Doubts and Temptations: a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 17 December 2013: Year C, The First Sunday in Lent

SERMON
Texts: Romans 10:9-13
Luke 4:1-13

Doubts and Temptations
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There’s horse meat in our food where there’s meant to be beef. A very traditionalist Pope defies tradition and resigns. And a meteor falls from the sky and injures hundreds of people. The news recently has been a bit unbelievable. And they say the Bible is full of strange stories?

Last Sunday, the last before Lent begins, we heard the strange story about Jesus turning shiny and meeting long-dead prophets. Today we are faced with the equally strange story of his temptation by the devil. And yet, I’m sure most of us here are able to understand that both these stories are attempts to describe something which we find hard to put into words. Last Sunday I suggested that the Transfiguration story told us something about worship- about those times when we meet God face-to-face, as it were. So it is a story which is about something real. In the same way, today’s reading is about something real. Even if we don’t believe in the devil as a fallen angel with horns and a tail, we do believe in the reality of temptation, and we’ve all experienced doubt. Here, then, is a tale about something very real. Temptation and doubt are very real experiences, just as worship and encountering God are very real experiences. These experiences, although they are real, are hard to put into words. These stories try to put them into words for us.

Like the transfiguration story, the story of Jesus’ temptation is one which seems to have been very important in the early days of the Church, for it appears in three of our four Gospels. And if this tale echoed an experience of Jesus, it has, down through the ages, echoed the experience of individual Christians. And, I want to suggest today, it also echoes the experience of the Church. It indicates ways in which we who try to follow Jesus are beset with temptations and doubts. On this first Sunday of Lent, just before we have a Future Focus workshop about our community, we should ponder what this story has to say to us.

It’s a hungry Jesus who meets the Devil, for he has been fasting, in the desert, for 40 days. I don’t know about you, but sometimes it seems as if the Church in this country has been in the desert for 40 years! Christianity may be growing across the world, but in Western Europe, the Church has had a lean time for quite a while now. We know that the struggles we have within our own congregation are but a mirror of the struggles going on across not just the Church of Scotland, but in other denominations in Scotland, the British Isles, and beyond. That’s why Saturday’s workshop about our community is so important for us, for we although we think the Church is part of the community, the community doesn’t seem very interested in us. But, like Jesus in the desert, we could be tempted by quick fixes.

To a hungry Jesus, the Devil offers bread. You’re God’s son- turn these stones into bread! But Jesus tells the devil, ‘Human beings can’t live by bread alone’. Even although he is hungry, he rejects what would be for him the easy solution. And then he is offered power and wealth, and tempted to put God to the test. Jesus refuses all these temptations.

This week, when food is in the news so much, I’ve been thinking about that first temptation. ‘Turn the stones into bread’- a temptation which would appeal to a hungry Jesus. But we can’t live on bread alone, he tells the Devil. Human beings need more than just bread.

Lent-1-Year-C.jpgOn front of our Sunday Bulletins, I quite often use the illustrations of Mino Cerezo Barredo, an Italian Catholic missionary based in South America, whose work is informed by Liberation Theology, which stresses how the God of the Bible shows a deep concern, even a bias towards, the poor. Today’s illustration, I think, strikingly portrays the choice Jesus made. Hungry though he was, he will not try to grab power or wealth. If anything, the story of his temptation reminds us that Christ’s way, the way of the cross, is absolutely not about trying to grab power or wealth. That’s not an option for the Church, because the Church can only do so at the expense of the Gospel.

Sometimes the Church is good at handing out charity to the poor, but less willing talk about the injustices which cause people to be poor. We hand out bread, but try not to upset those who are denying bread to the poor. That way of thinking was challenged by Dom Hélder Câmara, who as Archbishop of Refice in Brazil took a very definite stand on the side of the urban poor of his diocese, both speaking up for them and setting up practical programmes to try to ease their plight. He famously commented, ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist’.

Today, even in our own country, there are people who need to be given food. Foodbanks are mushrooming as the poorest in our society suffer because of the state of the economy. Here in the Highlands, our Foodbank is run buy Blythswood Care. Their latest newsletter reports that they had to help some 4,000 people last year. And no-one is expecting that the need will become any less as the economic situation hits the poorest in society.

Highland Foodbanks is part of a national network resourced by a charity called the Trussell Trust. A Christian charity, the front page of their website quotes Jesus: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me’ (Matthew 25:35-36). They won the Times newspaper’s Charity of the Year Award for 2012; and Prime Minister David Cameron has praised their work across the UK, claiming them as part of his ‘Big Society‘. So far, David Cameron has not visited a foodbank. Meanwhile, the government has tried to paint the growing number of foodbanks as being their to help people out in emergencies. But the Executive Chairman of the Trussell Trust, Chris Mould, disagrees with that understanding of the matter. He has stated, ‘Foodbanks are not where people go who “feel they need a bit of extra food”. Foodbanks are where people go when they have little or no food left, where you will meet mums who are going without food to stop their children going hungry….’.

In many ways, the Trussell Trust is a non-political organisation; but their chief is not afraid to speak of the reality as he finds it, even if that means treading on party-political toes. There is surely something very wrong when in one of the richest countries in the world, mums are going without to stop their children going hungry. Yes, Christians should help the poor. But we also should stand alongside them, and be unafraid to speak the truth as we see it about what causes injustice.

And isn’t is interesting that in this supposedly secular age, the Charity of the Year is a Christian charity which has grown rapidly to meet a real need, and which depends often on churches like ours to support them? Our community has tried to live as if we can live on bread alone. They’ve said we can ignore the spiritual and live only with the material. But food has become a commodity. Between the farm and the plate is a whole complicated structure of middlemen: traders, food processors, supermarkets. Too often, the farmers themselves struggle to make a living, as the fair trade movement reminds us (again, something which developed within the Churches to begin with). And the food does not get distributed properly: we waste a lot of food in this part of the world, whilst many go hungry (and not just in other countries). And now we discover that even those of us who do get fed might not be eating what we though we were eating. The ridiculously complicated food supply chain is now feeding us with horse meat never meant for human consumption.

Each Sunday we pray in Church, ‘give us this day our daily bread’. But what would it mean for us as a Church to be truly grateful for our daily food? I think we should continue to support the foodbank in order to help our neediest citizens. But just giving bread is not enough. We should speak up for those who do not get their daily bread, here or around the world. We should explore more deeply what it is to be a Fairtrade church- not just buying Fairtrade coffee and biscuits for the Church, but exploring together how we could all shop better, and make sure the producers get a fair price. We can educate ourselves about what the poorest in our community are now facing, about this crisis that means mothers go without for the sake of their children, and find ways of helping- but also ways of protesting.

I hope and pray that whatever we decide during our Future Focus in the coming weeks and months, we do not yield to the temptation to forget that at the heart of the Gospel is God’s concern for the poor, for the powerless, for the voiceless and least in our society. The Church is not faithful to the Gospel when it seeks power for itself, or wealth, or offers just bread when what is needed is much more. Christ spurned wealth and power, and instead took the path to the cross. When we think about how we as a Church are to interact with our community, the cross reminds us that we are not to seek power, but to seek to serve.

Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo