Sunday, February 22, 2015

first came Satan: a reflection on the temptation of our Lord

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel reading today is St Mark's account of the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness. The reason why our lectionary chooses that passage for today is fairly obvious: today is the first Sunday of Lent and this penitential season is modelled on our Lord's 40 days in the desert. Therefore, I think it a good idea to look at a few of the details of this.

The first relates to whether our Lord ate anything at all during that time or if he abstained completely from food. We have three accounts of this period in our Lord's life and, not surprisingly, there are subtle difference. St Mark's, the one we heard earlier, which most scholars think was the first written of the Gospels, makes no mention of eating or drinking. However we may take it as being fairly obvious that when a carpenter goes to live in the desert among the wild beasts for a lengthy period of time his food supply is going to be severely restricted. Fasting then, while not directly mentioned, is strongly implied.
St Matthew's gospel, the one scholars believe was written next, does use the word fasting; and the word fasting as you all know covers a wide variety of ground: it can mean refraining for a particular kind of food for a certain period of time, significantly reducing the amount of food one eats, or it may mean eating no food altogether. St Matthew does not specify which he means. It is in the last of the three to be written, St Luke, that we are told that our Lord ate nothing at all for those 40 days.

The three evangelists are not, I would suggest, in any way contradicting each other here; instead they are rather each being more and specific about the details of the story. And we can therefore be sure that our Lord ate nothing at all during his time in the wilderness.

Let us now consider the length of time he spent in during his time of prayer and fasting. I'm sure you have heard it suggested that the word 40 in the Bible as it relates to time can be used to mean a good, long time rather than an exact number of days or years; that it is to be taken as an expression, along the lines of our 'a month of Sundays' or 'once in a blue moon', and not an exact period of time. So for example when the bible says it rained 40 days and forty nights when Noah was in the Ark, we may take it to mean it rained for a very long time without necessarily meaning 40 days exactly. Against that must be taken the fact that each of the three evangelists are very specific about it being forty days – even Mark who deals with the entire occasion in just two verses. So we must accept, I think, that the evangelists are being quite literal here when they speak of it being 40 days. Now common custom of the time would have allowed for part of a day to be described as a day – so, for example, if our Lord began his time in the evening of the first day and ended it in the early morning of the last, that would only be 38 full 24-hour days, but nonetheless it would be correct to call it 40 days. So while it might be possible to shave off a few hours from the beginning and the end, we are still left with a literal 40 days.

The question then arises: is it possible for a man to survive forty days fasting completely? And the answer is yes; a person will only last a few days without water, especially in the desert places of Israel; but there are many examples of people surviving for many weeks with no food. It is clear from the fact that the evangelists record that Jesus was hungry at the end, with no mention of thirst, that he abstained from food only. Naturally, a person would be in poor shape after such a fast – forty days without any food in the burning hear of the desert by day and its freezing cold at night would bring even the strongest of us close to death - but Jesus was no ordinary person and he did not undertake this fast for any ordinary reason. He was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit; so we may imagine that Holy Spirit helped sustain him throughout his remarkable feat of endurance; and, of course, at the end the angels of God came and ministered to him, no doubt greatly speeding his recovery.

But before the angels came, first came Satan. And when he came Jesus would have been at his absolute weakest; possibly as weak as it is possible for a man to be and still be alive. And he was hungry; so hungry that some translations have it that he was famished. Christ truly suffered during his time in the wilderness. And what does a starving man want more than food? And so Satan tempted him with food. Go on, use your powers to turn stones into bread; that's not what they are for, but what does that matter? You're hungry, you're starving – who could blame you? What if you die? How can you do what you were sent to do then? And as well as that, if you do it, you'll show me you really are the Son of God – that would really put me in place, wouldn't it? If God has sent his Son into the world to save men I might as well give up and go home! So really, wouldn’t it be a good thing for you to turn those stones into bread and eat!

But Jesus says no. He says that man does not live by bread alone. He lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It would be better to suffer, better to endure your mockery, better to die than to disobey God's law. It is a moment of triumph, of good over evil, of God over the devil, of Jesus over sin; and by his triumph, Christ shows us that it is possible for us to battle and defeat all our temptations also. Have we not the Holy Spirit to help us also? Are we not strengthened by the sacraments: washed clean by the waters of baptism, given the chance to begin over each time we truly repent and confess our sins and receive God's absolution; and strengthened by the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist?

It is also an important teaching moment. Christ, by his example, shows us how essential it is for us to practice discipline and self-denial, particularly the discipline of fasting. By it we train our bodies to resist temptation: we say no for a short time to things that we are allowed and are good for us in order to learn that it is possible to say no; and then, when tempted by things that are against God's law, things that are bad for us because they are sinful and damage our relationship with God and put our immortal soul at risk, we are able to say no. We can look at all the excuses we make to ourselves, or that the world makes for us, and say: this is against God's law and I am able to say no; and even if I am too weak by myself, God will give me strength, and in his strength I can say no.

Christ endured all that he did in the wilderness so that he might teach us this important lesson. We should be humbled, yet again, by all that he was willing to do for us. And full of joy that God loves us so much that he would endure all this for us. I pray today that you are and always will be. Amen

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