5th March 2017
Revd Cheryl Collins
I don’t know about you, but when I hear stories of great athletic feats, or of someone achieving something against all the odds I think to myself, ‘I’m not sure I could have done that.’ You’ll remember that one of the promises of an Olympic legacy was the encouragement it would give all of us to get more active and to discover that we could do more than we thought we could.
In my own little way I discover that, as I get fitter and march past the milestones, which a few months ago I labelled as ‘the very long walk.’ But I’m not expecting to end up as an Olympic athlete, however hard I train. Elite athletes have a focus and determination about their sport that I don’t even think I want to have.
Jesus sometimes sounds like an Olympic athlete of the spirit. People we label as saints can seem like the rest of his elite team, while the rest of us watch from the sidelines. Not only this, but I can’t help thinking that Jesus has a bit of unfair advantage, what with being the second person of the Trinity!
How can we possibly do what the Son of God did? And yet if we can never hope to, what exactly is the meaning of salvation, what have we been liberated from, how can we become what he is even if he has become what we are? If we can’t even begin to find an answer for such questions then what difference does Christianity make in our daily lives?
Matthew wants to help his readers understand who Jesus is, and what Jesus brings them, by bringing out the parallels between the temptation story and another desert story- the wilderness sojourn that follows the Exodus from Egypt. The Freeing of the Hebrew slaves from their Egyptian bondage is indeed a liberation; but they remain shackled in heart and mind which is why they find themselves stuck in the wilderness for forty years, which is Hebrew for a very long time indeed.
The wilderness is a place of testing, and the Hebrew slaves fail every test that they meet there- they complain about the lack of food and can’t even gather the Manna God sends according to instructions, then they complained about the lack of water and finally they built a golden calf to worship, rejecting God. The point of these tests is that they required the people of Israel to wholeheartedly put their faith in God, and be prepared to rely on God for all their needs, even when it wasn’t immediately obvious how they would be met. And they couldn’t do it.
Jesus by direct contrast consistently shows himself to be a true child of Israel, faithful to the covenant with God, trusting that God will indeed keep faith with him.
Matthew shows us that the temptation is part of God’s plan for Jesus, for it is the Spirit who leads him there.
And Jesus does not disappoint, every time the tempter invites him to act on his own, to prove who he is, to put God to the test, he refuses. He quotes scripture from the very passages in Deuteronomy that deal with Israel’s failure, and he proves his commitment to trusting God completely and living from God’s Word.
This testing happens directly after Jesus’ baptism, his own personal red sea if you like, and for Matthew it points the way to the baptism of other Christians, a sign of their link to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and their commissioning of follow him on the path of servant-hood. This picture of Jesus is a model of obedience for the newly baptised. It shows them that Jesus is true to his vocation and can be trusted to help them be faithful in their own lives.
For a further theological unpacking of this let’s turn to our passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. First of all, it’s important to grasp that for Paul the idea of living under one power or another was taken for granted. This might seem irrelevant to us, after all we are much freer than the average first century person aren’t we? Or are we? Granted we don’t live in occupied territory like the first Christians but generally we are much less free than we like to pretend- our lives are under surveillance both as citizens and consumers, and our choices are mapped out ahead of us, pushing us gently in one direction or another.
Paul presents us with two parallel powers or dominions which he handily labels with the names of Adam and Christ. The dominion of Adam is that of sin and death. His very name means dust and in his capacity as everyman he reminds us of the universal human condition- dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return. It was a commonplace of Jewish thought of the period that death was a result of sin- not an accumulation of individual acts, so much as a distorted structure in which we make our moral choices, ensuring that our very moral consciousness partakes of this distortion.
The social order is self-centred rather than God-centred- it fosters the illusion that we are in charge, we are able to make it on our own, that we don’t need God, or that at the very least we can demand that God prove God’s worth to us before we will take an interest.
On the contrary within the dominion of Christ it is God who is at the centre. And Paul tells us that Jesus makes possible a new way of being human that enables us to break through our old patterns of behaviour and partake of the righteousness that Christ has brought and bought us.
The key to grasping this, is to understand that righteousness is not so much about acts as relationships. If the relationship is wrong, then what flows from it will always be wrong.
So, it was not that the law, which gives us guidance about right and wrong acts was bad in itself. The law was designed to give us clues about how to live in a covenant relationship with God, and caught up as we are in the dominion of death, we became fixated on the rules and ignored the underlying relationship.
What Jesus gives us is an example of what the right relationship will look like, both in relationship to God and in the way that works out in our relationships with those around us. So, Jesus offers us a new possibility for turning our lives round, of wrestling with temptation.
The answer is not to try harder- to rely on ourselves and our own efforts to confront temptation. The answer is to turn to God, to acknowledge that we are frail human beings who need to place their trust and reliance in God, who need to be in relationship with God to have any chance of the righteousness that Paul speaks of.
So, this Lent there is really not much point in giving up chocolate, wine, TV or whatever your weakness is if you are going to spend the next 40 days trying to battle under your own steam. Lent is about turning to God, about acknowledging, refreshing and perhaps even repairing that right relationship which we find it so easy to ignore or forget. God is longing for us to turn again to our loving father, to give up anxiety and to let our weakness be transformed in his strength.