10. March 2019


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‘…You are a Stubborn People…’ (Deuteronomy 9, 6)

The season of Lent is assumed to be a time for reflection, mirroring the experience of Jesus in the wilderness, immediately after His Baptism, when He is described as having been tempted by the Devil. Temptation has been around for as long as we have been around. The story of Adam and Eve is all to do with temptation. It reminds us that none of us is immune from temptation, and that temptation is an ever-present feature of human life. We are always and forever being bombarded by this, that, or the other, all of which is designed to tempt us to choose this, that or the other. Often such ‘temptation’ is sufficiently seductive that we fall prey to it, even though we often say, ‘against our better judgement’. Too often we are inclined to ‘act in haste’, too many of us are finding ourselves having to ‘repent at leisure’. Morality – the making of choices, deciding what is right or wrong – is the consequence of our failure to be able to resist temptation; our failure to accept that in everything someone knows best; in effect, our determination to usurp God place at the centre of human affairs, to dethrone God. What Martin Luther described as the ‘Bondage of the Will’; an existential reality rather more neatly summed up thus; we have no choice but to choose – we may seek to put off ‘hard’ choices, to ‘kick the can down the road’ to coin a phrase presently being done to death in parliament – but it is unavoidable. Jesus was presented with three scenarios, all of which demanded He make a choice; He had no choice but to choose, He too was tempted even as we are tempted. Mind you, speaking of Martin Luther, he had some startling advice to give regarding temptation

“Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So, when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.” (Martin Luther).

Later, Jesus will say to His disciples that they did not ‘choose’ Him, but rather that He had ‘chosen’ them. It may well be that such a conversation has particular significance for that particular group of people at that particular time and that we should be careful not to extrapolate a more general theological principle from what was said. But, notwithstanding which, it might be thought that the nature of God, the understanding that God is love – the heart of the Christian faith after all – means that God too is left with ‘no choice but to choose’; that God, realising the truly dreadful consequences that might emanate from our being bound up, against our will’, that God too has no choice but to offer us a way of being released, liberated, set free from ‘sin’ and its consequences. Such is the Divine nature, God has no choice but to choose to invite each one of us to make not a moral choice, but an existential choice; to choose to follow Jesus. Indeed, it is not so much a choice, as to make a decision; rather than to choose, it is all to do with deciding: as the old hymn has it, ‘I have decided to follow Jesus’. To make a decision to follow Jesus will not render us immune from having to make choices. Because, in spite of everything, temptation will continue to rear its ugly head, often at the most inopportune time, but it will provide us with a means of resisting it – for now, in Jesus’ name we can say ‘Get behind me, Satan’, and even when we do succumb to the wiles of temptation, give in to selfish desire, make a wrong choice, that will not cause God to turn His back upon us, rather it will prompt God to, Cause His face to shine upon us and be gracious unto us’. We will, in worldly terms suffer the consequences of poor choices, but in God’s eyes the reaction will be altogether different. But we need to guard ourselves against the consequences of temptation as best we can, because it is always there…

“Temptation isn’t a sin that you triumph over once, completely and then you’re free. Temptation slips into bed with you each night and helps you say your prayers. It wakes you in the morning with a friendly cup of coffee, and knows exactly how you take it.” (Karen Marie Moning: Burned).

And it can be even more insidious, it is all too easy to be tempted to do the right thing but for the wrong reason. It is all too easy to be persuaded that why I do what I do is because I do it. Works of charity can, if we are not careful, come to be regarded by us as nothing more than vicarious self-gratification…

“The noonday devil of the Christian life is the temptation to lose the inner self while preserving the shell of edifying behaviour. Suddenly I discover that I am ministering to AIDS victims to enhance my resume. I find I renounced ice cream for Lent to lose five excess pounds... I have fallen victim to what T.S. Eliot calls the greatest sin: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”  (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out).

We should guard ourselves well in the face of constant temptation. Most especially, the temptation to deny before others that we are a Christian; to betray Christ by contradicting Him by what we say or do. The most damning episodes in the Gospel: Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal. But if you haven’t yet decided; today can be your day of decision. And this is the sales pitch the Gospel offers: ‘If anyone would come after me, let them take up their Cross daily to follow Me’. How could anyone fail to be tempted by such a prospect?