SERMON 17 JANUARY 2016
Shall I/shan’t I? Shall I give in and have an ice cream, a chocolate, a cake with my coffee? Everyday temptations that clearly relate to food, or perhaps more especially sugar. The temporary enjoyment has to be weighed up against the guilt, however fleeting that follows. This against the feeling of being virtuous if the temptation is resisted.
That is obviously very trivial. Indeed there is more guilt attached to the fact that one can even have those inner dialogues after reading about starving refugees in Syria or several other places.
I don’t really want to follow that train of thought just now. What we have heard read from Luke’s gospel is clearly something much more important about temptation and about what was happening for Jesus. I expect this is a very familiar story for us here today. We probably all know that the temptations come immediately after Jesus has been baptised, experienced the Holy Spirit descending on him and hearing himself acknowledged as God’s son. The story is understood to be important because of what it tells us about the struggles for Jesus as he was on the verge of stepping out into his ministry. It is also a story we can all engage with somehow and it has inspired artists who identify in it something basic to the human condition. I think we can all probably relate to the wilderness setting, not because we ourselves may have been in such hot arid places, but because the term “wilderness” or “desert” has also become synonymous with times of spiritual, mental and emotional struggle. It implies acute isolation, loneliness and a situation that is deeply threatening and challenging.
It is interesting that such places have attracted people, through the centuries, who feel called to wrestle with the challenges of the wilderness in order to strip themselves of all that is unnecessary and find their connection with God in a far deeper way. There is a recognition that everyday life can obscure the spiritual search. The writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers from the third century still have appeal as people want to be able to learn from the spiritual struggles of these men and women back then because such understandings are timeless. There have been hermits in every religion in every age. On the island of Iona which in itself is quite remote, there are the remains of a hermit’s cell, out of sight and sound from the monastic settlement. Even sitting there alone on a summer’s day, it can feel as though time is suspended. One becomes so much more aware of the sounds, maybe the bees buy in the heather or the distant sound of the sea. Through these ancient hermits the rest of us may experience vicariously and in comfort some of the struggles that these people have chosen and faced.
I have read and re-read at least a couple of times The Book of Silence by Sarah Maitland who gradually, over time, felt impelled to leave her family, her home, her promising career as a teacher of theology to seek silence. She writes about how terrifying it was at the start of this journey to live for 6 weeks in an isolated cottage on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. She did not go to the shops or make contact with anyone. She describes a gale when the wind and rain howled, and she heard what seemed to be voices in the storm. Ultimately, some years later, she found a ruined cottage as far from human noise and visible human presence and got permission to build herself a cottage. She lives there still. She writes, connects to the internet once a week and goes to Mass on Sundays in the nearest village. Without that isolation and silence she says she struggles to keep feeding her spirit and discovering more about the mystery of God. She listens to birdsong, to the sound of the sheep. She is acutely aware of the world around her. There is something about isolation, silence, desert, that strips away some of the layers with which we normally protect ourselves. Not everyone is called to live like this. But maybe such people call us back to look at the ways in which we can become more aware of the ways in which we attempt to fill, to blank out the wilderness spaces in our lives.
Luke tells us that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into the wilderness. This was a refining, a defining time. Why are we told about this? I don’t think it is just so that we could see that Jesus was not overcome by the temptations of Satan. We have probably all heard many sermons on this subject before: about how Jesus did not yield to the voice that would have him use and abuse the power he knew he had for his own ends. I am not sure that that was really the issue. Jesus had been praying when the Holy Spirit came down on him after his baptism. He knew, from the words he heard, that he was acknowledged as the Son of God. Maybe what he was led away to struggle with and discover, was what that relationship meant for him. Maybe he had to go to great depths to find the even deeper depths of love in which he was himself held. He needed to know that because of all that lay ahead. It was a terrible time in that wilderness. Satan produced lies which are all too apparent as such for us, the readers. This was Satan’s last chance to stop what God was doing. Maybe, again, it is in these verses that we can hear for ourselves echoes of what we may see as the temptations for all those with power, things that the ICAC uncovers with great frequency. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Unfortunately we humans are very vulnerable to the seductive voices that would build up our egos. But I think, for most of us, these power issues are manifest in different ways from wanting to be important, rich and successful. I don’t think that these were really the issues for Jesus. He was forced into a space and place where he had to know himself and understand his calling as someone different from anything or anyone else, even though he was just as prone to hunger, isolation and weariness as anyone else. The Son of God in all of his humanity. He had to know that God was enough and the he himself was enough.
In a strange way this story reminded me of the tale that took hold of my imagination as a child, that of the Trojan horse. The Greeks had been laying siege to Troy for 10 years, 10 long years of nothing happening except more desperation on all sides and determination, certainly by the Trojans. I am sure we all know what happened: the Greeks built a huge wooded horse in which selected warriors hid. It was left as a kind of apparent peace offering while the Greek fleet sailed off, only to hide out of sight. The Trojans, after some discussion, drag the horse inside the city, and so their downfall is precipitated. I thought of this story because I also had the phrase running through my head “the enemy is within”. The enemy is within. This is what, I think, is at the heart of temptation. Not an external Satan, even though we can all understand the voices around that would lead us astray. There are plenty of them about in our advertisement driven world. We apparently need an endless fountain of youth, a luxurious house and car, holidays and great cooking skills in order for our lives to be fulfilled. Those things are obvious, like Satan’s lies.
There are other voices within that would have us question whether God really cares; whether God really exists; whether we really matter; whether we are good enough (for what?). We worry about making fools of ourselves, about not matching up to our own expectations let alone anyone else’s. Sometimes we may not even like ourselves very much – and we are not important enough for that to matter anyway, though it can hurt. We can avoid the mirror and may try to escape from anything like a wilderness place at all because then we might have to look at ourselves and our lives. Can we ever be good enough? Do we believe that God is enough?
How can we learn that we are God’s children; that we are loved and accepted? How can we understand that these issues that can consume us, diminish us actually stop us living with joy as God want us to do? These standards we often set ourselves are a form of temptation, false voices that do not come from God. Sometimes it is as we turn and notice some of those people whose lives Jesus particularly addresses himself to – the struggling, the oppressed, the poor, the blind the halt and the lame – it is then we find the way to open our own eyes and see again what God really values. This is when we can make sense of the Beatitudes.
When I was working as a mental health chaplain at Concord Centre for Mental Health, an acute psychiatric hospital, I was often moved by a sense of what is really important, and this in a place where people often lived with very hard unrealities, a feeling that they would never fit in or be able to feel good about themselves. Taking a simple service there on Sundays stripped away anything that could obscure the message that God loved each and everyone there, whatever was going on in their heads, and their lives. We often sang the hymn which we sang first today – “Come as you are, that’s how I want you”.
It seems to me that temptation is often about the enemy within: our tendency to obscure the still small voice of God’s love; our inability, somehow, to embrace the wilderness spaces, our empty places, because we are actually as frightened of what they tell us about ourselves as much as what we fear outside ourselves. And so we can reduce our lives to questions about eating chocolate or ice cream or cake or whatever.
Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit in order that he might wrestle with who he was a God’s beloved son. He had to confront the deceit of the satanic voice but also discover, through great struggle, through what depths of physical, mental and spiritual agony, that he would be upheld as he came to know the bottomless depths of God’s love. Then he would go on to spend the rest of his life proclaiming that to all he met. After the wilderness experience, he was ready for anything, in company with God and he would face more agony of body, mind and spirit and overcome it. And so we too may be assured that we are enough and that God indeed is more than enough for us and for our world. Amen.