Revd Rob Lamerton
10 February 2008, Lent 5
On Ash Wednesday we began Lent with the traditional Imposition of Ashes. Ashes as a sign of repentance and turning back to God date back to the Old Testament. Their use grew to be accepted practice in the church 11th and 12th centuries but mostly for those who had been separated from the church and were to be readmitted into the Christian community at Easter. Eventually those who were called "Penitents" and those to be baptized came to be prepared together for the Easter baptismal service!
Originally the time of preparation was only a few days but then a fast of 40 days was initiated following the pattern of Jesus himself and the whole pattern of repentance and the overcoming of temptation in Lent was drawn together.
The purpose was of course to be ready to enter into the new Resurrection life of Christ. To do that of course means first of all to put to death / to kill off / all the aspects of our lives which prevent that! A little like pulling out the weeds to let the plants and flowers grow! OR Reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we produce to create a better future for the planet! So we need to deal with the issues (SIN) which prevents us from growing and entering into the fullness of the life of Christ! And there is that word SIN which really means missing or failing short of the target! So we need to deal with those issues where we continue to fall short!
In our gospel reading today it is easy to just look at the story as it appears on the surface! If we read it more carefully there is much more to be discovered!
So far in this gospel of Matthew he has recorded only one saying of Jesus. The words he said as he discussed his baptism with John the Baptist. "Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." 1 mentioned in my address on 13th January about this reading that the meaning of this may be 'We must do the will of God" or "fulfill the scriptures".
Now a few verses on in today's gospel the next words of Jesus are spoken in response to the devil's testing deceiving questions "If you are the Son of God…" Jesus says "It is written"
So the devil's words relate to the affirmation of God at Jesus baptism "This is my Son" And he tries to instill doubt and deceive. Jesus response is "It is written" confirming that he has come to fulfill all that is written in the Hebrew scriptures!
The three answers Jesus gives are from Deuteronomy and refer to the testing of the children of Israel in the wilderness after they had crossed the Red Sea!
Jesus having been through the water of baptism comes to his testing in the wilderness! Matthew paints a picture of Jesus which parallels the experience of the ancient children of Israel.
In Deuteronomy 8:2 Moses talks to the people about being led into the wilderness to be tested. Similarly Jesus is led by the spirit to fast and be tested 40 days and nights.
Jesus follows a similar path to that of the children of Israel BUT whereas they failed, Jesus wins through and resists the temptation to abandon his calling.
The testing in the wilderness for the people of Israel lies between the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai. For Jesus the testing follows his baptism and the Sermon on the Mount (his law giving!) Mathew paints that picture all the more that Jesus is the New Israel — the one in whom the old Israel finds fulfillment and the new people of god has its beginning!
Now the wilderness was believed to be the home of the evil spirits! The interpreter's dictionary of the Bible says "The idea is rooted in the peril, eeriness and unpredictability of life in the wilderness". Seeing the movie "No Country for Old Men" reminded me of the scary experience in 1974 of being left in the outback near Barrow Creek. There seemed to me a tension between an amazing sense of God and yet a real scariness!
Now of course the "devil" translates "diabolos" or "satanas". The word means "deceiver" and he is understood to be the singular supernatural adversary of God, and the tempter and seducer of people. Much debate rages over the nature and existence of a personal devil but this description gives some form or shape to the forces which deceive us.
Now even the nature of the temptations is similar to those faced by the Israelites and the way they are presented is designed to produce doubt. To get Jesus to abandon his calling and vocation just as the Israelites were challenged to abandon their calling!
The temptations entice us to live in a way different from the way of faith in God and obedience to his commands (and so we read the 10 commandments in Lent).
So as we ponder the way we are tempted to abandon our calling as Daughters and Sons of God we also ponder God's forgiveness and the disciplines of giving alms, prayer and fasting as ways of being restored and rasied up as God's children.