01 March 2020

The Temptations in Lent,
including the temptation
not to speak out for others

‘The devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple …’ (Matthew 4: 5) … a gargoyle at Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 1 March 2020,

The First Sunday in Lent.

9.30 am: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

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

The Temptation of Job in the Purgatory Window by Richard King of the Harry Clarke Studios in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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

There are no special Lenten study groups in this group of parishes this year. Instead I thought it might be interesting to concentrate in our Sunday sermons on the interesting, unusual characters we are going to meet in the Gospel readings on the Sundays in Lent this year.

They include:

1, The Devil, who appears as the serpent (Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7) and the Tempter (Matthew 4: 1-11) in this morning’s readings (Lent 1: 1 March 2020)

2, Nicodemus, who comes to meet Jesus in the night (John 3: 1-17) next week (Lent 2: 8 March 2020)

3, The unnamed Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 5-42) two weeks from now (Lent 3: 15 March 2020)

4, The women at the Cross (John 19: 25b-27) on Mothering Sunday (Lent 4: 22 March 2020)

5, I am leaving it to the Revd Joe Hardy to look at Lazarus who is raised from the dead (John 11: 1-45) when he takes our United Group service on the fifth Sunday of the month (Lent 5: 29 March 2020)

All these characters, as we meet them along the journey through Lent, prepare us for meeting Christ when he arrives in Jerusalem and we come face-to-face with him at his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

What is your image of the Devil?

For many people today, he is old hat and the stuff of superstition. For other people he is a figure of fun: the gargoyles gushing out rainwater from gutters on cathedrals and churches; the logo for Manchester United; or the impish black-and-red costumes of children at Hallowe’en or some adults at Carnival in Continental European cities in the days before Lent.

Many of our cultural images of the Devil come not from the Bible but from Dante’s Inferno, which influenced John Milton’s Paradise Lost, other poets, including TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as frescoes, paintings, and stained-glass windows throughout the world.

But the Devil appears in many forms throughout the Bible.

The word satan does not occur in this morning’s reading from Genesis. Instead, the tempter is a talking serpent.

The original Hebrew term sâtan (שָּׂטָן‎) means an ‘accuser’ or ‘adversary,’ and refers to both human adversaries and a supernatural entity. The word is derived from a verb meaning primarily to obstruct or to oppose. When it is used without the definite article (satan), the word can refer to any accuser; when it is used with the definite article (ha-satan), it refers specifically to the heavenly accuser: the Satan.

Ha-Satan with the definite article occurs 13 times in two books of the Hebrew Bible: Job 1 and 2 (10 times) and Zechariah 3: 1-2 (three times); satan without the definite article is used in 10 instances.

These occurrences without a definite article include the Angel of the Lord who confronts Balaam on his donkey (Numbers 22: 22); and the Angel of the Lord who brings a plague against Israel for three days after David takes a census (II Samuel 24).

The satan who appears in the Book of Job is one of the ‘sons of God’ (Job 1: 6-8) who has been roaming around the earth and who tortures Job physically, mentally and spiritually, to see whether Job will abandon his faith. But Job remains faithful and righteous, and satan is shamed in his defeat.

The English word devil, used as a synonym for Satan, can be traced through Middle English, Old English and Latin to the Greek διάβολος (diabolos), ‘slanderer,’ from a verb (diaballein) meaning to slander, but originally meaning ‘to hurl across’ or ‘to back bite.’ In the New Testament, the words Satan and diabolos are used interchangeably.

Another name, Beelzebub, means ‘Lord of Flies,’ and is also a contemptuous name for a Philistine god and a pun on his name meaning ‘Baal the Prince.’ Some Pharisees accuse Jesus of exorcising demons through the power of Beelzebub.

Satan plays a role in some of the parables, including the Parables of the Sower, the Weeds, the Sheep and the Goats, and the Strong Man.

In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Judas betrays Christ because ‘Satan entered into’ him (see Luke 22: 3-6; cf John 12: 13: 2) and Christ implies Satan has authority to test Peter and the other apostles (see Luke 22: 31).

In Saint John’s Gospel, Satan is identified as ‘the Archon of the Cosmos’ (ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου) who is to be overthrown through Christ’s death and resurrection (John 12: 31-32).

