The First Sunday in Lent


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O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights:…
2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Matthew 4:1-11

The temptation of Jesus after his forty day fast in the wilderness sharply raises the issue of his true manhood. Any temptations set before a being who was solely God would be a farce because He would know in advance what was going to happen and it would, in effect, be no temptation at all but Jesus had set aside his Godhead when he became a man (Philippians 2:15-18, cf First after Epiphany) and Matthew says that he was hungry. There might also be in these events an echo of the Lord’s deliberate temptation of Job.

The first temptation after a period of fasting was the most direct: Jesus was invited to perform a supernatural trick of turning stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger. The second is more outlandish, asking Jesus to demonstrate his total trust in God by risking his life. In many ways the third temptation was the most difficult because people who know themselves to be good must always be tempted to take away earthly power from the wicked so that good may prevail. Jesus’ reply that man does not live by bread alone is straightforward but his riposte to the second, that God should not be tempted, again raises the question of how far Matthew understood the Christology that Paul had set out; he says that the hungry Jesus was human but also god but, contentiously, at least implies that Jesus knew himself to be God. The third reply is on the same lines but equivocal; saying that the devil should only worship God at least implies a reversal of the devil’s proposal that Jesus should worship him.

In spite of any misgiving we might have about the theme of fasting and mortification (cf Ash Wednesday), the three Readings are tied together by that theme. Noting the fasting in the Gospel, we are, in the words of the Collect, to imitate Jesus’ fast by subduing our flesh to the Spirit. Fasting appears in the Epistle in a daunting list of acts of witness. What Paul is saying is that we must use the resources for good which we have been given to resist the bad. This is the first of Paul’s lists of misfortunes in 2 Corinthians (cf Sexagesima) set out not to glorify himself but to show how difficult it may be to bear witness to Jesus. When Paul was writing this letter the position of Christians was doubly dangerous; they might easily be persecuted for being Jews (who had immunity from worshipping the Emperor but who were often targeted as a political scapegoat) or for being Christians (who were not separately immune). We might remember that we only have forty days of hardship to face for Our Lord whereas many Christians are called upon for much greater sacrifices. There were many Christian martyrs in the 20th Century and there are likely to be many more; intolerance leads so easily to persecution and persecution to execution.

Paul, anticipating the end of the world says: “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” and for Christians in a crisis that is true but in a paradoxical way we have a much more difficult task. We do not think the end of the world is near, we are not faced with a choice between honouring Jesus or denying him. We experience nothing so thrilling nor sharp. Instead we are trying in Lent to prepare for an Easter that comes round every year. We are frequently met with indifference and occasionally we have to decide how far to confront hostility but, in the main, our faith is a uniform strand of a uniform, cyclical life of religious and natural seasons. Our task is to realise the sharpness of witness in a world grown dull and we might start with the latter part of Paul’s list: “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, but making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things”. Put like this, the reality of God’s presence in our lives is both vast and immediate, vast in the resources to which Paul refers but immediate in the reality of the incarnation. Now that we have set out on our Lenten observance we know we can turn to Jesus for comfort, a man who faced the devil alone.

It is unfashionable to think of the devil as a personified phenomenon but we still need to consider what might divert us from our Lenten purpose. There is the obvious temptation of breaking the “booze and chocolate” ban but a less obvious but more insidious temptation is to go through the motions without being serious, to see the means as the end, to forget why we are doing what we are doing. It is not too late to begin, to be honest with ourselves in defining what will provide us with a real challenge. For those who find it easy to fast, read; for those who find it easy to read, fast. For those who find it easy to read and fast, pray; and as nobody finds it easy to pray, that line of argument can go no further.

We might also want to reflect in the next few weeks as we prepare for Easter that the temptations Jesus faced were scant reward for his forty days of solitary prayer and fasting but our present comfort and future reward are equally assured, comforting ourselves that at last Easter is on the distant horizon.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. What are the three temptations you find it most difficult to resist?
  2. What was your strategy for designing your Lenten observance?
  3. Compare churches that observe an annual cycle and those which do not
  4. In Lent should we behave as we do when watching a play and deliberately put Easter out of our minds?
  5. How do you explain “the devil” today?

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