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The First Sunday in Lent

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church Windsor NS, AD 2006


“One who in every respect has been tempted as we are,

yet without sin”


To be tempted (root, πειιράω) and to be pierced (root, πείρω) are related words.  The temptations which belong to the beginning of Lent have a connection to the end of Lent in the crucifixion of Christ.  He who is pierced for us is tempted for us.  The overcoming of temptation belongs equally to the overcoming of his being pierced, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The cross and the resurrection are obliquely, yet strongly, present in the temptations of Christ.  There is a resurrection into the presence of the living Word and Spirit of the Father, but only through the burning love of the crucified, a love which is already signaled in the temptations of Christ.


To be tempted is to be drawn to what we know to be wrong and false.  This implies as well that we are drawn away from what we know to be right and true.  Our reason is beguiled; our will is seduced.  We are at once deceivers and deceived.


Temptations are received in the soul.  It is there that they have their force of attraction, drawing us to what we know in some sense we should refuse.  But there is always a choice, a crucial moment of decision, whether to give in or withstand.  The problem is not that there are temptations - these there must be - but how we face them. Sin, after all, does not lie in the temptations themselves, but in our yielding to them, whether inwardly in our thoughts or outwardly in our deeds.  Temptations belong to the path of our spiritual journey to God and with God.  They are, we might even say, necessary to the perfecting of our wills, to the matter of setting love in order.


The temptations of Christ are our temptations. His will to bear them belongs to the divine will to redeem and perfect his sinful creation.   To that end, the temptations of Christ illumine what is right and true and expose to view what is false and wrong.


They clarify the meaning of all and every temptation.  There is no temptation which does not fall under one or other of the temptations of Christ.  Thus, our understanding is clarified.  Beyond that our wills are fortified, too.  The temptations of Christ sanctify our temptations.  They are made part and parcel of the way of perfecting grace.  By virtue of Christ’s temptations, we are inwardly strengthened in resisting, even as the force of the temptations themselves is abated, because we can see them in Christ for what they are and how they can be overcome.


This has important consequences for the practice of our lives in faith.  It requires in us a spirit of compassion and it instills in us a spirit of confidenceCompassion - because the compassion of Christ towards us in knowing our temptations requires us to be compassionate towards others.  It is only too easy to stand in judgment over someone else whose temptations are not your own.  Yet he who bears your temptations equally bears his as well.  This demands our compassion towards the failings of others.  Confidence - because we are not alone in confronting our temptations.  Christ is our co-worker in overcoming the temptations which befall us. 


This goes a long ways towards answering another difficulty.  Jesus is said to be “led up by the Spirit... to be tempted.”  But in the Lord’s Prayer, we say “Lead us not into temptation.” What are we to make of these senses of leading?  Well, the one is about leading so as to be with us.  The other speaks about a leading into temptation that is a forsaking, a withdrawing of grace; in short, our being without his presence.  Then, indeed, we are lost.


The temptations of Christ are our temptations.  What are they?  They are three, though in the end, they all come down to one thing: the denial of God.  The three categories of temptation only vary in the degree to which God is denied.  The three temptations are: the temptation to distrust; the temptation to presumption; the temptation to defiance and denial.  There is no temptation common to man that is not comprehended in these three.


“If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”  This is the temptation to distrust because it suggests to our minds that God will not provide for us, therefore we must shift for ourselves by way of whatever means, even unlawful means, turning stones into bread, which is to say, subverting the order of things in creation to our own immediate ends.  The temptation is to distrust God’s power and goodness.  It is the false fear that God will not provide.  The Old Testament form of this is the temptation in the wilderness (recalled in the Venite), “the temptation of Meribah” - the hungry temptation - when the people of Israel murmured against God’s provision for them in the wilderness, the provision of manna - bread from heaven.


They denied, in effect, the will of God for them as signaled in his Word.  At issue is what God provides for us in the way of our journeying.  What he provides is always sufficient for us. This temptation is about our fear that it is not.  We deny God by murmuring against his will and by neglecting the ordained means of heavenly grace by which he would sustain us; in short, the Word and Sacraments of Christ.


The second temptation is the temptation to presumption.  “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down.”  This temptation goes to the other extreme.  If the first was a lack of confidence in God’s will for us, this is an overconfidence, an improper expectation, a false hope in the will of God, which drives us away from the lawful use of created things and the ordained means of grace, and drives us towards unnecessary, luxurious and presumptuous means.  It is the presumption of thinking that everything will be alright for me whatever I do.  I’m saved, I can do anything and I’ll demand everything because God is answerable to me.  It is to presume to fly instead of using the stairs.


The Old Testament form of this is “the temptation of Massah” when the people of Israel were dissatisfied with what God had provided for them and demanded something better, like the luxuries of Egypt.  They wanted the salad bar and surf’n turf!  This temptation presumes upon our standing with God to deny the ordained means of his will for us.  It would, moreover, put God to the test for the sake of our amusement and entertainment.  If the first denies the Creator in the provisions for his creation, the second denies the form of our creatureliness and the nature of our relation to the Creator.


The third temptation is the “greatest” of these three.  It makes explicit what is hidden in them. It is the temptation to defiance and denial.  It is the temptation to put oneself in the place of God.  “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me”, says the devil to Jesus.  It is the grand illusion, the ultimate refusal of the creature’s relation to the Creator.  Such is the devil himself in the nakedness of his pride and folly.  The devil, Satan, the tempter - all these titles are present here - would substitute himself for God, denying both God and himself.  The prince of this world is indeed the prince of lies.  He is the very principle of the soul’s defiance and denial of God.


The temptations of Christ represent and replay the Fall.  Adam and Eve are tempted by what is pleasing to the senses and thus are drawn to distrust the provisions which God has made for them which they know to be good.  They are tempted to presume that by eating “the forbidden fruit” they will become like God.  They are tempted to deny God altogether and to defy his will.  In short, they succumb to the beguiling wiles of the serpent, the tempter, the one who insinuates doubts about God and his will for his creatures.


But in Christ the temptations are overcome and they are overcome for us.  There is a counter to each of the temptations.  The clarifying Word of God dispels the clouds of distrust, presumption, and denial:


Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth  out of the mouth of God...; Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God...; Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.


The last of these, too, is the greatest.  All ends in worship and loving service.  Christ proclaims his word written.  It is the counter to all and every temptation.  To hear his word is to arise into the presence of the living Word and Spirit of the Father, but only through the “One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”