The Letter to the Hebrews describes the devil as ‘the one who has the power of death’ (Hebrews 2: 14).

In the Book of Revelation, Satan is first the supernatural ruler of the Empire. In this book, we also come across Abaddon, whose name in Greek is Apollyon, meaning ‘the destroyer,’ an angel who rules the Abyss (Revelation 9: 11).

The vision of a Great Red Dragon with seven heads, 10 horns, seven crowns, and a sweeping tail (Revelation 12: 3-4) is an image inspired by the apocalyptic visions in the Book of Daniel. A war then breaks out in heaven, and Michael and his angels defeat the Dragon who is thrown down. This dragon is identified with ‘that ancient serpent, who is called Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12: 9) and the accuser.

This identifies him with all the images of satan in the Hebrew Bible, from the serpent in Eden, to Job’s tempters.

Later, the chained and imprisoned Satan breaks loose from his chains in the abyss and wages war against the righteous. But he is defeated and cast into a lake of fire (see Revelation 20: 1-10).

This morning’s Gospel reading is one of the three accounts in the synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 4: 1-11, Mark 1: 12-13, and Luke 4: 1-13) describing the temptation of Christ by Satan in the wilderness.

Satan first shows Jesus a stone and tells him to turn it into bread. He then takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and tells him to throw himself down so that the angels will catch him. Then he takes Jesus to the top of a tall mountain, shows him the kingdoms of the earth and promises to give them all to him if he will bow down and worship him.

In each of these temptations, Christ is tempted to the right thing for the wrong reasons.

What would be wrong with Christ turning stones into bread if that is going to feed the hungry?

What would be wrong with Christ showing his miraculous powers, if this is going to point to the majesty of God?

What would be wrong with Christ taking command of the kingdoms of this world, if this provides the opportunity to bring in justice, mercy and peace?

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.

Each time, Christ rebukes Satan, and after the third temptation he is ministered to by the angels.

Too often we reduce temptation to small things in life. On RTÉ 1, the one real temptation facing Jeff Difford, the slick pastor in Young Sheldon, was greed in the form of wanting a new combined toaster and microwave oven. He resisted that temptation for a day or so, and when he gives in, he asks for forgiveness.

But this is a fatuous and fraudulent presentation of temptation. True temptation can come in small ways, but it can also come in dramatic ways, in the temptation to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and in the temptation to do nothing.

There is real evil in the world. For example. this year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Holocaust.

Yet during carnival last week – a time of fun before entering Lent – at a carnival parade in Campo de Criptana, about 120 km south-east of Madrid, participants dressed like Nazis and Jewish concentration camp prisoners while dancing next to a float evoking crematoria.

In Aalst in Belgium, some people in the carnival parade dressed like haredim or pious Orthodox Jews but depicting them as ants, others wore fake hooked noses based on Jewish stereotypes, and still others dressed in black uniforms and red armbands imitating Nazi uniforms.

Three-quarters of a century after the Holocaust, some people still think real evil in the world is an appropriate them for carnival floats. How does this prepare us for Lent and the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.

I was reminded of the temptation to be silent in the face of evil when I visited the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, and the cell of the Revd Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent German Lutheran pastor and an outspoken opponent of Hitler, was held in isolation.

On the wall of this cell are his words:

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.

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.

Giovanni da Modena’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna was inspired by Dante’s descriptions of the Devil and Hell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 4: 1-11 (NRSVA):

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.

Saint Michael and the Devil … a statue by Jacob Epstein at Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Violet

The canticle Gloria may be omitted in Lent. The doxology or Gloria at the end of Canticles and Psalms is also omitted during Lent.

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

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.

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)


Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

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.


Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:

‘ … and suddenly angels came and waited on him’ (Matthew 4: 11) … two angels by Eric Gill support a bishop’s coat-of-arms in Jesus College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


108, Praise to the Holiest in the height (CD 7)
207, Forty days and forty nights (CD 13)
595, Safe in the shadow of the Lord (CD 34)

‘Then the devil left him …’ (Matthew 4: 11) … a sculpture in the Llotja de la Seda or Silk Exchange in Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me’ … Pastor Martin Niemöller depicted in the museum at Sachsenhausen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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