May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.
Lent is a time when we engage in self-discipline, training ourselves in how to resist temptation. We deny ourselves things that are good and permitted us so that we might be better able to resist those things that are against God's law when we are tempted by them. It is a season modelled on our Lord's forty days – which is, of course, why we mark the first Sunday of this time with one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' time of prayer and fasting in the desert. And if we study that account carefully, there is much we can learn, I think, about temptation and how we may resist it. Today I shall focus on just three things we may learn from this passage.
The first is that because we know that Jesus is the perfect man, like us in all things except for sin, that it is not sinful to be tempted. And it is very important indeed for us to know this. From time to time people come to me to discuss the fact that they have suffered from temptations; and some can be very distressed indeed that they have been tempted. They worry that the mere fact of being tempted is in itself sinful. And this is simply not the case; if it were, then Christ himself sinned. But since we know that to be impossible, then we can know that when we ourselves are tempted we do not sin. It is vital for this to know this; for if we think we have already sinned by being tempted, it is all the harder to resist committing the actual sin we are being tempted towards. Indeed, far from being distressed by temptations we ought, in a sense, welcome them; for we are told by St Thomas a Kempis, author of the 'Imitation of Christ', the most widely read book of Christian devotional literature in the world after the bible, that 'temptations are very profitable to man, troublesome and grievous though they may be, for in them, a man is humbled, purified and instructed. All the Saints passed through many tribulations and temptations and were purified by them.'
However, saying that it is not sinful to be tempted is not the same as saying it all right to dwell on our temptations. That is another lesson we learn this passage. Notice how our Lord each time that the Devil tries to tempt him he at once rejects the temptation. That is what we must do also – push it away at once if we can; and continue to fight it off if it does not at once retreat. This is spiritual warfare at its most basic; for if the enemy discovers a weakness in some areas he will try to work away at it if we allow him to. Remember the words of the letter of St James in this regard: resist the Devil and he will take flight. Therefore call on God when tempted; invoke Christ's name in your heart. Evil can not stand to be in the presence of good; and evil can not withstand the power of God. So trust in God when tempted and he will protect you. And as well as refusing to dwell on temptations when they assail you, learn from these battles how you may avoid future temptations. What are the circumstances that open you up to temptations? Are there particular social occasions that you know will make you particularly vulnerable to temptation? Then avoid them. Are there individuals whom you know will try to lead you astray? Do not keep their company. Are there television programmes, books, kinds of music that put you at risk? Thrust them from you. To paraphrase our Lord: it is better to enter the kingdom ignorant of the goings on during the course of the latest reality tv show than to know every detail of it and be cast into the flames.
And finally, we may take special note of the manner in which Christ resists the ancient enemy of all mankind – by calling upon God's Word as it has been revealed to man in Sacred Scripture. Satan, of course, tries to twist it to his own ends; but Christ uses it the way God intends and so the devil is defeated. We therefore must be well versed in Scripture. This means we must not only study it in depth, reading every passage carefully again and again throughout our lives, but we must be guided in our understanding by the manner in which it has been understood by the saints and doctors of the Church down through the ages. Satan's way is to pick a verse here and a verse there, rip it from its context, and spin it until it says the opposite of what God intends; but the Christian way is to focus on the way Scripture has always been understood so that we are not led astray by falsehoods parading themselves as fresh insights. As St Paul said, if anyone attempts to preach another Gospel than the one that he taught, let them be accursed.
As I draw to an end, one final thought. Our Lord, having having vanquished Satan during his time in the wilderness was then surrounded by and ministered to by angels. We should not think of Lent as a gloomy or grim time. The athlete as he trains is not miserable, but rather takes joy in the way his body grows stronger as a result of every challenge he sets it. So too we should rejoice in our spiritual growth in this season. Especially knowing that this strength will be rewarded not only with the company of angels come the end our our days, but to be in the presence of God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.