Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent
St. John’s – Moultrie
February 21, 2010

“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

From its origins, the Christian Church has been fraught with incorrect teachings and heresies, or as the Ordinal in any of the classic Books of Common Prayer call them “all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to the God’s Word.” Many of these heresies arose over issues surrounding the person of Jesus Christ and how to handle his humanity and his divinity. One of the documents of the early church is printed in the Historical Documents section of the 1979 Prayer Book and is known as the Chalcedonian Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ. This document was hammered out and defined by the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 A.D. Of course our 39 Articles of Religion, Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, Athanasian Creed, and the Preface to the first Book of Common Prayer were also relegated to the Historical Documents section of the ’79 Prayer Book, but we’ll save that discussion for another day!

In light of our Gospel lesson, the traditional reading of the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness by Satan on this First Sunday in Lent, those words from the author to the Epistle to the Hebrews ring in our ears, that we do in fact have a Lord and Saviour who faced trials and temptations just like we did, and yet, did so without the spot of sin. That is a most significant and trustworthy statement; “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” so that we can rest in the assurance that our Saviour is not someone distant, remote, detached, and unconcerned with what confronts us each and every day of our lives. Quite the contrary. Jesus met and faced those temptations head-on, and did so with a singular focus – that His Father’s Will might be accomplished.

As we heard from Matthew’s account of the temptation narrative, Satan comes to Jesus after a time of fasting, prayer, and preparation, and finds Him at what would rightly be called a time of physical weakness. Our text says that after being driven out into the wilderness and fasting 40 days and 40 nights, that Jesus was “an hungered.” I don’t know about each of you, but for me just keeping the minimal fast on Ash Wednesday of no food during the daylight hours, and only after sundown a minimal meal, I was “an hungered!” I can only imagine what I might feel like after 40 days and 40 nights of fasting. Yet, this is the condition that Jesus was in when Satan came to him, and his first temptation was an appeal to the intellect. What Satan does is start with the assumption that Jesus’ fundamental need was physical and material, and thus, naturally ends up with a false conclusion. Taken to its extreme, if our Lord were to yield to this temptation we are left with the belief that the only true necessity in our life is that we have our physical needs met and beyond that everything else is simply gravy. In this case, the line from the Lord’s Prayer is simply to have God provide our edible daily bread, and not the double meaning that lies behind the word bread which also means food for the soul. Thus, our Lord answers Satan’s temptation with a quotation from Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Satan then tries a different approach and moves from an appeal to the intellect and a materialistic angle and tries to chip away at Jesus’ defenses from another perspective. Since Jesus quoted Scripture to deflect Satan’s first temptation, it’s interesting that Satan begins by quoting Scripture. He says quite correctly from Psalm 91 that, “[The LORD] shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee in their hands, that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone.” However, there’s more than simply quoting Scripture. Satan makes an incorrect assertion that Jesus was here to merely meet some obscure utilitarian purposes, and that all we do is call upon God when we need him, like the proverbial genie in a bottle. God doesn’t work that way. We don’t pull God off of a shelf and simply sprinkle a little bit on our problems whenever all other avenues have been exhausted. Jesus answers in reply that this is merely a form of testing that begs the question, “God why do I need you except when I want something or need something?”

Ravi Zacharias relays a story which I think characterizes the utilitarian aspect of this temptation quite well. He speaks of a trip to the far east where he as shopping at an outdoor marketplace and stops to purchase a sermon case. He asks the young girl who is selling her wares the price of the case and she tells him that it costs 100 pesos. He then glances over at a picture on the wall, which happened to be one of the renditions of Jesus, and asks the girl, “Who’s that in that picture.” She replies that it was God. Ravi then says, “Ah good, you see, I work for him” at which point he asks her again, “now how much is that sermon case” to which she answers, “30 pesos.” What just happened here? With the drop of a name he talked the girl down from 100 to 30 pesos. He added a caveat to the story where he jokingly said, “I’ll bet if it had been thundering and lightning she would have told me, ‘here take the case as a gift.’” That’s the kind of utilitarian temptation that I believe Satan was using on Jesus; that Jesus could be called upon to simply exhibit his power and that people would follow him for that reason alone. Our Lord refuses to give in.

