Sunday 14th February 2016, Lent 1, morning

Luke 4:1-13

by Revd Chris Palmer

devilWhen I was a child I rather liked the pictures of the devil in my children’s bible. He really was a caricature of an evil fiend, with horns and tail – but also blue and with a strangely teddy bear like face. Even for the young me, I could tell that this was simply a depiction of something indescribable,  a mythological representation of a force that seeks to draw us away from God.

Of course that is true of the biblical story too, not just of 1960s children’s bible illustrators. The story we hear today of Jesus in the wilderness is heavy with mythological features: Jesus being whisked to the top of the temple, and to a vantage point from which to see the whole world.

But in each instance, Jesus rejects the offer of evil, and instead chooses for God. ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ‘We do not live by bread alone, [but by every word that comes from the mouth of God].’

And this is the main point I want to make today: the real task of Christian discernment is not simply rejecting evil, resisting bad choices. The real task of Christian discernment is about choosing the good, welcoming and following that path that will lead us to deeper fellowship with God.

The great thing about temptation is that it means we’ve got a choice. This freedom, this capacity to make decisions about the course of our lives – ones that are based on forethought – is a precious gift of our createdness. We are not entirely captive to circumstance (we are captive to some circumstances, but not entirely captive). We are not entirely captive to impulses or compulsions. We have choices.

The temptation is to see the choices in temptation as ones presented only by evil or Satan. But the very fact of having choices is a gift of God. It is the gift of the God who invites us into relationship, but knows that every relationship must be chosen, not imposed. In this sense every temptation is doing the work of God – it presents us with an invitation to choose for God.

Of course there are some situations in which we don’t have choices, when circumstances are dictated. Viktor Frankl said that even in these situations, the last choice left to us is to choose our attitude – which is similar to what the serenity prayer says, ‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change’. The temptation to not accept what is given is the temptation to throw away all our mental and spiritual energy on what we can’t change. The choice for God in these circumstances is to live the life we are given, and direct our God-given energy into those situations where we do have choices – so that we can choose for God.

And, as I say, that’s what we see in the temptation stories of Jesus. He doesn’t merely choose not to grasp power, not to prove God, not to shortcut his fasting. He positively chooses for God. He chooses to rely on God’s provision, to worship only God, to trust rather than prove God. And he’s able to do this because this moment of temptation is simply a point in a life lived in fellowship with God.

That is the best way of meeting temptation when it comes: to be already in such a relationship with God, that choosing for that relationship feels natural and practised, rather than novel and awkward. If temptation is about making choices, then we can get into practice at making the little choices of each day in relationship with God, seeking what will deepen our life in him – so that when big choices come along, we are comfortable in making good decisions.

This point is made by St Ignatius when we talks about temptation. He has three analogies for the tempter. Actually, to be fair, these are a modern translation – the originals are less culturally acceptable today. The tempter is like a spoilt child: the more you indulge them, the more demanding they become. The tempter is like an adulterous lover, who’s desperate for you to keep the relationship secret. The tempter is like an army commander, who attacks the city at the weakest point. [1]

In each case, the preparation we make in ‘peace time’ – as it were – will prepare us for the attack when it comes. Strengthen the weak points in your compulsions whilst you can; practise openness and talking about your spiritual life with others in ordinary circumstances, so that when a big temptation comes you have someone to talk to, and can avoid secrecy; be firm with the small temptations, and the big ones are less likely to appear.

We see this most acutely in Jesus. At the most extreme point for Jesus, when he’s on the cross, his taunters mimic the words of Satan, ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Jesus’ capacity to resist at this moment is founded on a lifetime of choosing God in less extreme situations.

The problem for many people is that the God alternative to temptation is at best hazy or even unknown. For many of us, when we face acute temptation we feel a choice between what is alluring or pleasurable and fairly well-defined in our mind – we can fantasize and imagine it clearly – and, on the other side, an alternative ‘good’ way that we have little clear idea about and which feels vague or shallow or shadowy. This is a failure of nurturing our relationship with God in peace time.

So how can be nurture our relationship with God, so that we can choose for God when we face temptation? These are good questions for Lent.

The church gives us traditional ways: daily prayer, reading the scriptures, coming to the Eucharist, sharing fellowship with others on the journey of faith. These are all good, but let me suggest a slightly different set too

  • We need to practise silence – perhaps using the noticing-breathing exercise I suggested to the children slightly earlier.
  • We can take time to reflect on God’s presence in our day, what has brought us near to him. We can learn to listen, to God and others.
  • We can form a habit of being present to the moment – instead of our usual tendency to have our attention and heart in our past triumphs or failures or our future anxieties.
  • We can learn to celebrate things that go well. This is really one for me; when something goes well I tend to breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘what’s next?’; but it is good rather to take time to celebrate what goes well and give thanks.
  • Finally we can take time to practise not being busy. In fact someone’s set up a website encouraging not being busy as a Lenten discipline; the idea is that you take between 10 and 30 minutes each day, simply to sit and do nothing, not even to make plans.

In such things we discover God. We learn God not merely in a conscious way, as when we are thinking about him. We learn to hold God in our hearts also when we are thinking of other things; God has become a subconscious habit, who guide, nurtures, loves and delights us – and who leads us to choose well, to choose God, in all circumstances.


[1] Ignatius Spiritual Exercises 325-327  (rules 12, 13, 14 in the link)