February 18, 2024


This sermon was preached at Matins at St. Mary Magdalene, Richmond, on the First Sunday of Lent, 2024.

The thing about temptation is: it’s quite tempting.

Which actually, given the way I tend to think about temptation, is a bit of a surprise. I tend to think of temptation as the voice inside my head telling me to do the thing that I shouldn’t do, that I don’t want to do, that isn’t right for me. But if I already know all this about the thing I’m being asked to do, it isn’t all that tempting. If I can cast this as “temptation resisted” though, then I get to feel quite good about myself. But perhaps today’s gospel reading can shed some light on the real nature of temptation.

You see, the devil doesn’t actually ask Jesus to do things he knows he shouldn’t do. What does the devil ask of Jesus? To make bread to feed the hungry, to defy death, to reign over the world, and in all of this to reveal himself as the Son of God. These aren’t things that Jesus mustn’t do. In fact, they aren’t even just things Jesus may do. They are the very things that Jesus comes to do. The very calling of God on Jesus’ life.

The other surprising thing about the temptation is the scriptural quotation. Jesus and Satan seem to enter into a proof-texting competition, each with their own Bible verse to contradict the other. I hear a lot of this manner of argument in the church today, and perhaps today’s epistle should lead us to expect such things. The Christian life is paradoxical, and inherently contradictory. Of course parts of our scriptures can be leveraged against each other in this way. For any interpretation of any verse of the Bible, it always seems possible to pluck another (or even the same) verse out of context and contradict it.

This sort of argument usually goes nowhere, but Jesus seems to deploy it well. I think this isn’t something we can emulate though. Jesus is uniquely the one about whom the whole arc of scripture refers, and thus any verse he uses is contextualised by himself. In this the weighting of the argument shifts drastically, and it becomes obvious that Jesus’ readings usurp Satan’s.

So what about the temptation then? Well as we have seen it isn’t that Jesus is tempted to do something he mustn’t, but something he must. Some wise people once said: “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results.” Well for Jesus, it seems to be not only not what you do, but not even the results. It was entirely possible for Jesus to get the results and somehow fail and succumb to temptation in the wilderness. The entirety of his resistance to temptation was based in the way of doing things. Jesus’ resistance was the refusal to do things according to Satan’s plan, and outside of the long narrative arc of scripture that is God’s kingdom. Jesus would only feed the hungry, defy death, and reign as a part of this unfolding and proclamation.

When we are tempted, then, it isn’t about being asked to do the things we know we shouldn’t. Temptation, as we have seen, can be to do precisely what God is calling us to do, but in a way that short-circuits or diverges from the narrative of scripture, and from the Word made Flesh. Even, and perhaps especially, when someone comes waving a single verse of the Bible at you and telling you how to live; beware of the temptation. Our life and mission are complex, contradictory, and fraught with such temptations. All we can do to resist is to cling to the Christ who patterned his life as a servant, and pattern our lives in the same way.

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