Tag Archives: temptation

What do you (really) want?

What do you want – really, really want? I can guess some answers:

  • sun, even a holiday in it
  • Money – a lottery / Premium bond prize
  • a Ferrari, / gadget / status symbol

But I seem to remember a few stories which centre around 3 wishes. All too often the first two are disasters, and the third has to be used to put things right. Reality breaks in, even to fairy tales!  There are lots of things we want, without the consequences. Human nature always has eyes bigger than its stomach, and a desire that forgets the dangers of selfishness.

Today’s gospel (Mark 8:31-38) is very revealing about what Jesus really wants. We have just passed the high points: first, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah (the promised great King), then Jesus was Transfigured.  And Jesus takes that cue to tell them about his coming suffering. Peter had probably been dreaming of success – perhaps Prime Minister in Jesus government of Religious Restoration, a comfortable and honoured position. And Jesus says, “Get away from me, Satan, Your thoughts don’t come from God but from human nature!”

Jesus didn’t want to suffer; he wanted all the usual things – home, family, to be loved, accepted and respected. He was fully human, tempted as we are. But what did he want most? He knew that what he wanted above everything was to do what only he could do, and bring humanity back to God. He wanted to finish his ministry successfully.

He wanted the disciples to understand. Here, in chapter 8, twice in 9, and again in 10, he tries to make them face up to reality. But they can’t; only later do they remember, and understand.

“Have a cross”. “Expect a hard time as a Christian”. “Only those ready to die should apply”. As advertising slogans, these lack something important.  Or do they?  Jesus wanted all the usual things, but when it came down to it, he really wanted to serve God, no matter what. And he did. The disciples couldn’t get their heads around it, and went on arguing about who was most important, and other “key issues”. But when they saw how it played out in Jesus life and death, they knew what they really wanted, and they offered their service and their lives.

So what about us? What do you really want? Will you settle for Sunday lunch, a bit of TV or social media time, and life as usual? – or have you caught a glimpse of something worth so much, a vision of what God might do, that is enough to put you to service, no matter what?

Yes, the stakes are high, and the warnings on the tin of Christian life are scary and blunt. But can all the Christians be mad – or is it all the others?

Authority – and conflict

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do, and when Jesus goes to Capernaum synagogue, it causes quite a stir. (Mark 1:21-28)
First, there’s his style. He doesn’t talk like the rabbis of the time, quoting other scholars’ comments in a learned way, claiming the authority of their study and their official position. He talks about God as if he knows directly, and tells stories of ordinary life to explain God’s love – as a shepherd searching for lost sheep, or a father finding a lost son.

The official reaction might have been to dismiss an ignorant con-man, if it had not been for the second thing. Jesus demonstrates his authority, even over unclean spirits. You can’t ignore someone who successfully heals someone who was probably known in the community. You can see the beginnings of a conflict – Jesus threatens the status quo.

[Incidentally, we sometimes wonder about “evil spirits” and mental illness. The advance of psychiatry is a great blessing, and many of those obsessed with spirits and possession need a good doctor. There is a difference in this story, in that the spirit recognises Jesus, and has knowledge beyond that of the man possessed. Despite the “Hollywood effect”, (sensationalising and sometimes trivialising,) there is a difference, but spotting it needs care and experience, and discernment by someone who is not the patient.]

The healing of the possessed man also points to a more serious conflict – Jesus is taking on, not just the vested interests of the human religious establishment, but also the evil powers enslaving humanity.

Back to talking about God. Moses had spoken to the people about God (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), and they found him less frightening than the fire on the holy mountain. Deuteronomy speaks of another prophet, to speak for God. It is a dangerous position. The words of the prophet must be listened to; but to speak as if God had given the message when he had not is to be liable to death.
Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. !

But of course, there is a good deal about danger in these readings. As we come to the end of Epiphany season, we realise not only that Jesus was shown to the world, and became known, in a number of ways:

  • Baptism,
  • calling disciples,
  • miracles,
  • teaching,
  • authority . .

but also that these things brought him into conflict. Part of the conflict was with people who wanted things to stay as they were – because they did well out of the status quo, or were afraid of what might happen, or couldn’t be bothered. Another, and perhaps better way of understanding that conflict was to see Jesus challenging evil – the darkness of fallen minds and bad customs, the evil of oppressive relationships, cruel poverty – in short, challenging the devil for supremacy on earth.

