Sunday, 5 March 2017

Lent Sunday 1 (Year A)

The things to which the devil tempted Jesus are all things which he will do later but he will do them for his Father's sake and not at the invitation of Satan. In the miracles of feeding and in the mystery of the Eucharist he makes bread for the hungry. In the recklessness of his passion he throws himself completely on the care of his Father and the angels, and is supported even to the point of being raised from the dead. Raised up on the cross on the hill of Calvary, he will reign over all the kingdoms of the world, a sovereignty confirmed in his ascension to the right hand of the Father. He shows that he is the Son of God but he does it not on the devil's terms, as a work of pride and self-assertion, but simply out of love for his Father, in response to the Father's will known through prayer.

Although we are tempted to read the story of Adam and Eve as crude and primitive, we are warned that the serpent was subtle above all the beasts of the earth. So the devil presents Jesus not with the opposite of what his mission is about but with a simulacrum, something so close to what his mission is about that it might just work. 'If you are the Son of God ...' is an open question, seductive and non-judgmental. There is always a truth in what the devil promises: 'you will not die' - well not immediately, or perhaps not physically, yet, but certainly in your relationship with God. The temptations then are to something true about the mission of Jesus but on the devil's terms and so distorted and perverted.

These temptations of Jesus which we read about each year on the First Sunday of Lent are paradigmatic in two ways. Firstly they summarize all the temptations experienced by Jesus in the course of his life. The possibilities presented to him here are always present: the temptation to work wonders and so convince the people rather than inviting them and guiding them to a sincere obedience; the temptation to avoid casting himself completely on the Father's care ('let this cup pass me by') and so pull back from the task entrusted to him; the temptation to be another kind of king ('get behind me, Satan') and so betray fundamentally those who saw in him the possibility of a real salvation. They are also paradigmatic as the temptations of 'everyman': are we really to put God first in our lives without being distracted by desires for self-preservation, for power, for being something in the eyes of other people rather than in the eyes of God? Do we really love God with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole strength?

The devil invites Jesus to act now rather than to wait. It is always another aspect of giving in to temptation: we anticipate, jump the gun and try to lay hold on what is to be given to us. Grabbing the gift we destroy its character as gift and our attention turns away from the Giver.  Our interest becomes God's gifts rather than the giver of those gifts. When we give in to temptation, we translate God back into the provider of food, the giver of security and identity, a power we try to manipulate. The devil invites us to take control of our lives, to be mature and grown up, to make decisions for ourselves (informed about their consequences by the devil!), to turn away from God's apparently arbitrary 'rules and regulations' in order to construct a world that seems good to us, a world better than the one God seems to be struggling to manage. And what a mess we make.

The garden, meant to be a delightful place for the lover and his beloved, becomes a wilderness. The temple, meant to be a place of prayer for all the nations, becomes a den of thieves. The mountain, meant to be a place from which to see more and to see better, becomes noisy and confused. These places of the encounter with God - the wilderness, the temple, the mountain - are always also places of testing. The devil has most interest in the places where human beings seek to engage with God. But through the tender mercy of God the wilderness becomes a place from which new life comes, a place in which the people learn once more to walk with God. The prophets spoke about this and Jesus fulfills it. Through the radical renewal of its meaning and purpose the temple becomes again the place of true sacrifice, the place in which we can be sure of God's presence, and the temple is now the Body of Christ. From the miserable hill of Golgotha, through his death on the cross, Jesus gives the world the perspective in which all things are to be evaluated, all life and love, all sin and death, all aspiration and failure. On the cross, as St Augustine says, Jesus teaches ex cathedra - to all the kingdoms of the world he gives the full, final, and eternally authoritative teaching about sin and about love.

The accounts of his temptations teach us that Jesus is the second Adam. He is Everyman, he is Israel. He is faithful to the creed of Israel not just reciting the words of that creed, but making those words actual. So he does not forget God when he is full or hungry. He will not worship any other God. He will not claim kingship over the nations until it be given to him. It is not yet time for the devil's strategically tentative question to be answered, 'if you are the Son of God ...' But in God's good time it will be answered, in the fulness of time, when the hour has come. Then all men and women will see the salvation of our God, all men and women will be invited to share its joy, to reign in life through Jesus Christ, the Son of Man and the Son of God.

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