Ravi then makes a point here that he believes that this second temptation just might have been the weightiest of the three because in a way, this one would revisit him in other ways in his ministry. For instance, after St. Peter makes his confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, he then tries to remove the cross from Jesus’ ultimate destination when he pulls Jesus aside, rebukes him and says, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.” If you remember what Jesus says next you’ll see why this temptation is confronting him yet again because he says to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.”

Those words of temptation return yet another time when Jesus is hanging in agony on the cross and the words of his detractors are hurled in his face again when they cried out, “Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, Save thyself, and come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

At the point in his life when our Lord was the most vulnerable his eyes are forever fixed upon His Father, even though in utter desperation his cries out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I think Dr. Zacharias is completely correct when he said, “I believe that Jesus uttered those words so that we would never have to.”

Finally, Satan tries things from one more angle and attempts to appeal to Jesus’ imagination when he takes him to a high mountain says that all of this could be his if only he would only bow down and worship him. Satan’s false assumption here is the temptation to place creation over the Creator, and thus Jesus tells Satan to be gone from him for it is written, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”

I find it very easy to succumb to the temptation of believing in creation over the Creator. We so often seek pleasure in the things of this world as opposed to seeking delight and pleasure in the One that gave to us these things for us to enjoy.

Our world has been filled with people who have wrongly believed that Planet Earth is the final destination of Paradise, and that we can build a utopia apart from God Almighty. After all, wasn’t that ultimately what the Tower of Babel was all about? Society making a name for itself and man being the measure of his own success?

Malcolm Muggeridge in a series of lectures penned the following lines which were later compiled into a book entitled The End of Christendom. I end with these words for us to ponder during this season of Lent. May we spend these days in prayer and fasting as our Lord did that we might be attuned to and aware of those places where Satan comes to tempt our intellect with an appeal to materialism; our will with an appeal to utilitarianism; our conscience with an appeal to hedonism that we too might say as Jesus did, “be gone from me, Satan.”

“We look back upon history and what do we see? Empires rising and falling, revolutions and counter-revolutions, wealth accumulating and wealth dispersed, one nation dominant and then another. Shakespeare speaks of ‘the rise and fall of great ones that ebb and flow with the moon.’

“I look back on my own fellow countrymen ruling over a quarter of the world, the great majority of them convinced, in the words of what is still a favorite song, that, ‘God who’s made the mighty would make them mightier yet.’ I’ve heard a crazed, cracked Austrian announce to the world the establishment of a German Reich that would last a thousand years; an Italian clown announce that he would restart the calendar to begin his own ascension to power. I’ve heard a murderous Georgian brigand in the Kremlin acclaimed by the intellectual elite of the world as a wiser than Solomon, more humane than Marcus Aurelius, more enlightened than Ashoka. I’ve seen America wealthier and in terms of weaponry, more powerful than the rest of the world put together, so that had the American people desired, could have outdone an Alexander or a Julius Caesar in the range and scale of their conquests.

“All in one lifetime. All in one lifetime. All gone with the wind.

England part of a tiny island off the coast of Europe, threatened with dismemberment and even bankruptcy. Hitler and Mussolini dead, remembered only in infamy. Stalin a forbidden name in the regime he helped found and dominate for some three decades. America haunted by fears of running out of those precious fluids that keep her motorways roaring, and the smog settling, with troubled memories of a disastrous campaign in Vietnam, and the victories of the Don Quixotes of the media as they charged the windmills of Watergate.

“All in one lifetime, all gone. Gone with the wind.”

Dr. Zacharias adds a post-script to this quotation in one of his lectures when he says:

“Behind the debris of these self-styled, sullen supermen and imperial diplomatists, there stands the gigantic figure of one person, because of whom, by whom, in whom, and through whom alone mankind might still have hope. The person of Jesus Christ.”

***Much of the thought behind this sermon comes from Dr. Ravi Zacharias and his radio program "Let My People Think." In particular his talk on the temptation of Jesus can be found on program "Absolute Truth in Relative Terms." This has been removed from the archives section of his website but be ordered on CD or MP3 format.****

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