The violent metaphors for Christian life – battle, struggle, temptation, victory or defeat – are not the most popular now. As we look forward to Lent, we will find that Christian life cannot do without them, though they are not the whole story.

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. Even apart from the need to get it right, it brings us into the most fundamental conflict of all!

Still Learning

Last week’s gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:8) told of Jesus ministry of teaching and healing extended as all 12 of his disciples became apostles – the learners were “sent” to act in Jesus name. I reflected that this was not what we might have expected, but it nevertheless is what is expected of us.  This week the Old Testament lesson (from the “related” sequence) is Jeremiah 20:7-13, and might warn us that prophets and others faithful to God can have a hard time.

Reading Matthew 10:24-39, we learn more of what discipleship means, for the twelve and for us. 10:24 is important: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”.  Matthew quotes that apparently to warn the Christians of his church that they are likely to be abused and persecuted, as Jesus was. But he may also have been aware of the dangers to be faced as disciples got used to being Christians, and no longer found their mission such an adventure.

Historically, Anglicans have relied on Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  Scripture is of vital importance as God’s main way of communicating with us, (our services are full of the Bible in different forms). Tradition helps us to understand and apply it – you may not immediately remember why we don’t publicly stone people to death for certain offences described in the Old Testament, but tradition might help you pause long enough to remember that some parts of the Old are changed by the New Testament. Reason is something we believe God gave us, to be used alongside his other gifts.

But “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”. We remain learners, and need to be aware of some of the ways of getting it wrong!

  • Scripture can be read out of context, or interpreted without setting it alongside the rest of the Bible. “There is no God” -the words are found in scripture, but the full quote of Psalm 14:1 reads “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.””
  • Tradition shows us how Christians lived in the past, but (even assuming they got it right) does not always meet a new situation. When society changes, the same answer may be the wrong answer.
  • Reason is a great help – if we remember that we are always blind to our own weaknesses. I can think of a million excuses and reasons why my favourite sins are OK for me, – and all the excuses are rubbish.

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”. As the twelve disciples went out that first time, there probably wasn’t much temptation to “improve” on Jesus teaching, or healing technique. As time went on, that temptation grew.

  • It grew because of the temptation to think of ourselves as clever, and not dependant on a Master
  • it grew, because we like to avoid facing up to being wrong
  • it grew, because life was easier for Christians if they didn’t admit to their faith in some difficult situations

For us, the temptation to re-write Christian faith in a version that suits us is enormous, and it’s wrong. – to be a disciple is to accept, learn from and follow the teaching of Jesus. I don’t mean that we can just sign up to some fundamentalist interpretation. We still have to do the work: interpreting scripture, reviewing the tradition, thinking hard. It’s just that we know that fallen humanity – everybody in this imperfect and bent world – doesn’t think quite straight. The bend is most visible when we are letting ourselves off the hook!

To be a twenty-first century disciple of Jesus is wonderful, most important – and involves some hard work.

 

Target?

We begin Lent with the story of Jesus temptation.  He has just been baptised by John (Matthew 3:13-17), recognised not only by the Baptist, but by the heavenly voice affirming him as Son.  Then the Holy Spirit leads him away from the crowds to the wilderness, and we read Matthew 4:1-11.  It is as if the heavenly father adds, “But before anything else, there are a few things you need to sort out, Son.”  His forty days of fasting and struggle, the origin of our Lent, remind us both of the cost of Jesus’ ministry and also the strength he brought to this work.

Sometimes we focus on the three particular temptations – things which have so often made leaders corrupt and compromised:

  • there is the temptation to make life comfortable, a compensation for the stress of leadership.
  • there is the temptation to be a celebrity – to use power to make people take notice and obey.
  • there is the temptation to be the person who makes God do miracles.

Some of these affect us, too, and we can usefully be warned off.  But there is another thing here we can miss.  Jesus is struggling.  There is a real fight – but against who?  Many expected a Messiah to fight the Romans, but we don’t hear Jesus attacking Pilate, the Roman governor.  Herod was criticised by John the Baptist, but Jesus will not be his enemy.  He will warn people against the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, religious teachers, but they are not to be fought.  Even Judas receives kindness.

