Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 5th March 2017
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Matthew 4:1
It was the popular American writer Dale Carnegie who once wrote, ” Two men looked out from prison bars, One saw the mud, the other saw stars.” Carnegie believed one’s attitude toward life was determined by the perspective that one took. One could be in a bleak situation, but one’s attitude could be positive.
Twenty centuries before Dale Carnegie, Jesus teaches us that our attitude to God is shaped by the perspective we take – we can look up to God, or we can look down at the stones beneath our feet.
Jesus goes into the wilderness for a time of prayer and fasting and he is hungry. The devil comes to him and challenges Jesus about which way he will look; will he look down or will he look up? In Saint Matthew Chapter 4 Verse 3, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Forty days in the wilderness would have left Jesus weakened and weary; unwashed, unkempt, barely sleeping for fear of wild animals, he would have been at a physical and emotional low point. The temptation is to look down, to lose sight of God and to be concerned only with himself, Jesus summons up his strength and tells the devil that he will not look down, but will keep looking up, saying, in Verse 4, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
When we feel weary, physically and emotionally, when day to day life is difficult, it is sometimes hard to lift up our heads. The temptation is for us to become preoccupied with ourselves, to look inward, to allow our own concerns to completely fill our view of life. Jesus says to us that there is more to life than the here and now, more to life than the things that worry us, if we look up, we can see things in perspective.
If the first temptation is to be concerned with oneself, the second temptation is to be concerned with what others might think. The devil takes Jesus to a pinnacle of the Temple and taunts Jesus, saying to him, in Verse 6, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” The stones of the wilderness are replaced by the stones of the Temple courts: Jesus is tempted to look down instead of looking up. The devil quotes lines from Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus, “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.” Jesus could have thought how impressed the people below would have been if he had jumped and had been caught by the angels. He could have thought it would have been a sensational thing to do. Looking down from the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus realized that such popular approval would not be not based on faith, it would not be based on following him, instead it would disappear as quickly as it appeared. In Verse 7, Jesus is determined to look up and not down, he tells the devil, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Do we spend too much time looking at the ground? Do we spend too much time listening to what others say, and not enough time looking up to God? We feel that we need the approval of other people; we all like to be liked, but we also know that people are fickle, they might like us and then turn against us. If we keep looking up, then we do not become worried by what is being said.
The temptation for Jesus to look down instead of looking up is strongest in the third temptation. From a high mountain, the devil points down to all the kingdoms of the world. The offer to Jesus in Verse 9 is simple, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” What a simple thing for Jesus to do, give in to deceit and corruption and in return have the whole world as his kingdom. He could have thought that the end would justify the means; he could have thought about how much good he could do with such power; he could have thought that there was no-one to whom he would have to give account, so why not take the easy way? Jesus refuses to be drawn into the trap, he lifts up his head and, in Verse 10, dismisses the devil, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
How easy it is for us to be tempted into dropping our eyes, to be drawn into thinking that what matters is what we get, and not how we get it. How easy it is to feel that it is alright to cut corners, that is alright to be not completely truthful, that it is alright to be not quite straight, because it is the result that matters. Jesus rejected the idea that end justified the means, and we should also do so. When we think we can get what we want the easy way, we need to ask who it is that we are serving. Have we lifted our eyes to God, or have we dropped them, knowing that what we are doing is wrong?
The story of the three temptations tells us that our attitude to God is shaped by the perspective we take – whether it is our concern for ourselves, our concern with the thinking of others, or our dealings with the world: the question is are we people who look down or are we people who look up to God?
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