05 March 2017

‘To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?’

‘Christ in the Desert’ or ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ (Христос в пустыне), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, oil on canvas, 180 cm × 210 cm, the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 5 March 2017,

The First Sunday in Lent.

9.45 a.m., Holy Communion, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Readings: Genesis 2: 15–17; 3: 1–7; Psalm 32; Romans 5: 12–19; Matthew 4: 1–11.

May I speak to you in the name of the + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Unless they had pancakes last Tuesday, or resolved on Wednesday to give up smoking, yet again, I am sure many people did not notice that Wednesday last was Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

But has Lent become wholly irrelevant in the prosperous and increasingly secular Ireland we live in?

Giving up smoking on Ash Wednesday is one of the few Lenten resolutions that survive in Irish society. But even as I was growing up, Lenten resolutions were broken and forgotten as quickly as New Year’s resolutions.

How many of us promise on New Year’s Eve to give up smoking, to drink less, to cut out sugar or to lose weight?

How many of us can remember our New Year’s resolutions for this year, never mind those for 2016?

Lent originally began as six weeks of preparation and instruction for the newly-converted Christians before their baptism, before joining the Church, on Easter Eve. Lent can still be a time of preparation and renewal for all of us today. And the temptations or distractions that take us away from that preparation and renewal are similar to those faced by Christ in our Gospel reading this morning.

In this reading, Christ is tempted three times with words from the scriptures, and three times he responds with words of wisdom from the scriptures:

● One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (verse 4; see Deuteronomy 8: 3).
● Do not put the Lord your God to the test (verse 7, see Deuteronomy 6: 16).
● Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him (verse 10, see Deuteronomy 6: 13).

As that Gospel passage was being read, did you notice the sequence of events as they are recalled by Saint Matthew? How, as the drama unfolds before us, we are moved in each sequence to a greater height each time?

We start with Christ standing on the ground, amid the stones and boulders of the wilderness. From there, he is taken to the pinnacles of the Temple, and is able to look across the city. And then he is brought to the mountain-top where he looks across the kingdoms of the world.

The movement is from the particular to the general. We are being challenged to move from the temptations that affect our own lives to temptations that have consequences for the lives of those around us, and then to temptations that have an impact on the world we live in. It is a dramatic movement from my own life to the spiritual lives of others, and then to the social, economic and political life of the world. It is a reminder that there is no such thing as personal sin unless there is also social sin.

TS Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral is based on the events leading to the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170.

The dramatisation in this play of opposition to authority was prophetic at the time, for it was written as fascism was on the rise in Central Europe. The principal focus of the play is on Becket’s internal struggles. As he reflects on his inevitable martyrdom, his tempters arrive and question the archbishop about his plight, echoing in many ways Christ’s temptations in the wilderness.

The first tempter offers the beleaguered Becket the prospect of physical safety:

The easy man lives to eat the best dinners.
Take a friend’s advice. Leave well alone,
Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.

The second tempter offers him power, riches and fame in serving the king so that he can disarm the powerful and help the poor:

To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?

Then the third tempter suggests the archbishop should form an alliance with the barons and seize a chance to resist the king:

For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
At once, for England and for Rome.

Finally, the fourth tempter urges Thomas to look to the glory of martyrdom:

You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.

Becket responds to all his tempters and specifically addresses the immoral suggestions of the fourth tempter at the end of the first act:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

In his temptation in the wilderness, Christ is tempted to do the right things for the wrong reasons.

What would be wrong with Christ turning stones into bread if that is going to feed the hungry? With showing his miraculous powers, if this is going to point to the majesty of God? With taking command of the kingdoms of this world, if this provides the opportunity to usher in justice, mercy and peace?

Let us not deceive ourselves, these are real temptations. Christ is truly human and truly divine, and for those who are morally driven there is always a real temptation to do the right thing but to do it for the wrong reason.

We all know Ireland benefitted in recent years from wanting to be a modern nation, like your neighbours. But that ambition turned to greed, and we were surprised when greed turned to economic collapse. We found we had given in to the temptation to do what appeared to be the right thing for the wrong reason.

Too often when I am offered the opportunity to do the right thing, to make a difference in this society, in this world, I ask: ‘What’s in this for me?’

When I am asked to speak up for those who are marginalised or oppressed, this should be good enough reason in itself. But then I wonder how others are going to react – react not to the marginalised or oppressed, but to me.

How often do we use external sources to hide our own internalised prejudices?