We have to understand that the fight against temptation is a fight against evil, but not a fight against other people.  (Paul says this in another way in Ephesians 6:12). No matter how stupid, how difficult to deal with patiently and in love, the enemy is not another human (for whom Jesus lived, died and rose again!), but the evil at loose in the world.  Evil will appear as pride, anger, self-pity, or in many other disguises eg as if concerned about the rights of others.  The grace is to recognise evil and temptation as cheats, with half truths and false promises.  Then with God’s help, we can go the way of real life, and freedom.

Peace -? (Proper 15, Pentecost 13)

Peace seems a long way off. Terrorist violence, superpower shuffling, unstable governments. We want peace, but not at any price.

Then we read Luke 12:49-56 and wonder what hope there is.

Jesus has come to a crisis point in his ministry.  Jesus who never welcomed conflict, nor compromised with evil, is aware of growing conflict. He is the “Prince of Peace” of whom Isaiah spoke (9:6f), yet knows his ministry is causing division, and will cause violence – which he will take on himself, rather than inflict it on others. That certainly is peacemaking! But it is a long way from the “gung ho” ideas of popular Jewish Messianic expectation: a military hero, to throw out the Romans and bring an age of peace and plenty for all Jews.

So let’s ask: What peace can we expect now, and what not? We already have:

  • reconciliation – forgiveness, sorting out relationships
    with God, and with ourselves (if God can forgive, I must try also)
    and with other people (even if some will not accept it)
  • a sense of purpose, knowing our place as God’s children, with his service to keep us busy, and his people as family to whom we belong
  • an answer to war and violence in common service. We don’t seek the surrender of A to B, or B to A, nor the survival of strongest, but the need for all to submit and answer to God, and work as servants of one master.

We do already have a great deal of peace to be thankful for. BUT this isn’t heaven, and we have not yet “arrived”. There are some aspects of peace for which we are still waiting:

  • an end to temptation. (If temptation doesn’t disturb your peace, check to make sure you haven’t given in totally!) There is a fight on here, with no thought of a truce!
  • we know that Jesus has won the victory, but we await the disarming of those who will not choose to serve him. Our peace will be disturbed by those who are deliberately evil, and those who are careless and unaware of their need to repent and serve the King

For the moment, we have reason to look forward to a time when justice happens for everybody, when there is love – and peace. We have a good deal already, and there is some “not yet” to wait and pray for.

Not mine! (Proper 13, Pentecost 11)

It is hard being poor!  Not that I have direct experience, but working with Christians Against Poverty Swansea Debt Centre brings reminders and stories.  It might be enough to make me anxious, or reinforce my mean nature, but this weeks reading in Luke 12:13-21 is a good antidote.

Jesus refuses to arbitrate an inheritance dispute (did he want to leave it to those appointed for this, or recognise that to divide a small inheritance would leave no-one enough, or was he just making a point?).  He goes on to talk about greed, and tells a parable about a rich man who plans a life of idle luxury, and dies before he can enjoy it.

He doesn’t complain about the good harvest, nor even the man’s riches, but about perhaps three other things.  First, this man is stupid to forget his mortality; he can’t control how long he will live.  Death isn’t something we talk much about, but perhaps it ought to be better prepared for – hopefully not because terrorism makes sudden death more common.

Then there is his obvious selfishness.  He either totally fails to recognise the needs of others, or thinks they are none of his concern.  It looks almost as if the person has been taken over by his possessions – who is making use of who?  In any case, he is quite wrong; the whole point of the abundance of the earth’s resources is that they are for the benefit of all God’s people.  Those who are rich have added responsibility, and an opportunity for good (remember the Good Samaritan?).

Thirdly, he misses a safety net.  If he had only paused to thank God for his gift, he might have been led to remember that nothing we have is “owned”, but only ever “lent”.  Just as we tell children to be specially careful of how they treat something belonging to someone else, so we need to relabel “mine” as “God’s loan”.  Perhaps it is only a verbal trick, but it helps sort my attitudes.

