The First Sunday in Lent - Reflections

'Jesus said 'It is written...' Matthew 4:4

Gill and I have been watching a brilliant new drama on BBC iplayer called Better, which is really a case study in temptation. It is all about a senior policewoman called Lou who is very able and keen to do well as both a detective and a mother, but who ends up in the pay of a major drug dealer, and realises the wrong she has done, and finds it incredibly difficult to break free and do the right thing. It all begins so subtly and imperceptibly, with a friend who does her a good turn, and then another favour, which enables her to solve a major crime and advance in her career.  He then asks for a small and seemingly harmless favour in return. But that is only the beginning, and she finds herself being manipulated to do some very bad things, but can’t find a way to break free. Those who end up getting involved in major fraud also tend to begin in a very small way, when they are short of money and they borrow a bit from petty cash, or from the sports club account, or from the flower arrangers’ fund, intending to pay in back in a few days. Then somehow they can’t, and they have to cover their tracks and begin to lie. Or they take a little and realise nobody has noticed, so they are tempted to do it again, a bit more.Deception can creep into a marriage with a small fib to our partner, but it rarely stays as a small fib…and so quickly corrodes trust in the one we love the most. 

The fall of Adam and Eve in our first reading is a master class in temptation, for the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal: ‘Did God (really) say…’ slightly twisting what God had said. ‘You will not die…’ casting doubt on the trust of what God had said.‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good…and that…and that…’ the longer we feast our eyes on temptation, the more reasons we come up with to convince ourselves that it’s ok. ‘And she gave some to her husband…’  when we do something wrong we want to drag others in to share the blame.

The Bible teaches us some important things about temptation:

  • We all have an inbuilt tendency to sin, it’s what the Bible calls 'original sin', but we are all like a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel…
  • It is not a sin to be tempted – ‘Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet he was without sin’
  • As the Reformer Martin Luther once said, ‘We can’t stop evil thoughts coming into our mind any more than we can stop birds flying over our head, but we can stop  them nesting in our hair’
  • When a spiteful or a lustful thought comes into our mind we immediately have a choice, to indulge it or to get rid of it…
  • Temptation comes when we are at our weakest point, - Jesus had been fasting for 40 days, and was famished. One of the reasons I find it really helpful to fast sometimes, is that it makes me grumpy, and brings to the surface parts of my character I prefer to keep well hidden.
  • And so, for instance, iif yours is a problem with gambling, the temptation will come late at night with a push notification to your mobile phone, giving you the chance to solve all your financial problems with one click, using the credit card details the betting company already holds.
  • One of the subtle temptations that comes to us as Christians, and especially probably to clergy and archdeacons, is to want people to think we are just slightly more holy or generous or kind than we really are. We call it trying to set a good example, but O how the world delights to point the finger when we are not living by the standards we preach. So being honest about our weaknesses and failures is vital in resisting the tempter’s ploys.

How does Jesus handle temptation? 

Let’s look at our Gospel reading, which is a master class in resisting temptation, given by the Master himself How does Jesus resist temptation on each of the three occasions? By replying each time, ‘It is written…’ so much so that the devil even tries quoting scripture in the second temptation, but Jesus knows the Scriptures well enough to spot when Scripture is being misused out of context, Jesus is able to resist temptation by submitting to the Father’s will, as revealed in Scripture. How well equipped are you to resist temptation? How well do you know your Bible?

How can you get to know the Bible better?

Your Vicar is offering you a master class in getting to know the Bible better through the basic tool of reading the whole of Luke’s Gospel during the 40 days of Lent (find it here). If we want to do the right thing in life, and not to fall into temptation, the most important single thing we can do is to make it our habit to read the Bible every day. Not just listen to someone read a few paragraphs when we come to church, but read it for ourselves, with our own eyes, at the start or end of every day. Likewise, if we are facing important decisions in life, and want God to guide us, then we need to read his Word every day. I remember when I was a student ringing home when I wanted advice about something, and my mother said to me rather frustratedly, ‘Haven’t you read my letter then?’ when you are seeing God’s guidance about something, do you think he sometimes wants to say to you, ‘Haven’t you read my letter then?’

How do you go about reading the Bible every day? Here are some tips:

  • Find a Bible – do you have one? Is it large enough print? Is it modern enough language? Do you need to treat yourself to a new one?
  • Don’t cheat –like modern mindfulness exercises you need to give it time, at least 20 minutes a day,
  • Find a regular time – first thing in the morning, or in the evening; give something else up if you need to - maybe you need to switch on the ‘downtime’ settings on your ipad, phone or tablet, so that it switches off at bedtime…
  • Find a regular place – 
  • Pray before and after you read it…

And if you keep it up all the way through Lent to Easter Day, and bring back your Advent devotional with every day ticked off, there will be two great rewards:

  • Your relationship with God will have grown much deeper
  • Your vicar or curate will give you a bar of fairly traded chocolate on Easter Day!

May you take up daily bible reading this Lent, and may it equip you to resist temptation, and God use the scriptures to guide you through life. Amen (from Archdeacon Mark).