Unending Richness

Sunday 5th March 2017
The First Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Romans 5.12-19
Matthew 4.1-11

There is something slightly ludicrous, I often think, about those thousands of romantic novels published by Mills & Boon, and the like, which all end in precisely the same way but, like doing jig-saw puzzles, some people like going through repetitive processes for the pleasure of the familiarity. I have a rather similar thought every time I read today's Gospel passage; I mean, we all know how it's going to turn out, don't we? There isn't a chance that the devil will tempt Jesus into doing something wrong; so what's the point?

To begin with, all the commentators that I have read miss the plain point which any teenage literary critic would immediately grasp that this story is funny, not quite in the same knock-about league as Medieval depictions of the devil, brought to a head in Christopher Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus but, still, if we don't see that this is a funny story we miss one of its main points: that no matter how cunning 'he' is, the tempter is fooling himself, going through the motions, he simply is no match for Jesus.

First, he asks the hungry Jesus to turn stones into bread, to do a kind of conjuring trick; secondly, he takes him to the pinnacle of the temple and asks him to do a second circus stunt, this time saying that there will be an angelic safety net; and finally he offers Jesus the whole world which, of course, isn't him to offer.

So, over and above the point of emphasising the absolute difference between The Devil and Jesus, why is this story recorded? And why here?

The major purpose of the story within the context of the Gospel is to get some basics straight which we take for granted but which early readers needed to get firmly in their minds: first, Jesus, although he was the Son of God, was also a human being who suffered the privations and temptations we suffer; but, secondly, he was also without sin, which brings out his Godly side. When Matthew was writing the Church had not yet got itself into the Greek philosophical tangle which resulted in the "Two natures, one person" formula for describing Jesus but the first three Evangelists, the writers of what we call the Synoptic Gospels, did have to tussle with the question: precisely what kind of person was this Jesus who was God incarnate, who felt emotion and pain but who performed miracles, the greatest of which was his own rising from the dead; and it is wonderful to see how well the three carry out their task a long way prior to the bitter theological disputes of the Third and Fourth Centuries which resulted in our Creeds.

And why here? Yet again this is part of the establishment of credentials before Jesus embarks upon his mission. The forty days of fasting and praying are his preparation and the temptations simply reinforce his sinless character before he calls upon others; it's a kind of leading from the front.

There are another set of points operating, if you like, at a more subconscious level, reminding us of the Old Testament: The turning of bread into stones reminds us of the manna in the desert which God sent to the Israelites; the pinnacle of the Temple reminds us of its centrality to Matthew's audience; and the offer of land echoes the repeated commitment of YHWH to give his Chosen People a settled place to live. And so a due continuity is established between the leadership of Jesus and the faithfulness of his Father.

But over and above the common references to sin, what is the connection between our Gospel Reading and the passage from Paul's Letter to the Romans? I am pretty sure that the Lectionary compilers made an explicit connection between Jesus' resistance to sin and our inability to resist, which in turn requires the salvation of Jesus. This connection depends upon an understanding of the death of Jesus as saving us from the consequences of our sins, of commission and, even more often, of omission. There are many understandings of the meaning of the death of Jesus so different that the Creeds are tactfully silent but of them all I must say that I find this understanding the least satisfying. Did Jesus really have to die because we, created imperfect, live out our imperfection by making wrong choices?

But what I think is neither here nor there, so I am inviting us to join together in spending Lent in studying the different meanings of the Cross so that we come to our own conclusions. The important thing is to study and pray, rather than simply having a rather vague idea of what it's all about, like looking at an unwrapped present wondering what it could be, knowing that it looks more like a book or CD than a bottle of wine, but knowing no more.

Strangely, then, Lent is the season for opening the most wonderful present we have ever been given which is, to follow Paul's logic rather than the superficial connection between the two Readings, the promise of eternal life, because the death of Jesus has overcome death which, in turn, is the result of Adam's transgression. Or, to use slightly less obscure language, the imperfection which makes our love of God and each other possible but which also condemns us to death is put right by the Cross which means we have the best of both worlds: we are free to love but are redeemed from the negative consequences of it. The real mystery is why God should have created us to love freely and then sent His Son to put the imperfection right.

But, as I said, don't take my word for it. I don't think it's very helpful to announce a single book on the subject from the pulpit but anyone who wants help in finding the right level of book can talk to one of the Ministry Team. I cannot promise that our searching and praying will always be easy but I can promise from my own experience that the mystery of the Cross, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, has brought out the best in Christian theology which is too often obscured by the tendency to propose one understanding at the expense of all the others, denying the unending richness of the sacrifice of Jesus for us.