How often have I seen what is the right thing to do, but have found an excuse that I pretend is not of my own making?

I hear people claim they are not racist, but speaking about migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers in language that would shock them if it was used about our own family members in England, America or Australia.

The victims of war in Syria or boat people in the Mediterranean are objects for our pity on the television news night after night. But why are they not being settled with compassion, in proportionate numbers in Ireland?

How often do I think of doing the right thing only if it is going to please my family members or my neighbours?

How often do I use the Bible to justify not extending civil rights to others? Democracy came to all of us at a great price paid by past generations, but how often we try to hold on to those rights as if they were personal, earned wealth.

How often we use obscure Bible texts to prop up political, racist, social and economic prejudices, forgetting that any text in the Bible, however clear or obscure it may be, depends, in Christ’s own words, on the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love one another?

We can give in so easily … we can convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing when we are doing it for the wrong reason. And when we allow ourselves to be silenced or immobilised, those we should have spoken up for to lose a voice, then we lose our own voices, and our own integrity.

A wrong decision taken once, thinking I am doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason, is not just about an action in the present moment. It forms habits and it shapes who I am, within time and eternity.

The Revd Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent German Lutheran pastor and an outspoken opponent of Hitler, once said:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me

In each temptation this morning, Christ is asked to be complicit in social sin for tempting, self-centred reasons. In each of these temptations, we see the subtle attraction of doing the right thing but using the wrong means. Whenever I am tempted to look after my own interests first, there are always consequences – potentially dire consequences – for those around me.

When he was threatened with death and murder during the apartheid era in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared: ‘I cannot help it. When I see injustice, I cannot keep quiet … But what is it that they can ultimately do? The most awful thing that they can do is to kill me, and death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.’

And so, at the beginning of Lent, we are reminded of how Christ, in resisting the temptations to do the right things for the wrong reasons, sets his face towards Calvary. This Lent, I invite you to join me on the journey, on the pilgrimage that leads to Good Friday, and that leads, of course, to the joys of Easter Day.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Driven by the Spirit into the Wilderness’ (1942), by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Matthew 4: 1-11

1 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνήχθη εἰς τὴν ἔρημον ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος, πειρασθῆναι ὑπὸ τοῦ διαβόλου. 2 καὶ νηστεύσας ἡμέρας τεσσεράκοντα καὶ νύκτας τεσσεράκοντα ὕστερον ἐπείνασεν. 3 Καὶ προσελθὼν ὁ πειράζων εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Εἰ υἱὸς εἶ τοῦ θεοῦ, εἰπὲ ἵνα οἱ λίθοι οὗτοι ἄρτοι γένωνται. 4 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Γέγραπται,

Οὐκ ἐπ' ἄρτῳ μόνῳ ζήσεται ὁ ἄνθρωπος,
ἀλλ' ἐπὶ παντὶ ῥήματι ἐκπορευομένῳ
διὰ στόματος θεοῦ.

5 Τότε παραλαμβάνει αὐτὸν ὁ διάβολος εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν, καὶ ἔστησεν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὸ πτερύγιον τοῦ ἱεροῦ, 6 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Εἰ υἱὸς εἶ τοῦ θεοῦ, βάλε σεαυτὸν κάτω: γέγραπται γὰρ ὅτι
Τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ ἐντελεῖται περὶ σοῦ
καὶ ἐπὶ χειρῶν ἀροῦσίν σε,
μήποτε προσκόψῃς πρὸς λίθον τὸν πόδα σου.

7 ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Πάλιν γέγραπται, Οὐκ ἐκπειράσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου.

8 Πάλιν παραλαμβάνει αὐτὸν ὁ διάβολος εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν λίαν, καὶ δείκνυσιν αὐτῷ πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τοῦ κόσμου καὶ τὴν δόξαν αὐτῶν, 9 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ταῦτά σοι πάντα δώσω ἐὰν πεσὼν προσκυνήσῃς μοι. 10 τότε λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Υπαγε, Σατανᾶ: γέγραπται γάρ,
Κύριον τὸν θεόν σου προσκυνήσεις
καὶ αὐτῷ μόνῳ λατρεύσεις.

11 Τότε ἀφίησιν αὐτὸν ὁ διάβολος, καὶ ἰδοὺ ἄγγελοι προσῆλθον καὶ διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.

Translation (NRSV):

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4 But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.’
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,”
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”.’

7 Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”.’

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9 and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10 Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him”.’

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 5 March 2017.

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