Lent 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 6th March

Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16; Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13

Like Christians throughout the ages, and as commanded by Jesus, we shall later in today’s service pray, Lead us not into temptation. It’s always struck me that that is an odd thing for Jesus to ask his followers to pray, given that at the start of his ministry, as we heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the place of temptation, into the wilderness where Jesus wrestles, or at least confronts the devil and his questions.

Lead us not into temptation. In the modern translation of the original Greek, a translation which explicitly wants to avoid the inference that God might be the one who tempts us, the line is rendered ‘Save us from the time of trial’ or as the Scottish Episcopal Church has in its modern version: ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial.’  I do think those modern translations are more adequate – I was planning to use the modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer in today’s service but, you may or may not pleased to hear, the service sheet had been printed before I had the chance to change it.

A reason for that change from temptation to trial might be that the word ‘temptation’ doesn’t get to the heart of the existential exchange in the wilderness described in Luke’s Gospel. We are no doubt tempted by all sorts of things: indulgence, lust, greed, gossip; and I have no doubt of the power of temptation within addiction. And those temptations do need often to be resisted. But temptations understood in this way are not really what Jesus faced. A time of trial feels like a better description. For here in the wilderness, Jesus in his time of trial, has to confront and refuse the hard consolations of power and status. Whether we pray about being spared from temptations or a time of trial, however, the issue remains. Is there one request for Jesus, and another for us? Why do we pray that we may not be brought to the time of trial, when it is in that trial that Jesus’ understanding of himself and God’s purpose is defined and honed?

Do not bring us to the time of trial. Those words have an immediate resonance when prayed in the context of current events in Ukraine. The population there are indeed in the midst of a time of trial that they would have fervently prayed not to be brought to. For many, for us sometimes, the time of trial is not something we choose. It is thrust upon us by external events – illness, bereavement, the need of others; the people of Ukraine are brought to this time of trial by the heartless, almost inexplicable actions of a neighbouring despot. We, they, are brought to the time of trial, despite our prayer. In our Gospel, however, following the Spirit’s promptings, Jesus enters the wilderness voluntarily. And that freedom certainly alters the dynamic of his time of trial. Jesus chooses to enter in, perhaps in solidarity with those who do not and cannot choose, to be brought to a time of trial.

And in the midst of that trial, the devil wears a number of faces: he quotes scripture; he pretends to have the power to hand over all things into Jesus’s hands; he offers both the miraculous (changing stones onto bread) and the reasonable (God will surely save you if you are that important) as solutions to the trial. Sometimes the choices we face are obvious, and evil is unmasked; but more often than not, the time of trial is about the hard work of discernment, the recognition of where the slippery slope begins, where one compromise leads to another and all suddenly becomes relative. You’re hungry, says the devil, just change the stones into bread and you’re sorted. Just leave God out of the picture, and I can give you it all – that’s not much to ask is it? Ok, so you insist upon this God, well then prove that God is real, show yourself that it is all true.

It’s tempting to think that Jesus had some superhuman power to resist these questions that are familiar to us all, in one guise or another. But at the heart of this time of trial Jesus resists the temptation to be something other than fully human – he refuses the miraculous by insisting that that is not what life is about; the idolatrous, by recognising his humility before God; the temptation to think himself special, by refusing to play that game. His answer to the temptations is to insist that he is a human like any other – hungry, but able to see that life is more than bread; not in charge, but living out faith in God, to whom our worship is directed; like every human, Jesus insists that he is vulnerable to accident and hurt, but still trusts in the good purposes of God. However we understand Jesus’ divinity, it does not short-circuit his humanity.

Rather, his time of trial reveals his humanity, his solidarity with us all, in stark terms. His time of trial reveals the depths of his humanity, and ours. Just as the people of Ukraine, in their time of trial, are revealing what really matters, what must be resisted with every fibre of being; unmasking the persistent perils of evil that seeks domination and the worship of power.

And we are called to do likewise, in this season of Lent and in time of trials, whether chosen or those that arrive unbidden. Lent is not some superhuman assault course, but a reorientation that places God at the centre, and reveals the depths of our humanity. It’s a stripping away, certainly, of our normal preoccupations; but a stripping away to insist, like Jesus, that there is more to being human than the fight for daily bread, that our humanity is in our humility before God, and that faith is faith when it is known in the time of trial, however much we might pray not to be brought there.

Let us pray:

Spirit of truth and judgement,
who alone can exorcise the powers that grip our world;
at the point of crisis give us your discernment,
that we may accurately name what is evil,
and know the way that leads to peace,
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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