Generosity is not something we talk about much.  Which is odd, when from a world point of view we in Britain are so rich.  Luke, and the other gospel writers, make it clear that this is a gospel issue.  How we own / deal with God’s loan, is central to our life with God.  Poverty is hard, but wealth may be even more disabling if not handled with faith and generosity.

Prayer (Proper 12, Pentecost 10)

Jesus prayed, and what his disciples saw made them want to pray, too.  (Was it the effect on Jesus, or the renewal of his power or creativity, or just so much part of his life?  We aren’t told.)

The instructions he gives in Luke 11:1-13 are short.  This is no “formula”, but teaching to be pondered and understood.  (Compare the account in Matthew 6, and you will find rather more words, but the same impression of an outline).

The familiarity of the words to many of us can blunt their impact.  They start, not with us, but with God.  That is important. We might be happy to dive into our problems, requests, worries – but we are told to begin with God.  (God as “Father” may cause problems to those whose parent was not much loved – but we know of good parents.  A parent remains one with power, perhaps to direct our behaviour, always to know what we are, and have been.  It is not an equal relationship).

We are to communicate, understanding that God is somehow personal, contactable, and involved with us. Luckily, as with a good Father, we are known and understood. Still, there is the effort of seeing another person’s point of view, and what plans and directions we may need to hear, and then obey.  We have to listen, as well as speak.  (Though many Psalms suggest that we can expect a sympathetic hearing when words pour out in pain or anger, with little hearing.)

After beginning with this mysterious and wonderful other, we are encouraged to ask for what we need.  The following verses (5-13) underline this.  Ask – the Father wants to give us what is good.  Good, not necessarily indulgent.  Good, for life in service of the Kingdom, and life which finds its real purpose.  The parable is about finding the means to be hospitable, not about living comfortably.

That brings us to forgiveness.  We ask for it, with a strong reminder, not only of our need for being forgiven but also of our need to forgive others, reflecting the grace we receive!  It is a demanding line, but one close to the heart of Christian living.  How can we, who hope for heaven only by being forgiven, criticise or look down on others who need forgiveness too?

Let’s not forget the last line, that we are not lead into the time of trial – or temptation.  No, of course our heavenly Father is not making trouble for us.  Remember Jesus words to the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane – Luke 22:39-47.  Twice Jesus uses this phrase (v40,46), and the meaning is clear.  Temptation may come in many forms, all dangerous.  We ask the Father’s help to come through the hard times with faith.

So, what’s the problem?  It is not that prayer is complicated, rather that we all find good relationships hard, and honest communication demanding.  God is as close as a good parent, but the stakes are high, the distractions pressing.  But the disciples wanted to learn; it must have been something important for Jesus, and for them.

Lent (Lent 1c)

I enjoyed last night’s study group. We were looking at Luke 4:1-13 – Jesus’ temptation.

There is so much in that passage:

Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, received at his baptism (no, hard times are not always a mistake), and is tempted (it is not the being tempted that is wrong . .).

Each of the temptations offers a diversion from the ministry that Jesus will have: turning stones to bread is about making comfort a primary requirement for our lives; the power of ruling the world is the temptation to have and use power over other people; jumping from the Temple suggests both forcing belief by using miracles to amaze, and misusing scripture to try and force God’s action.

What I realised more as our discussion went on was centred on two things. First, the Devil constantly tries to manipulate and force Jesus to comply, while Jesus chooses the actions which will preserve the freedom of choice for those he will meet and minister to. Jesus will not make disciples by offering comfort, power, or cheap thrills. While he acts in compassion and with clear purpose, he always leaves people free to follow or not, to believe or forget, or ask more questions.

The second thing that struck me was how Jesus struggles – and the Devil’s temptations – were linked to the question of identity. Twice comes “IF you are God’s son . .” All through is, “What sort of ministry? What sort of Minister?”

I wonder if the traditions associated with “Lent”, or other times and traditions of penitence and fasting, are so carefully linked to our identity as God’s people, responding to his love and invitation to serve? And do our traditions set out to prepare us for service, service in ways which bring life and blessing, but without trying to coerce, manipulate, or make people do what we want them to?