A Sermon for Lent 1 by Deacon Margaret Holt
Over 30 years ago I was part of a production called Ring of Fire which was performed in the Willunga Quarry. It was an all-day thing, around 6 hours, and that is because it told the story of the Bible from Creation to Revelation.
Most of the action was in the actual quarry, the audience were in stands watching, but a few things we did up on the cliffs – the crucifixion for one and also the Temptations of Jesus and this is because in two of the temptations, Jesus was taken by Satan to a height – the roof of the temple and a high mountain overlooking the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus in Ring of Fire had a very thick East End London cockney accent…. Why not?! (that was his actual accent by the way!) And I was Satan all in black with a cape and mask. In those days we didn’t have wireless microphones so someone read the narration of the Temptations down below and we ran up behind the cliff appearing in 3 places, each appearing cued by eerie Satan music, finishing right up the top with me standing right on the edge of the cliff telling Jesus to throw himself off! It was all very dramatic as we are used to with portrayals of the Temptations. In paintings over the centuries and in movies like King of Kings and The Greatest Story ever told, the visual portrayal of Satan in the Temptations is usually a very prominent image, but perhaps that can overshadow a little bit what Jesus was actually going through and praying through out there in the desert….
In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the narrative of Christ's temptations is placed in immediate connection with his baptism, and then with the beginning of his public ministry. Mark says; At once (after his baptism) the Spirit made him go into the desert, 13 where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan.
Fasting traditionally is something that was undertaken before a great spiritual struggle. Elijah and Moses in the Old Testament fasted 40 days and nights, and thus Jesus doing the same is a deliberate comparison to these events. Jesus goes out in to the wilderness, the desert, the place where heroes of the past went to face their greatest spiritual challenges. It was a place of hardship and loneliness, a place of spiritual meetings with God, the place of confrontation with evil, the quiet place of listening, the place to find the path ahead.
The temptations are a description of that process as Jesus prayed - of his thoughts and quiet listening, of other possibilities coming in, his contemplation of scripture, and his working through of who he is and what that means….
Mark’s gospel which we read today, just tells us that Jesus was tempted by Satan but the gospels of Matthew and Luke actually tell us of three temptations where Satan makes suggestions to Jesus and Jesus replies with verses from scripture.
A summary of those temptations would be:
Where do you come from, Jesus? And where are you going?
In the first two temptations, Satan says; ‘IF you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread, IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself off (off the roof of the Temple where he was standing in the vision).
Where are you really from, Jesus? … you must do these things or you couldn’t possibly be the Messiah….
That was the question that Jesus had to work through; if he is the Son of God, the Messiah, then what does that mean? Where are you going, Jesus?
Turning stones into bread… didn’t Jesus, in fact, do a form of that in the feeding of the 5 thousand? The temptation was that the feeding and the healings would become the main focus of his ministry, for people will flock to you if you are a miracle worker….
For Jesus, however, the miracles were a compassionate response to the needs of the people that he encountered every day. The miracles supported his teaching; God’s message of love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy for ALL people…
We see throughout Jesus’ ministry how hard he worked to not attract too much attention as a miracle worker….
// Jesus had to pray through whether his Messiah-ship should be announced, isn’t that what they expected? In fact, there was a belief among some of the Jewish teachers that the Messiah would first appear on the roof of the temple. The temptation for Jesus was to be announced and accepted by the religious establishment.
For the pharisees, the messiah had to be powerful, and a leader in their mould, that is the only way they could recognise or accept the Messiah. Jesus was tempted to choose that path, but where did that leave the people out there in the villages, where did that leave the Samaritans, and the gentiles like the woman from Sidon, and the mad man in the cemetery of the Gentile hills on the other side of the lake? They got to hear and be with Jesus and to be healed by him…. but because Jesus chose to be with them, that meant the religious leaders, the so-called holders of the spiritual truth in Palestine, would not recognise him. He could have been one of them, and been a compassionate, humble Pharisee, some of them were, but he wouldn’t have been able to touch the hearts of the common people the way he did, and to be there for them…. If he was a Pharisee, he wouldn’t have been able to heal on the Sabbath because that is breaking the law as they kept pointing out, or touch the leper as we heard last week because then he would have been unclean. He chose to be with the people, that was his God given anointing, and oppose the legalism of the leaders… it cost him his life… but this showed us the heart of God… and ultimately brought redemption in love for the whole world. We hear the words of this temptation echoed in the words of the religious leaders as Jesus was dying on the cross – if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross, and then we will believe in you….
The third temptation is to assume a political leadership - Jesus finds himself on a mountain top contemplating the kingdoms of the world. It is not surprising that this temptation comes because Jesus would have grown up in close proximity to the Jewish freedom fighters, called zealots, wanting to overthrow the Roman occupation. They hid in the north of the country among the hills of Galilee. Jesus was such a charismatic teacher and leader in Galilee that a number of these zealots became his disciples. They would have hoped that he would lead them to freedom from Roman oppression, take the crown of his own nation and, the temptation goes on to imply, from there initiate the kingdom of God politically on earth… Jesus finally rejects this temptation with the words; “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’
Jesus finally emerges from the wilderness, and he has determined that to live as the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, is to be the loving presence of God, the Heart of God in a broken world. He takes the path of active non-violence, of justice and compassion, and lives his life among those in need and on the edge of society. Ultimately, he gives himself humbly in self-sacrifice and love to destroy death and bring life and redemption for the whole world.
May we, during the 40 days of our Lenten journey, also meet with God, pray and quietly listen… and perhaps as we walk with Jesus, we can ask ourselves those two questions:
Where do I come from? And where am I going?
The blessing prayer from the Ash Wednesday service helps answer this question:
God of life and death,
from the fullness of yourself you have created us and all that is;
through the power of your love, you call us towards you;
in the giving of your Son is the redemption and life of the whole world…
May we go with Jesus on the path he took of love, compassion, justice and self-giving - the ultimate way to life, peace and wholeness for our world….