Tempted as we are... - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Tempted as we are...

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

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26 And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and possessest it, and dwellest therein;

That thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which thou shalt bring of thy land that the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt put it in a basket, and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his name there.

And thou shalt go unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him, I profess this day unto the Lord thy God, that I am come unto the country which the Lord sware unto our fathers for to give us.

And the priest shall take the basket out of thine hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord thy God.

And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous:

And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage:

And when we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression:

And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders:

And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey.

10 And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the Lord thy God, and worship before the Lord thy God:

11 And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thine house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you.

Tempted as we are...
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As a child I can remember feeling that life was terribly unfair in having landed me with a birthday that fell a mere three weeks after Christmas.  The glorious high of having all that excitement packed into three short weeks, was soon offset by the arid desert of the subsequent 49 weeks of agonizing wait before the next round.  

However, having a birthday so close to Christmas did mean that I realized very early on just how important it was that I got my act together and wrote my Christmas thank you letters good and early - if, that is, I was to have any chance of scooping additional swag from those same relatives and family friends for my birthday in mid-January.

By comparison, the task of writing thank you letters after my birthday was always the most appalling chore, since it lacked that same sense of urgency; and somehow the very real gratitude that I felt for the wonderful presents I had been given for my birthday, seemed to wear off much more quickly.  I am ashamed to admit that genuine gratitude swiftly and insidiously turned into a grievous chore.

Most of us, I'm sure, would like to think that we act graciously and gratefully when we are in receipt of gifts or acts of kindness from other people, and most of us understand how important it is that we do so.  But it can be surprisingly hard to retain a sense of thankfulness for the good things we enjoy which are so much part of the fabric of our daily lives that we are barely conscious that they are gifts - in fact we are barely conscious of them at all: our material well-being perhaps; the relationships that sustain us; for some of us, our physical health and well-being.  One of the most insidious temptations to which human beings can fall prey is the very simple one of becoming so complacent about the good things in life that we have at our disposal,that we take them utterly for granted.  We cease even to notice that they are there.

In our first reading this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy, God is about to do something spectacular for the Israelite: to entrust to them a rich and fertile land as their possession.  But in return, something is asked of them, too: namely that in future years they remember their story, and where they have come from; they are to remember that they were liberated from cruel slavery in Egypt by God, who heard their cry and delivered them.  And, as a sign of that remembering, they are henceforth to offer the first fruits of the harvest to God - not only in recognition of God's goodness to them, but also as a reminder to them what they have is not theirs by right; nor is it theirs because they have earned it.  It is theirs purely and simply because of God's grace and generosity to them.  The point of the giving of the first fruits is not that God needs to receive them, but rather that the Israelites need to learn the discipline of surrendering them, lest they forget, and become complacent, and begin to act as if those good things were theirs by right.

Complacency about the good things we have around us is a particularly insidious form of temptation, because we can succumb to it without realizing it.  However, there are, of course, other forms of temptation which are equally seductive, which are powerfully illustrated for us in this morning's Gospel reading. 

Immediately after his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, but before the start of his public ministry, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, for forty days and forty nights.  At first sight, this seems like a rather curious blip in the narrative.  In fact it is absolutely pivotal to everything that follows.

The Judaean desert is a place of extremes - a savage and uncompromising place, which is very revealing of the truths of the human soul.  And it is there that Jesus, hungry and vulnerable, is exposed, in a very acute and inescapable way, to the Temptations to which he would be subject during his forthcoming ministry. 

The first of these temptations is to use the power that has been entrusted to him to meet his own personal needs: to turn stones into bread.  (This is said to a starving man, remember.)  The second is the temptation to acquire worldly power and glory, by turning his allegiance to the devil rather than to Almighty God.  And the third, and possibly the most interesting and revealing of all, is paradoxically, the temptation to abuse his faith in God by stretching it to the very limit, in order to prove a point: to test God's allegiance to him by demanding proof of it: by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, to demonstrate how God would save him.

There is an old and rather hackneyed saying that 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely'.  But, of course, the reason why it has become so hackneyed is precisely because people recognize the truth of it.  How often have those in possession of great gifts, or great popularity, or great authority, or indeed great personality, succumbed to the temptation to misuse their position - and this is, of course, every bit as true of religious leaders as it is of secular tyrants.

For Jesus, who, during his ministry, was to become an object of adulation and awe and wonder for his extraordinary wisdom; for his powerful words; and for his mighty acts of power - for Jesus, this battle with himself has to take place before his ministry has even begun.  We read everything that follows in the light of this one passage, in which the most insidious and seductive of all temptations are rolled out before Jesus when he is at his most vulnerable - and we see that even then, his overriding allegiance to God remains the more powerful even than those.  We no longer need to doubt him, or what he is about.  Now we know for certain that he is for real.  Because, as the words of today's collect put it: 'He was tempted as we are, yet without sin.'

I wonder what the temptations are that beset each one of us, and stand in the way of our own relationship with God, and our own flourishing as individual members of God's chosen people?  Because they will be different temptations for each one of us.  And, importantly, the reason why God wishes us to learn to withstand temptation, is simply because he wants us to flourish.  And anything in our lives that is corrupt or corrupting will inevitably get in the way of that.

And another part of that same process of learning how to flourish is that we must also strive to become people with hearts that are truly grateful for the good things of God that are ours to enjoy, and to demonstrate that through our own generosity of heart, and our own willingness to use the gifts that we have in the service of others.  And, again, as today's collect reminds us, that certainly requires of us a degree of self-discipline - but it comes with the knowledge that God knows us, and loves us, and is there for us, however great our weaknesses and our failings.

And thanks be to God for that.  Amen

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