SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
10th February 2008
Gen. 2.15-17, 3.1-7
Gen. 2.15-17, 3.1-7
We do violence to Matthew’s intentions if we dwell too much on the actualities of this poetic tale. We need only ask where the Satan of the tale would find a high enough mountain to see ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour’ to know that we are being invited here to a poetic rendition of the temptations faced by Jesus, and, to a lesser degree, by every human being. All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, said Lord Acton, a little over a century ago. The New Testament writers knew that too: so they tell us a story of the one who remained and remains uncorrupted. Few of us will ever know much power in our lives, but tragic stories of abuse within the church and other communities remind us that Lord Acton’s and Paul’s and Matthew’s and the author of Genesis’ insights into human corruptibility are timeless. Given the chance, we just might do the wrong thing, exploit others, advance our own ends at the cost of the needs of those around us.
In fact we probably need to pause for a moment on the whole question of Satan. The Hebrew scriptures mention Satan, at least by that name in only fourteen times, spread across three books, 1 Chronicles, Job, and Zechariah, but mainly in Job. In each case he does not resemble the underworld figure who becomes known to us in the Christian scriptures and subsequent writings, the opponent of God, seeking to capture the unsuspecting and unprepared, to lure them from salvation to the depths of Hell. We need to be careful in Christian preaching: so much of what is said in churches seems to suggest that God is trapped in an even struggle with an equal being, a struggle we hope God will win, but still …
The temptation story, whether it be of the supremest being, or of you or me, is a story of proportions. I am unlikely to take seriously a temptation to possess the nations of the world, but I could presumably be tempted to turn faith into entertainment, to cheat on Anne and on my family by betraying my marriage vows, to slip out of a shop without paying: these are the temptations of the smaller players. Should I tell the tax man everything? Should I hand that purse into the police station? Should I run the gauntlet of breathalyzers after one drink too many? These are the smaller temptations experienced in my smaller life, yet I no more nor less than the president of the USA, need the help of God to stay on the right side of the equation. We remember also the temptations of scientists to, for example, play God: it is heartening to know that those scientists who have been championing the creation of embryos in the name of medical research and especially cell regeneration are finding that their method is being squeezed out of the medical equation by rising costs and by the better medical performance of less morally tenuous options.
I normally keep whanau out of the tellings of my faith, but perhaps I can tell one story? I was fifteen at the time, and my mother and I were staying in a motor camp in Aramoho, on the Whanganui river banks. One night, in her hurry to get me back to boarding school, she backed into the electric power supply pole for the caravan parks, knocking it out of the ground. For a moment or two she wrestled with her conscience. No one had seen her, after all. But conscience, that delicate flower within us that we can all too easily extinguish, won the day. She fronted up to the manager and told him her sorry tale. ‘Good God!’ he said. He repaired posts knocked over by campers on a weekly basis, but not once in his career had someone bothered to come and tell him they had knocked one down. I was very proud of her that day – even if I didn’t at that stage believe in the peculiar God she believed in!
For most of us the temptations of Jesus are not about empires, but about power supply poles in caravan parks. Nevertheless, it is only by the stirrings of God that we are able to whisper ‘get thee behind me Satan’, and so live lives of which we can be proud all the time.