Ash Wed / 1st in Lent 2014 Rom 5:12-19 & Matt 4:1-11
So, to begin, are you meant, as a Christian to belief in the devil? In the reading from Romans it’s all Adam’s fault (no mention of Eve or the serpent). In Matthew’s gospel, its Satan, though note that it was the Spirit of God who apparently drove Jesus into then wilderness.
Step one: I think you should forget a horned and tailed creature; that’s more medieval imagery than biblical.
Step two. The last century has given us deep psychological insight into human behaviour. As a result theologians like John Macquarrie have looked at the gospel stories afresh. Macquarrie argues that whenever we give worth (worship) to something that is not worthy of it, we are in danger of being possessed; and of making poor decisions.
If you buy a shiny new car, will that inhibit you from continuing to visit your beloved and aged aunt who lives in a tower block in south east London? Love it too much and visits to aunt become phone calls. Who/what possess who/what then?
Would you take your children to Pepper Pig world just because everyone else is doing it? If so, it’s not your decision, is it? It’s the corporate decision of a certain cultural group that has possessed you – taken you over. And it’s powerful isn’t it?
So, though we may not have a personification of evil (the Devil) to contend with, that doesn’t mean overwhelming evil doesn’t exist – its right here in Shere and is beyond our means to overcome alone.
I was speaking to a mum in one of the families who attend church and she said two things to me. ‘They are good people in our community’ & ‘the playground can be a nasty place’.
Both are true and, in some cases, apply to the same person. It depends on the context. I can offer to pick up someone else’s children after school but I can also act viciously to someone I feel has wronged me.
There was a bit of a fracas up in Peaslake on Wednesday evening after the communion. Someone had parked in the wrong place and got blocked in by the badminton club.
Words were exchanged – some by me. I found myself struggling not to demonise those who were acting in what I saw as an unreasonable way. (After I’d preached this sermon I realized that my intervention was not well thought through – and so I made contact to apologise – it wasn’t easy to do – but it was the right thing to do. Pride easily possesses us)
Now we are better placed to understand the message Paul is giving us in Romans and Matthew in his gospel. To be human is be at constant risk of buckling under the weight of temptation.
Paul puts this very starkly in his comparison of the human and the divine: Just as sin came into the world through one man, Adam, so justification and life comes through Jesus Christ.
In modern language: Sin is present in the world because humankind populates it – the remedy is Jesus Christ, who did not give in to temptation but was obedient to God.
This benefits us in two distinctly different ways. The one very straightforward, and the other, mysterious.
The straightforward way in which Christ helps us move from Temptation (to be nasty in the playground/to dismiss those with whom we agree), to obedience, is to use Christ as an example. You can try to model your life on his:
1) He stood up to those who abused power
2) He was gentle with those who failed
3) He forgave easily
The mysterious way in which Christ helps us move from temptation needs a metaphor: of Evil as the most powerful virus in the world.
Imagine, in the wilderness, Christ is beginning the process of increasing his resistance to this virus. At first the dose is modest: If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. Pause. Jesus receives the virus into himself. Holds it in his human/divine self. Feels its power to corrupt. Senses its capacity to overwhelm his human self. Stands firm. Hope and trust grow as the divine sets to work, producing the necessary antibodies. And answers: One does not live by bread alone.
A pause, again, before the second, and the third more powerful injection. Each time you feel the pain / disjunction within / as the divine recognizes the threat it has placed itself under by marrying itself to weak humanity.
But eventually: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Remember that I am attempting to use metaphor to describe the mysterious way in which Christ helps humankind move from temptation to obedience. The complementary straightforward approach is our taking him as an example to emulate.
Paul talks about what has been done for us as a free gift that has been developed through the courageous and gracious activity of Christ. Developing within his body the antidote, first dose in the wilderness, last dose, on the cross.
Well, ‘We are the Body of Christ, in the one Spirit we were all into one body. Be a good example of Christ’s courage, gentleness and forgiveness, but do that in the knowledge that the remedy, the antibodies against evil flow through you by your faith in him and his faith in you.
Canon Nick Whitehead