The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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10.30am Holy Communion      6th March 2022
Temptation and the Gospel
Andrew Penny

Temptation and the Gospel; Luke 4, Lent 1
You might reasonably think that we can only know about Jesus’ temptation after forty days fasting in the wilderness, from Jesus himself, at whatever remove; it’s hardly likely that Satan passed the story on. That, however, is perhaps taking too straightforward a view of how the Gospels were composed; there is a lot in them which suggests their authors were not only using stories remembered and passed on. It’s equally clear that they were also drawing on religious and literary traditions, with deliberate echoes of events recounted in the Old Testament or quotations from the prophets.
In that tradition, the desert was considered a place of spiritual preparation and battery charging. After his conversion, St Paul says he spent three years in the Arabian Desert working out his new theology. The wilderness is where John the Baptist emerged fasting and preaching the coming of the Messiah. In Isaiah, it is a liminal space spiritual and physical through which the Israelites must pass from Babylon and captivity to Jerusalem and the Promised Land.
Most significantly, however, it was where, wandering for forty years, the Israelites, recently rescued from Egypt, developed their relationship with God and forged themselves into a nation ready to enter the Promised Land. That process had involved hunger relieved by magical bread from heaven; during it the Israelites had been tempted, and succumbed to bowing down and worshipping other Gods; and there had been sensational demonstrations of the power of God.
We can hear hints of those events in the turning of stones to bread; worshipping the Devil; and jumping off the Temple. Whether Jesus really experienced the temptations that Matthew and Luke recount and whether he told his disciples about them later, is not really the point. They were the sort of experience that should be the preparation for proclaiming the Gospel, the good news of a new Promised Land which Jesus will call the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Ash Wednesday service we were encouraged to use Lent-which is in a way our own time of preparation in the wilderness, to think about the meaning of the Gospel, so I want to ask What does Jesus experience in the wilderness have to tell us about the nature of the Gospel?
Mostly, it seems to be telling us what the Gospel will not be. It’s not going to be about turning stones to bread- so not, or not simply, meeting human beings’ physical needs. It’s not about imperialism or political power, still less military conquest- not, then, what many contemporaries thought the Messiah ought to be. And it’s not about sensational gestures to secure ephemeral fame, nor treating God as a magician-indeed the culmination of Gospel will appear to most witnesses as miserable defeat and rejection by God.
What’s odd about all this is that apparently Jesus contradicts himself. He will go around meeting human need, healing the sick and the disabled, and even feeding 5,000 on two fish and five barley loaves (not quite stones, but impressive none the less). There are also sensational gestures; calming the storm, raising Lazarus and of course his own Resurrection. Unless you count the ambivalent riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, there is, it’s true, no overtly political statement, still less military action, but he has some  trenchant and revolutionary things to say about the social order and is not averse to taking matters into his own hands quite violently and driving hawkers out of the Temple with a homemade whip.
All these apparent contradictory events, however, take place in a peculiarly human context but are invested with a spiritual overtone. Thus all the miracles, even the feeding of the 5000, have an intimate encounter at their centre, a moment, so often in a crowd, when the evangelist’s camera homes in on Jesus and a small boy, a desperate haemorrhaging woman, a blind beggar, a social outcast, or a troubled pillar of society. Each is an encounter of needy man or woman with a more than physical need, meeting a man with divine power to meet that need, whether it is hunger for meaning, the burden of sin or a life crippled by prejudice or social convention. 
The miracles, certainly sensational in their way and avowedly proofs- or “signs” in St John’s phrase- of Jesus’ divine nature and mission, are not just sensational nor merely signs; some tell us something of what the Kingdom is like, in the abundance of wine at Cana, and nets full of fish and baskets full of bread; others of a new social order where self-respect restored to beggars and crooked tax collectors alike or of a place in society for the previously outcast. It is not bread alone that Jesus provides but knowledge of what God’s kingdom has to offer.
Many any of these signs, imply a deep criticism of contemporary society (criticism that is depressingly relevant to our own), nevertheless Jesus overtly abjures political statement (Palm Sunday’s understatement being an exception supporting this rule). He mysteriously vanishes when threatened with a crown. Indeed the only crown that he wears is when nailed to a cross- crucifixion being about as clear a statement as the ancient world could imagine of utter failure- and the irony of the thorns only intensifies that failure.
Or seems to. The cross is not the end of the story and the Resurrection might appear to be the most sensationalist and cosmically, albeit spiritually, imperialist statement of all, destroying the old order of the world, and establishing a new creation- you don’t get more universally revolutionary than that. And as painted by Matthew, it is indeed, cosmic, seismic, public, spectacular and awesome.  Luke’s picture is fuller and more intimate and enigmatic; no earthquakes and even close friends feel his presence without recognising him until a word or a gesture lets them see, and see more than eyes alone can ever see, through subtlety not sensation.
So the easy tricks that devil proposes in the desert are turned around and in doing so, do indeed tell us more what the Gospel is about, and the nature of the Kingdom that it introduces. And in their humanity and their speaking to individuals and society, they speak as vividly and relevantly to us as they did to 2000 years ago. Amen

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