Readings: Deut 26:1-11; Ps 91; Rom 10 8b-13; Luke 4 1-13
Hymns: Christ whose glory; My spirit longs for thee; Forty days and forty nights; There’s a spirit in the air
Lent is a time for honest reflection on faith and life. That includes reflecting on our individual intentional choices to sin, not so that we drown in guilt, but grow in faith and understanding. This season is often seen as a finger-wagging example of Paradise Lost, rather than a time to reflect on faith and its consequences for our life. Milton, that 17th century English Poet and Puritan, didn’t just write Paradise Lost but also Paradise Regained, on the Temptations of Christ. Much of it is not great poetry, but he takes the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation and ends on a positive life-enhancing note. Adam’s expulsion from Paradise was recovered, insists Milton at the outset, ‘by one man’s firm obedience fully tried through all temptation and the tempter foiled in all his wiles, defeated and repulsed and Eden raised in the waste wilderness.’ Put simply, Jesus, by resisting the Devil, made it possible for humans to regain Paradise, living and dying at one with God, in an Eden raised in wilderness or in Heidelberg. Jesus’ stand against chaos was a stand for life, all lives, under God.
Luke’s Satan acts totally like a Satan, but Milton’s first Devil is an ‘aged old man in rural weeds’ –tattered clothing- who seems to be vaguely gathering wood. His second is equally undevil-like, ‘not rustic but seemly clad, as one in city or court palace bred.’ The third Devil is the beguiling cajoling voice of pride and gorgeous greed which we all have in our minds from time to wretched time. Milton ends his 2000 line poem in triumph: ‘A fairer paradise is founded now…and Jesus, unobserved, home to his mother’s house private returned.’
Lovely: Jesus is baptised and named God’s child, named his first two followers, Andrew and Simon, goes to the desert, where Milton has Andrew and Simon plus his mother searching for him over forty feisty days, and finally announced his ministry at Cana. But first, home to mama!
Why does Luke, unlike Matthew or Mark, sandwich the temptations between calling of the first two disciples and the start of Jesus’ ministry? Because thinking, enduring, repenting, forgiving and being forgiven, reconciling memory and hope, is part of knowing the self and therefore of living in the present for the future. Jesus needed to be prepared for ministry through risk and challenge, not floppy soppy words. But to go forward he, and we, need to know just what now is, what knowledge of the Father is and, as Paul says, to confess that with the lips, and we need to reflect what having Christ in us, what Christ being in all we meet, means.
Let’s look further at temptation and the intentional choice to sin. Apart from advice to pray and be patient, when an abused Christian woman talks to a pastor or priest, the commonest question whether in Germany, Pakistan or Tonga, appears to be: ‘What did you do to make him hit you?’ At one level, ‘what were you doing to make him hit you’ can be seen as an enquiry concerning the circumstances of the event – although there are other ways of asking that. At another level, however, the one which concerns us, we discern the skilled shifting of responsibility away from the attacker to the victim. Likewise blame may be attributed to the seller of alcohol which led a drunk driver to crash – as if the driver was force-fed with drink before she drove off. I heard a more outrageous example of this last week, when a pastor laid the entire blame for those watching internet pornography at the door of Google et al., rather than putting responsibility on those – including himself – who choose to watch such poison.
The issue is the responsibility for sin. The decision of the abuser to hit was a free choice, the alternative being keeping fists and feet still. If damage was caused when one person tripped over a child’s toy and fell on the other, knocking him or her against a table, there was no choice, and thus no sin. When a married woman chooses to commit adultery with a man other than her husband, she chose to sin. Were that same woman to be raped, no sin attaches to her, as she had no choice. Wriggle around that as we do, if we have a real choice, and choose the way of sin, of separation from god, that is our choice, for which we are responsible. Others may share in that sin, but that does not remove our responsibility for our choice.
Thus Lent is a time to focus on the meaning for our life of this creating, redeeming, comforting God, and that includes reflecting on the excuses, the pass-the blame game which all play. Renouncing itemised pleasures in Lent can be a useful reminder. But if any renunciation ceases to symbolise inner struggle for understanding but becomes an end in itself, then Lent becomes a dumbing down of rules-righteousness, in which the symbol becomes the self-idolising prize of Law, not the pointer to the good news of God which is Love. If Lent abstention becomes only gold stars for rules kept, Romans 10 is set aside and so is Lent.
We may use Lenten rules as symbols for thinking beyond, struggling to understand a fragment of the clouds of unknowing and integrating that fragment into the way we live our lives, accepting that when we sin, it was by our choice, and we carry the responsibility. But to balance what is often a focus on the self during Lent we have the admonitions in both Deuteronomy and Romans to relate to all who follow Christ, whatever their origin and situation, for ‘the same Lord is Lord of all and generous to all who call on him,’ and ‘you shall celebrate God’s bounty with the aliens who reside among you.’ What better guide is there for an inconspicuous life-enhancing Lent that of ‘Jesus, unobserved, home to his mother’s house private returned.’ Especially if we, as he, go forth from there, hands and heart strengthened for service, out into the world.