Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 14th February 2016
Romans 10:8-13, Luke 4:1-13

On my kitchen side there is a bottle of Waitrose own label Italian red wine ‘from Puglia’ half empty, and in the fridge there is a similarly half empty bottle of Denbies’ Surrey Gold. They are speaking to me every time I see them! Or rather, perhaps, they speak to me when the sun has gone over the yard-arm. (The yard-arm is a concept on which you may need expert naval advice from Godfrey!)

You see, I have decided to try to give up booze for Lent. The little voice speaking to me about my half-empty wine bottles is, you might say, the Devil. The Devil, tempting me.

As we embark on Lent, on the forty days before Easter, which reflect the forty days that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, I want to review what it is that we are doing, and to try to answer the question, why? Why do we give things up in Lent? And in order to answer that, we need to know why Jesus was in the wilderness and what he was doing.

The first thing to say is that it seems impossible that Jesus actually spent 40 days without food or drink in the Sinai desert. If you are going to visit the fortress at Masada in the middle of the desert, the trip from Jerusalem has to start before daybreak so that you arrive before the sun has fully risen. After about 11am it’s so hot that it is not safe to be outside. If we are to believe the account in St Luke’s gospel (which is the same or similar to the account in St Matthew and St Mark), Jesus roamed about there, accompanied by the Devil, without any food or drink, for forty days.

It’s not just the logistics of living in a desert that make us realise that this is not a literal piece of history. Jesus was accompanied by the Devil, διαβολος, in Greek the ‘chucker’, the cosmic egg-thrower. But it’s clear enough what Jesus was going through, even if you don’t believe in a grinning but hornèd being. He personifies the temptations which Jesus faced.

Jesus has just been baptised by John in the river Jordan. The voice of God has appeared and has said, ‘This is my son, the beloved’. The Devil evidently didn’t hear this, as two of his temptations start, ‘If you are the son of God …’ If. But Jesus was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’. Jesus knows who he is. He doesn’t need to prove it. Indeed, he bats away the tempter with quotations from the Book of Deuteronomy – ‘It is written, ..’ and so on. He quotes back the Jewish Law, the Law of Moses, God’s commandments. But note that in each case what he quotes refers to God, not to himself: ‘Worship the Lord your God … Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Does it – does it just refer to God? Doesn’t it refer to Jesus? Jesus is God, is what He is saying. The person you are tempting is God Himself.

We can contrast this with what St Paul says in his letter to the Romans. In chapter 10 he contrasts the way that some Jews are not able to come close to God – to be ‘saved’, or ‘justified’ – because they see it all as a question of following the letter of the Jewish law rather than a matter of faith. But ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’. The distinction is between someone who is God, Jesus, and people who want to be aligned with God, to be on the Lord’s side, as the hymn puts it.

St Paul’s point is that for us mortals, getting closer to God, not being estranged from Him (which is what sin is), is a question not of following the law slavishly, but perhaps remaining unconvinced in one’s heart, but rather of having proper faith, faith both in your heart and in what you say. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew or one of the heathen.

But going back to Jesus in the desert, perhaps the other thing which comes out of his temptations is not so much what Jesus is – he’s clear on that – but how he should handle it. What if He had decided to make bread out of stones? How would that differ from turning water into wine, which he did do?

The Tempter was suggesting things which would potentially benefit Jesus Himself, not other people. But Jesus had come to serve, to be the servant of all. The first should be last, and the last first. So making miraculous bread, or BASE jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple, wasn’t it.

It is perhaps an insight into how God works. It’s no good just bombarding Him with wishes. On the whole, Jesus isn’t a fixer. If what you want doesn’t fit the divine plan, isn’t in line with what God has ordained, it won’t happen. Jesus must have been hungry, even if he had had sustenance of some kind. Being able to magic up some bread must have been a very attractive idea. But Jesus points to a higher level: ‘man shall not live by bread alone’. The King James Bible goes on, ‘but by every word of God’ – but now the textual scholars agree that ‘by every word of God’ was not in the original. It might well have been, as it clearly gives the sense.

And that gives the clue as to why we do things, or give things up, for Lent. Man does not live by bread alone. I went into Waitrose after the Ash Wednesday service, and one of the staff – one of the partners, rather – whom I know because she’s one of the ones who help the Foodbank, came up to me and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind my saying, Hugh, but you’ve got a dirty great mark on your forehead!’ Then a fraction of a second later, she remembered it was Ash Wednesday, and it made us smile. But that again was a clue. I suppose the nearest way to describe it is that we’re acting out the Easter story, and I was wearing my make-up for the play.

St Paul wrote about being ‘crucified with Christ’ in Romans 6, and in Galatians 2:19f – ‘For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me ..’

By doing Lent things, by Lenten observances, like going to Lent groups and not drinking, we are entering into the spirit of the Passion story. Clearly we are not, and neither was Paul, literally ‘crucified with Christ.’ But by following the story, entering into the spirit of it, by altering our behaviour to make it more like we think Jesus was, we are bringing ourselves closer, we’re making ourselves more distinctive as Christians. By being different, we make ourselves able to make a difference to others. And that’s when our prayers are often answered.

Oh, and by the way: as Godfrey has reminded us, Sundays aren’t counted as part of Lent. So if you were worried that those half-full – or half empty – bottles on my kitchen shelf might go off, don’t: don’t worry. I think that the sun will soon be over the yard-arm!