we ever rather make a lot of money and have a lot of admiration than walk humbly? And why don’t we get that? Don’t we deserve it?

Or perhaps it’s more subtle than that. Do we ever desire power over others? Our partners, our friends, our enemies? Do we ever claim control that should be in the hands of God? Do we feel we know best, and everything would be better if people would just put us in charge?

And the third temptation: “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written…” If we ever needed an example of abuse of scripture here it is. When we read these passages with a sense of…you guessed it…entitlement it can corrupt the original meaning. So we can use it to justify our own pursuits. Indeed, this temptation may not be so much about putting God to the test as using God’s word against him.

We become 5 year olds again, You said! You said I could jump off and you’d catch me!!  I know Jesus tells us to become like children, but I don’t think he meant this.

Expectation that God will, no should, catch us when we fall is very different from Trust in his unfailing love. This kind of self-centered theology can lead us to not see much point in obedience or discipline — God loves us just as we are. Of course that’s true but if you’re framing it like that, well get a new frame!

Lent gives us the chance to re-enact the narrative of freedom from oppression — that narrative we see over and over again in the story of Israel and that Jesus himself revisits in the time of wilderness. So perhaps giving up chocolate can help, or whatever helps us to practice noticing and resisting temptation we reject the rules of this world and rejoice in the values of the Kingdom, where we do not live by bread alone and serve only God, who we trust enough not to test.

Aileen Quinn