Self-denial and self-fulfilment
This is the first Sunday of Lent. So what? We all grew up realising that at this time of the Christian Year, Roman Catholics gave up sweeties or cakes or visited upon themselves some other minor deprivation. Susan Boyle tells everyone she gives up chocolate for Lent and saves the money and gives it to charity. But she says she loves chocolate and so this is a real self-denial. But Lent is not observed by just Roman Catholics. On Monday the Orthodox Churches' observance of Lent began. It is hoped that this may contribute to the keeping of peace in Ukraine. Anglicans the world over also remember Lent perhaps not with such a rigorous observation. The dynamic evangelical Churches of the world don't observe Lent that much. Neither do we in the Reformed tradition. From its earliest years the Christian Church kept fasts and feasts. It was a way of life and it kept the rhythms of life in a way we do not do today. We have slimming clubs, diets, exercise regimes and pills. Lent was a time to slow down our consumptions and so give ourselves time to think on spiritual matters, deeper things and focus on the life of God and of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. That was when we were a Christian nation. No longer. Anything that we do in this respect as Christians will bring us results. We will get to know God better, have a clearer view of life and its priorities, rediscover our faith, make daily prayer central to living and recommit ourselves to Jesus Christ.
Lent is spiritual training just as athletes and sportsmen and women set themselves apart for weeks and months to concentrate just on getting fit in order to be at their best for competitions. The time spent beginning last Wednesday and ending on Palm Sunday is exactly 40 days. That goes back to Jesus' time of fasting in the desert in preparation for His ministry. It is known as The Temptation. For Jesus, this first Lent
was a time of spiritual struggle; it was not an easy time of quiet retreat. Jesus didn't spend the weeks contemplating the beauties of the universe and communing with God. This time was spent by Jesus clarifying the purpose of His life and the nature of His ministry. This was when Jesus found out what He could and what He could not do, what He must do and what He must not do.
Whatever it was that Jesus experienced, we know only and directly from Him. No-one else was there. He hadn't met Andrew, Peter and John yet. But He must have told them all about it later, perhaps over an evening meal, perhaps as He was teaching them in a quiet mountain place of prayer. Jesus, we heard, was led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness. Between Judea and the Dead Sea was this desert area, 35 miles long by 15 miles wide. Like from Edinburgh to Glasgow and from Airdrie to Lanark. It was called 'Jeshimmon' which means 'The Devastation'. The hills were like dust heaps, the limestone looked blistered and peeling, the rocks were bare and jagged, the ground sounded hollow to horses' hooves and during the day the area glowed with fierce and fiery heat; precipices 1200 feet high dropped down to the Dead Sea. Alone and without food, Jesus' mind was elevated and sensitised to suggestion and imagination. Did he ask Himself the questions we sometime ask, What have I to do with my life? How have I to serve you Father? What do you want me to do? How will I manage it? What will become of me? Maybe there were more specific thoughts, How will I bring in the New Israel? How will I find followers? Will people obey me? Enough? Many? How long will I survive? How have I to use this transcendent power of God within me for the best?
Jesus was not actually alone during His time in the desert. We are told that the devil was present throughout and that at the end of the 40 days when Jesus was at His physically weakest, the devil addressed Him personally with three specific questions. Now here we have a problem in this day and age. Do you believe in the devil? As an active hostile personal influence in your life and in the world? Do you? Since the existence of psychology from the mid 20th century, we are taught that what is described as the devil is actually Jesus' own thought processes. You may remember Oor Wullie (not Gilfillan) sitting on his bucket wondering what to do. On one shoulder is an angel – Wullie's better self and on the other is a little devil – Wullie's worse self. We all know the struggle with and against our inclinations, intentions, imaginations, wishes, desires and wants. Today's psychologists would say that the devil was Jesus' auto suggestion – none the less real and powerful, just within his mind and not out there separate from Him. The Christian Church has always believed in the devil. I understand that the Anglican Church is erasing reference to the devil in their new baptismal service. In the Church of Scotland, we don't talk of the devil much but evangelical fellowships certainly do. Pentecostal Churches carry out exorcisms of the devil from people suffering from maladies and misfortunes.
