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A Liturgy of Temptation (sermon)

February 20, 2010

(Luke 4: 1-13)

Jesus full of the Holy Spirit, returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished


I don’t know much about fasting, because I don’t do it… except by accident when I forget to eat (which doesn’t count).

But today’s lesson got me thinking about it… You could think of fasting merely as an intellectual aid… but it’s more than that. It’s a practical act (like in a drama with yourself as the primary audience) in which we are reminded that we are creatures of God, dependent on God for our existence and also for what’s important about who we are… It is not merely an intellectual reminder though, it’s a bodily act which forms us in a kind of physical and emotional way, not just theoretically. As you fast, you feel with your whole body, what it is to be a fragile creature, in dependence on God for existence, who could die at any moment – fasting embodies an awareness of your own mortality. It’s no wonder we don’t do it.

Jesus doesn’t go into the wilderness merely to think about his life he goes to fast and pray (he does under the leading of the Spirit)…. And prayer too is not merely an intellectual exercise…prayer and fasting go together for Jesus… he practices with his body his dependence on God. He goes into the wilderness to live in the presence of God.

Let me introduce a word which some of you will find strange in this context. It strikes me that Jesus temptation in the wilderness is a kind of liturgy… By that I mean, it’s a physical and emotional drama, involving the whole person. Perhaps you don’t quite think of liturgy like that, which is understandable, since many people think that liturgy is simply about reading stuff out in church from the service sheet….But the origin of the word liturgy literally means ‘the work of the people’. The original liturgy is the drama of eucharist – read responses an extension of the participation which is eating and drinking. Properly speaking when we talk of liturgy we should think of all the ways we participate in the drama that is worship. We are not here for an education (at least not in the modern way we still tend to think of education), we are here to take part in a drama. As someone said, if you miss church its not so much like one missing from an audience at a lecture. It’s more like one of the actors missing in a play.

To get back to our text. Fasting, we might say, is a liturgy… Generally, we don’t do it, because it hurts. It is uncomfortable. We are happy to believe in the theory that we do not live by bread alone, provided we are constantly surrounded by more than enough bread. Fasting, however, takes away the physical bread for a while. It’s like trying to live sustainably (a kind of fasting, a kind of liturgy), it pushes our comfort levels.

The more I read this text, the more I think I should do some fasting…

It strikes me that we could see fasting and eucharist belonging together as liturgies. In fasting we learn that we do not live by physical bread alone. And at the eucharist we learn that we do live (and become fully alive and fully human) on the bread and wine of God’s word to us in the life and death of Jesus. As liturgies they don’t so much inform (give us information) us as form us (as people).

When I’m talking about liturgy I’m talking about practices that form the rest of our life. Which is pretty important stuff really.

Ever since Descartes we have thought of ourselves as first of all ‘thinking things’… if you give people the right ideas they will become the right kind of people. Education has been about giving people information (top down). But what if that’s wrong. What if it gets things the wrong way round. What if, at the most basic level, you are not what you think you are… but what your heart desires? What if humans are not first of all ‘thinking things’ (as Descartes thought) but ‘wanting things’

In a book called Desiring the Kingdom by Jamie Smith (who clarified this issue for me this week) … he describes the shopping mall as a kind of alternative liturgy – forming us in such a way the we are constantly distracted from the thought that there may be more to life than ‘bread alone’. There are always more things to want. It’s not just an idea. The mall is a drama. Going to a mall is a liturgy. No one instructs us on the importance of shopping to keep the economy running, (although that may be one of the scripts that some people have in their heads). Rather we simply enter into the practices, we bow down at the glass displays, we engage in the routine negotiations with the temple attendants (shop assistants). It’s a formative drama… a liturgy. Our desires are shaped in these practices. The shopping mall is a kind of worship, suggests Jamie Smith. It forms us as people.

Perhaps we could think of this temptation story as a time of spiritual education for Jesus (but at the level of his desires). He is presented with the attractive alternatives to fasting. There is a seduction process going on here. It is his heart that is at stake, not just his head. Into the liturgy of fasting, comes a counter-liturgy of temptation… And there in his fragility he is tempted… The challenges of his life are acted out in a preparatory way. The issues at stake are the desires at the core of his being. It’s about what he wants from life.

The first temptation challenges his fasting – give yourself bread, provide yourself with security, enough of this fragility and dependency on a creator. Provide yourself with something more… something called security.

The second temptation challenges his social role – give yourself political power and you will achieve something in the world. Surely you want to make a difference.

The third temptation challenges his personal status – perform a superman stunt and you will be forever sure of your self and God.

The Devil probes for his gaps…

Do you fear for your own survival (illness, finances in old age, roof over your head)… security is ready at hand.

Do you have big ideas for changing the messy world in which you live? Power is on offer. Political power is there for the taking. Surely that is the only way to change the world? says Satan. You’ve got to get real…and deal with the real world.

Do you suffer from self-doubt? Do you doubt your calling? Why not go for proof? Seek a miracle. Jump off the top of the temple. That way you can put aside all the agonies of faith and risk, that way you don’t have to take responsibility for your decisions… or at least that’s how it might appear for the doubter.

The questions for Jesus are also the questions for us… what do you want from life? Do you want security? Do you want power? Do you want miracles and ways to avoid responsibility?

In a sense we can’t answer these questions by introspection… by sitting in church and examining our soul. These are answered by temptation. They are addressed in the conflicts of the world. But we nevertheless are in worship to be prepared for the conflicts of the world. And what we should be doing is something called liturgy… because we are here to be changed, not merely informed. If we are to be changed in the rest of our life, we need to enter into this temptation drama.

So I have planned a response for us to make

[papers and pens response]

Pray that the Holy Spirit would direct you to one of the three temptations listed.

Secondly that the Holy Spirit would go into bat for your soul in the battle to see clearly the temptation and resist it… these are Jesus’ temptations and following Jesus is not just an airy fairy emotional game it means living life as he did, sharing his battle with temptations.

Security: what practical comforts would you resist surrendering at almost all cost?

Power: What ways do you want to change the world? Does it matter how you get there? Law? Military force? or just a bit of family manipulation?

Miracle: Are you avoiding anything, waiting for an easy way out, like a miracle?

Bruce Hamill (Caversham 21.2.10)

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