On the whole, I am not much given to ‘navel gazing’ but we only have to look at the vocabulary of the collect for today to realise that Lent is very much to do with ourselves in our relationship to God and in developing our Christian faith, wherever we are on the journey.
Words such as :
Weakness related to ourselves – in contrast to God’s power to save, now and for ever.
What are we letting ourselves in for?
Do we really want to get involved in all this?
Those who compiled the CW Lectionary have chosen the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis for the Old Testament reading.
They are placed in a beautiful garden created by God which Adam cares for and which sustains them, just as God looks after us. Their relationship with God is one of trust. All is well in this paradise until the serpent appears, characterised, we are told, by craftiness. It or he speaks twice, firstly to question what God said and secondly to contradict what God said. His insidious questioning, apparently innocent, sows doubt about God’s word and God’s intentions, giving a foothold for temptation. His objective is to entice Adam and Eve to disobey God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which of course they do and, in that moment, their innocence is shattered. The desire to become masters of their own destiny becomes irresistible. They now know of the existence of evil and fear has entered their lives. They were ashamed of what they had done but it was too late. The perfect order created by God had gone wrong. It will take a new order and a perfectly obedient being to set it right.
The serpent achieved his end through speech that is, to quote one commentator, ‘in fact, without force or authority, but believed by gullible, mistrusting humankind. The narrative sorts out the competing, conflicting voices that seek to define human destiny.’
‘Lent is a time to sort out the voices and countervoices that are speaking to us now. The serpent has no real gift to give and no real acts to perform. The serpent is a means through which the gift of life is forfeited through a false understanding of reality. Adam and Eve misperceive their relationship with God and therefore misconstrue their place in the garden. The text not only reveals this to us but is also an invitation back to the single voice that speaks the truth about our future.’
I must admit, I haven’t ever thought about this very familiar passage in quite this way. But, I, like many others I suspect, am increasingly concerned about all the talk around ‘fake media’ and ‘alternative news’ that we are hearing at the moment. How do we, or does anyone know what to believe about these stories with their denials and counterclaims? Some of us will look at the sources, which news outlet they are coming from, how credible they seem, given a wider experience of life, how trustworthy we believe the journalists are reporting them and so on. The trouble with social media, I am told, is that there are few such reference points and many just accept them at face value. Of course, this phenomenon has always existed. We know that we have to hear both sides of an argument before being able to weigh up where the truth might be and distortion of the truth used to be called propaganda!
I remember seeing an old newsreel of Stalin disembarking from a plane in bright sunlight, with young girls standing at the bottom of the steps carrying armfuls of flowers for him, and being told that it was a fabrication of the truth as he had an inbuilt fear of flying and had never flown in that plane. It was however good for his image as ‘Uncle Jo’. It did the rounds of cinemas in Europe in the 1940s and nobody knew that it was a fake.
To get back to the biblical phrase; ‘ Beware of false prophets’ and back to the single voice that speaks the truth about our future.
Paul writing to the Romans describes Christ’s gift of righteousness for all through His death on the cross, as a ‘free gift’, but gifts can be refused. Those who can accept it, through faith, are making a choice for ‘grace and life.’
To prepare for His Ministry on earth, Jesus goes into the wilderness.
Matthew tells us that he was ‘led by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil’ and that He was to stay there, living with evil, for 40 days and 40 nights. ( 40 is a symbolic number throughout OT – the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, for example, having fled from Egypt, for 40 years before they reached the Promised Land). Jesus answers each of the challenges by quoting scripture. The first temptation starts at the level of physical need. When He is tempted to turn the stones into bread, he replies that God’s word is the primary source of life and that God will provide whatever else is needed.
‘ It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus is then taken up to ‘the pinnacle of the temple’ tempted to throw Himself down and if he really is the Son of God, God’s angels will protect Him, ‘so that He will not dash His foot against a stone.’ Jesus is tempted therefore to demonstrate His confidence in God’s protection. He refuses to succumb to the temptation saying:
‘Again it is written, do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Jesus is finally taken to ‘ a very high mountain’ and told He can have all the kingdoms of the world, if He will fall down and worship the devil. Surely, it is in the interests of those He came to save to control the world as soon as possible.
For the third time, Jesus resisted temptation:
‘ Away with you Satan! for it is written “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.”
So, what is happening to Jesus into the wilderness?
We can see He was tempted, and the temptations are quite clearly spelt out by Matthew.
What was the nature of the temptations?
Was He being tempted to diverge from the path set before Him?
He faced a journey with a particularly gruesome destination – death on a cross. Also, there would be many obstacles in the way of reaching that destination put there by His enemies, His friends and even Himself.
In the end, it is not Satan who has power over Jesus but Jesus who issues commands that Satan obeys. He will be back but Jesus showed how to keep him at bay i.e to be faithful to God and not to listen to ‘false prophets.’ – sometimes easier said than done!
At the start of such a journey, He had to identify the destination with absolute clarity if there was to be any chance of staying on course. He also had to be adequately prepared for the conditions to be faced. In the wilderness, Jesus could focus on the ultimate and not just the immediate. At the same time however, given more time and space, more and bigger temptations could come His way. Usually, simple, everyday concerns can distract us from our journey quite satisfactorily but the more prepared we are, the better chance we have of not being distracted quite so easily.
Thus, as a final preparation for His public ministry, Jesus gives Himself the opportunity to take stock of what lies before Him, both the destination and the obstacles in between. We too need this opportunity to refocus, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Matthew’s point throughout this narrative is that Jesus is fulfilling the law, not rejecting it. The Son of God willingly obeys the Father, from the wilderness to Gethsemane, where He accepts the cross.
‘In obeying the Father,’ Bridget Nicholls writes, ’Jesus is also demonstrating perfect trust and dependence. This is the model that the collect encourages us to emulate.’
Lent gives us this opportunity. Whether we read a new book about some aspect of our faith, spend more time in prayer or bible reading ( there are some good links on the parish website about this) go to a Lent study group or course, a Quiet Day, give up something or take on something extra; there are plenty of ways we can broaden and deepen our knowledge – all of which relate to those words I quoted from the collect earlier – fasting, temptation, obedience, weakness, discipline and needing to be aware of God’s saving power to help and guide us on our way.
We don’t always see the obvious, that which is right there under our noses! – as the way forward.
It’s worth thinking about as we begin our observance of Lent and how we can contribute more effectively to the Church’s mission in the world.
As one headline in Friday’s ‘Church Times’ put it;
‘Lent is not meant to be miserable – Instead, it’s a time for clearing the decks and waiting on God.’
Gillian Gyenes LLM