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First Sunday in Lent

(c) R. Westwood

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11           Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16     Romans 10: 8b-13       Luke 4: 1-13    

Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits Thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly, day by day.  Richard, Bishop of Chichester (1197-1253)

Well, the pandemic part of covid-19 seems to have passed, we are all triple-jabbed and looking forward to brighter days ahead: longer daylight hours, changing the clocks, looking for snowdrops, celandines and daffodils- brings joy.  Yet this year we start Lent with hearts less than joyful as we watch the madness unfolding in Ukraine.  

The reading from Deuteronomy, describes the last approaches of the Israelites when they are nearing the Promised Land.  The people are instructed to bring a harvest of first-fruits in thanksgiving for their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  It was to be an offering all about God’s saving grace towards them, and their response was to channel that grace by offering hospitality to aliens in the land.  Because, when the people cried to the Lord in their distress concerning the affliction and hardship, the Lord responded and redeems his people.  Lenten devotions this year perhaps should be shaped by these two thoughts: a cry to the Lord concerning the challenges in our world, followed by thanksgivings for the gift of grace on our journey through life (see Hebrews 13:15)

Our second reading helps us to explore how we might respond to affliction and crises, by looking at the three temptations faced by Jesus.  I guess the first thing to say is that Jesus was well-prepared by a sustaining prayer-life that we see evidenced throughout his ministry.  And here especially, immediately after anointing with the Holy Spirit.

Conjuring food. (Luke 4:3-4)

This is a wicked temptation because there are few things more wonderful than the smell of fresh bread -especially when you are hungry.  And Jesus must have been very hungry indeed as he neared the end of a long period of fasting.  Perhaps he saw just how much the large, flat Palestinian stones resembled bread. It would have also been a real crowd-pleaser. Would it have been so wrong to make bread to feeding hungry people?  And in any case who would see this sign or miracle out in the desert?

But bread does more than that: Bread reminds us that everyone rightly deserves food, shelter and to have basic human rights.  After Moses led the people of God in the wilderness and provided supernatural bread, it was necessary to remind them that this experience was to humble them and test them in their loyalty to God.  The Manna was given in order to remind them that there is more to life than satisfying physical needs – as those who collected more than they needed quickly discovered, because it simply did not keep.  Along the journey the Israelites couldn’t resist the lure of building and worshipping the Golden Calf, and many still see a quick fix in things that look luxurious.

This is a perpetual human problem: it seems as a species we are acquisitive and chase after wealth and possessions.  I’ve never won a million pounds or even a smaller amount on the lottery, mostly because I have never played. But for many winners of large sums of money, the dream quickly turns to dust and ashes because they are unable to take a prudent approach to new-found wealth.  Life needs more than a pie-in-the-sky dream, it requires a vision, a purpose, a goal.  Jesus reminds us that there is more to life than possessions: he says, I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.

The world is not enough? Luke 4:5-8.

The second temptation comes as satan shows Jesus the entire, known world. What a vision!  The entire known world, effectively and powerfully led from the emperor, through a chain of command, offered to Jesus on a plate.  Despotic leaders assume that they have people in their grasp – if only the intended target would just give in.  Satan made this mistake in this temptation, forgetting that he could not offer to Christ that which rightly belonged to God.  

It may seem as though the world is in Satan’s grasp, and for some it is very alluring; but it is always a rule of imposition.  By contrast, Jesus Christ wants to win people through the sheer magnetism of love, the love that would ultimately offer the supreme sacrifice on the cross.  There could be no compromise, no idea of forcing people to follow his way.  No room in the divine community other than the mutuality of love.  We are invited to respond simply to God’s overwhelming love: It is to this mutuality of love that the follower of Jesus is drawn, and it is for this mutuality of love that surely elicits thanksgiving, during Lent, and during the crises which arise in life.

More than Superman? Luke 4: 9-12

People sometimes say they cannot believe in a divine being, because this God doesn’t perform the kinds of miracles that save small babies, or protect large populations from imminent danger.  I often think they have confused the LORD with the superman – type heroes beloved of the comic books and silver screen.  I can’t remember where I read this, but I like this statement very much: “You must not make senseless experiments with the power of God.”  God will be God, and the divine purposes are sometimes far beyond our understanding.  If Jesus had performed this miracle, then the focus would not be on God and the divine purposes, but on a magic trick and what might next be produced (such as ridding the land of the Romans or Russians, or preventing earthquakes or train crashes etc.)   Sensationalism does not last.  Every newspaper editor knows that: today’s news is tomorrow’s fish & chip wrapper.

Instead, Jesus chose the way of the cross, a way of service and of suffering.  In doing so, we begin to catch sight of the Christ and see him in his true light.

This isn’t about easy options, but learning to face the world with a real purpose for living.  Walking through valleys as dark as the shadow of death, means that we fear no evil, for the Lord God walks with us.  And when we feel once more that the cup of blessing is overflowing, thank God and offer support and help to someone whose burdens are greater than your own.

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