But where does evil come from? Where do evil suggestions come from? Where does the imagination for evil begin? We learn today of unspeakable things happening to people that we could never have imagined happening. The internet certainly trades in depravity but even that depravity begins somewhere, in someone's mind – or – it is suggested to that person who initiates the process and others become involved. Where did Hitler's ideas come from? What about the atrocities of Syrian soldiers and police? What about this latest serial killer in Britain, Joanne Dennehy, who liked killing men in the most brutal way? Does evil begin in human minds or does it visit from outside human minds?
Jesus believed that the devil was a real spiritual personage, influence, power. His life was a battle against evil and Calvary was His apparent defeat. Jesus' resurrection was and is His victory still. There is a coincidence of evil that affects many human beings. It is as if like a game of chess pieces are moved about to trap and encompass us, compromise and harm us. The Gospel message is that in Jesus Christ we have protection and release and freedom and victory over the evil we encounter in this life, in this world.
The first temptation of Jesus was to turn the stones of the desert into bread, thereby prematurely ending the time of fasting and prayer. The desert was covered by small lumps of limestone which actually looked like loaves of bread. No doubt Jesus in his hunger looked at them and imagined them as loaves. 'I wonder if I could make one of these a loaf', He might have heard Himself saying to Himself. Then, He countered this suggestion by referring to Scripture. 'We do not live on bread alone'. This is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy 8:3. 'Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord'. Jesus was not to take providence into his own hands. He was to rely on God His Father to provide for Him. This was a test of obedience which if Jesus had failed would have jeopardised his whole life and ministry and purpose. This was a temptation to put the needs of the body before the needs of the soul, to put human appetite before God. It was to put the material necessity before the spiritual necessity. This was to confuse and disrupt Jesus' preparation for His work of salvation.
The second temptation involved Jesus imagining Himself as a world ruler – like the Roman Emperor. But to rule the world, Jesus would need to use the world's methods of rule, self worship and violence and power. Here is an interesting idea though. The devil claims to have authority in this world; the devil claims to be in charge of this world able to do anything – make Jesus a world ruler if Jesus fancies it. Jesus Himself did teach that the world was in thraldom and needed redeemed, liberated and saved. And He said that that was exactly what He was doing. It is an incontestable fact that after 2000 years the job of saving the world is not complete. But – whenever and wherever a person young or old becomes a Christian and follows and serves Jesus, there the thraldom of the devil is overthrown. Multiply that by two billion plus of humanity and you see that Jesus' words were true. He is the Saviour of the world. Jesus countered this suggestion by quoting Scripture. Straightforwardly – 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only'.
The third temptation is also fascinating. Jesus imagines Himself standing on top of the pinnacle on the Temple of Jerusalem where Solomon's Porch and the Royal Porch met. It was a sheer drop of 450 feet to the Kedron Valley below. Again, it is interesting to play with psychology. One of the effects of not eating for a prolonged spell is that the mind expands. It is on a high. That's why people take drugs – to get a high – to take a trip mentally – but drugs are harmful and dangerous. Fasting though has the capacity to elevate the mind and imagination plays is part. Schizophrenia involves false imaginings; some of these are associated with invincibility. I can thrown myself down from a tower and not get hurt. This was the kind of pressure Jesus was under. Would he have survived such a fall? However, this was also a temptation to be a kind of wonder worker to gain attention, publicity and a following like these magicians we have who put chains around themselves and are lowered into tanks of water in order to escape and gain applause and money. Jesus was not to be that kind of character at all. His mission was much more important than that. This was a cheap trick by the devil to belittle Jesus and to try to turn Him into a circus act. Here the devil actually quotes the Scripture back to Jesus. 'Haw Jesus Psalm 91:12 says you'll no hurt yoursel'. Jesus replies with a strong text, Deuteronomy 6 : 16. 'Do not test the Lord your God'.
The passage of Scripture ends on a sombre note. When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him 'until an opportune time'. That came about in the Garden of Gethsemane. Undoubtedly anyone who is called to serve and follow Jesus will be tempted with alternatives, excuses and seemingly more attractive options. Christ's Church is being tempted and tested every day in this culture and age. Who is going to be faithful? Christian life is not without struggle. But – Jesus was victorious and we share in His victory. As we allow Him to live in us, we can be victorious also.