Christ in the Desert

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Vigil for the First Sunday of Lent, 17 February 2018

The Church of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford

Readings: Genesis 3.1-6, 2 Corinthians 6.1-10, S Matthew 4.1-11

Father: All those words and thoughts which come from thee whilst thou bless them and make them fruitful. And all those words and thoughts that come not from thee but from our own vanity wilt thou forgive. Amen

There seemed to be no use in waiting by the little door, so she went back to the table, (…) this time she found a little bottle on it, and round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words `DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters.

It was all very well to say `Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. `No, I’ll look first,’ she said, `and see whether it’s marked “poison” or not’; for she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them (…) and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked `poison,’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

However, this bottle was not marked `poison,’ so Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast,) she very soon finished it off.

This quote, from Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, might be known to a few of us. The book itself was written by Lewis Caroll, son of an Anglo-Catholic Priest, and himself an Anglican deacon…(who, as an aside, once went to Russia with Henry Liddon, who in turn is made immortal by having the sitting room at Pusey House named after him…)

So much about the Oxford academic – but indulge me by listening to me talk about Alice herself for a while longer. “Drink Me”, said the bottle. That’s a temptation if I ever heard one – especially as the bottle wasn’t marked “Poison”. Alice gave in to the temptation and drank. (For those who want to know what happened to her after she drank from the bottle, I recommend you read the book – it celebrates its 153rd birthday this year).

Some of you might ask what this all has to do with the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent? Well, isn’t young Alice’s way of dealing with that mysterious bottled temptation the exact opposite of how Christ reacted when the devil tempted him in the wilderness?

It was a rather quick turn of events, wasn’t it? In the end of chapter 3 of the same Gospel, we hear how Jesus was baptised, and then, all of a sudden, the devil takes him out to the wilderness to tempt him.

This temptation itself came after Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights – a timeframe that might seem very topical at this very day… At Pusey House, as in many other Christian communities, we have been talking about our Lenten disciplines recently, a discipline that (ideally) should last for 40 days and 40 nights.

As someone whose general attitude towards temptations – at least those of a gastronomical nature – tends to be the same as the American novelist Rita Mae Brown – “lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself”, I can say with confidence that if someone came to tempt me after 40 days of fasting, they would find me an easy target…

HOWEVER – Christ was NOT an easy target. He did not give in to the evil one’s attempts to make him prove himself regardless what the prize would have been – regardless how much (if you’ll allow me to continue to refer back to a children’s book) the drink in the bottle tasted of pineapple, roast turkey and hot buttered toast.

But, why was Christ led into this temptation by the Spirit? Surely, the prayer is “lead us NOT into temptation”…. Could it have been a rite of passage, to show that he could withstand Satan’s temptations?

The first temptation, to turn stones into bread, is often understood as challenging Jesus to misuse his miraculous power to satisfy his own hunger because he doubts God’s provision. The challenge is not to perform a show miracle since there is not an audience in the wilderness. Rather it refers to the grumbling that Israel did in the wilderness complaining to God that they were hungry so eventually God sends manna and quail.

Will Jesus the Son of God fail the test as Israel did or will Jesus persevere in trust toward God? Remember, Jesus is famished after his long fast, so Satan urges Jesus to satisfy that hunger immediately. The first temptation, then, was to be selfish, to think only of himself. To satisfy an immediate urge or need without looking at the bigger picture.

The second test is to put God to the test, to see if God is trustworthy. This second temptation is a spectacular use of spiritual power. Jesus is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple and told to throw himself down because God would send angels to rescue him. Turning from the physical needs of hunger to the spiritual realm, Satan uses this profound temptation to see if Jesus will use the divine shield to maintain his own safety.

Will Jesus seek to avoid all pain, suffering and hardship? Whenever there is trouble will he call on Daddy to save him? Will Jesus adopt the attitude that he is invincible? That he can do foolhardy things throughout his life and not have to worry about the consequences of his actions? Jesus rejects this enticement. He chooses the harder road and we know where that journey will take him on Good Friday.

The third temptation is the one that still plagues most leaders in our world today. Political power – control of vast territories, empires and resources. To be the most powerful leader in the world. Remember, that first century Jews were expecting a Messiah to be an earthly king, a strong military conqueror who would defeat the Romans and regain all of Israel’s ancestral homeland. A mighty warrior who would lay waste to Israel’s enemies and rule the entire world bringing peace and prosperity to God’s chosen people.

Jesus could have had all of this – fame, riches, power. He could have been the Messiah people wanted him to be. All he had to do was bow down and worship Satan. I find it amazing that we still use this language in our society today. We often describe people who seem to have it all as “selling their souls to the devil” in order to achieve their level of success. The temptation is real. Who will we serve? Jesus reviewed his options, made his choice and took a stand. He could have had it all, but he decided to shun the easy path. With all the energy he could muster, he emphatically cried out, “Away from me Satan, I will serve God alone”!

Like Christ, we too are tempted, but the tempter doesn’t necessarily show himself with horns and a tail, but in other, more worldly ways. Let us pray that we too, when that moment of trial comes, can muster the courage to follow our Father’s will, to cry out, like Jesus did: “Away from me Satan, I will serve God alone!”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

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About Petter

Demi-Norwegian Swede in Oxford. Rather churchy type.
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