The 1st Sunday in Lent, Year B
18 February, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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One year in my last parish, the adult class did a study on discerning your spiritual gifts. One of the important things to bear in mind with that is that the gifts the Holy Spirit has to give are not always given for a lifetime. Sometimes he gives them to certain people to exercise only occasionally, or maybe even only once. Because of this, some people who might have exercised one of his gifts at one time in their lives, but not any more– or at least not recently– may begin to wonder whether God is punishing them, or withdrawing his favor, by taking back the gift he had once given. But that’s not the case at all.
It may be that God has other things in mind for them, for which other gifts may be more appropriate. I know this from my own experience. Even so, a person may be tempted to think that he’s lost favor with God because he no longer has a particular spiritual gift that he once had. It’s a great opportunity for the devil to do his worst in that person’s life. And you can be sure his goal is always to try to lure us away from God. Archbishop Michael Ramsey said that wherever the Holy Spirit of God is particularly active, there you will find the devil doing everything in his power to undo the Holy Spirit’s good work. And the greater the divine activity, the greater also will be the demonic in retaliation. Just think about Jesus’ suffering and death. St John says that as soon as Judas took the bread that Jesus had given him, “Satan entered into him,” and he slipped out to betray Jesus to the high priest (Jn 13:26-27). If Satan had been able to bring down Jesus, he would have ruined God’s whole plan of salvation. Bring down the leaders and the movement falls apart.
An old friend of mine, who was also my confessor and spiritual director for a time, is a man of such deep faith and godly serenity that he’s far more open than most of us to being used by God in whatever way God chooses. And he’s not the sort to fret that he’s lost the use of a certain gift that he might have once had. Instead, he moves on, rejoicing that God had done a good work in somebody’s life, whether through his own or someone else’s ministry.
On the day before I was made a priest, he heard my confession. He didn’t hear anything spectacular or shocking– just the sins of an ordinary man who wanted to make a clean breast of things before such a big and holy event. And that’s what he focussed on in giving me counsel (one of the gifts he’s always had). But then he gave me a word of prophecy, which is a gift that God often only gives in certain situations. He said, “Be on your guard in coming week, for the enemy will try to work powerfully in your life to destroy your ministry at the outset.” I didn’t think much about that at the time, but a few days later some stuff happened. It was then that father confessor’s warning hit me between the eyes. I felt like St Peter who, after having denied knowing Jesus for the third time and heard the rooster crow, he remembered that Jesus had warned him earlier, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (Matt 26.75). Some other things happened quite soon after that. But since father’s words were by then etched on my brain indelibly, I was able to recognize the great tempter behind them, and to deal with them in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to had I not been forewarned.
Clergy and others who exercise leadership in the Church are subject to particular temptations that are unique to our situation. That’s because if the devil can bring down a bishop or a priest, a minister or a televangelist, with a mighty crash, he stands a good chance, not just of bringing down that one person, but of demoralizing a lot of people who look to those leaders for spiritual care– a whole congregation, or diocese, or TV viewing audience. For sure, the devil has all kinds of time for ordinary Christians too. And his goal is always the same– to get you to turn away from God, even if just a little bit. If he can sow even one little seed of doubt in your mind, shake your confidence in one little aspect of the truth of the Gospel, just enough to get you to doubt some of it, a lot of damage will have been done. For example, you won’t be so concerned to teach the faith to your children if you’re not firmly grounded in it yourself; you won’t be so interested going to church or getting involved in other aspects of church life; or standing up for issues that Christians ought to be actively engaging in.
But the leaders are the real prize for the devil. That’s what he’s doing in today’s gospel. He’s trying to undo the leader– the Lord of the Church, the Saviour of the world, the Son of God– before he can ever get his Church off the ground. And how does he do it? He tries to sow doubt in Jesus’ mind, just like he did with Eve in the garden of Eden. “Did God really say that?” he said to her. “He doesn’t want you to eat that fruit because you’ll become like him; and he doesn’t want that to happen. Go ahead, try it. It’s really good.” So she did, and we’ve all had our doubts about God ever since. And every one of Eve’s descendants is born with the stain of that original sin, which we need to have washed away in baptism in order to get right with God.
After forty days of fasting and praying in the desert, Jesus was extremely weak and hungry. Anybody else would have been more than ready to do whatever was demanded of them in exchange for food. But this is the Son of God and the stakes are too high. He came to undo what our first ancestors did when they gave in to the devil’s temptation. Satan said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread… jump off the temple and see if God’s angels will catch you… worship me and I’ll give you control of all these kingdoms.” Mark doesn’t give these details in his gospel, but Matthew and Luke do.
We could spend a lot of time looking at these three temptations, and talking about what similar temptations each of us may be susceptible to, and that would be very helpful. But the most important thing to get out of this is how Jesus responded to each of them. “It is written,” he said, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’… It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’… It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ” At each of the three temptations, Jesus referenced the written word of God which, of course, is his own word since he is the Word of God in human flesh.
The example is there for us to follow. He fired back at Satan with three key statements from Scripture that encompass the whole method and manner of living the Christian life: 1. Live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Study the written word of the Lord, learn it well and apply it to your own life. 2. Don’t put the Lord your God to the test– don’t do things just to see if God really cares, because if you truly believe and trust in him, and if you’re a serious student of his Word, you know that he does. That includes trying to bargain with God– “Lord, if you do this for me, then I’ll do that for you.” That’s not how God operates. Instead he says, “Here’s my covenant” (cf Ross Perot, “Here’s the deal”). It’s up to us to say whether we’re in or out, but there’s no negotiating, because there’s no better deal to be made. In the case of Noah God said, “Get on the ark and I’ll carry you through the flood to safety.” In the case of Jesus he said, “Repent and believe in the Gospel, and I’ll carry you through the water of baptism to eternal safety.” And 3. Jesus’ response to the third temptation, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Don’t put all your hope in the latest get-rich-quick scheme, or anti-aging treatment, or political leader. Instead, keep saying your prayers, reading your Bible, coming to Holy Communion, loving God above all things and your neighbour as yourself. There is where true fulfilment and lasting satisfaction are to be found.
After it was all over, the devil left Jesus, Mark says, and angels came and ministered to him. But we don’t have to wait until after temptation is past. We have the grace of God within reach all the time to help us withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. We have the Word of God, and the good counsel of wise Christians both at the present time and in ages past, to prepare us so that when we do face temptation we’ve got a good understanding of how we ought to respond. And in the heat of the moment we have the loving support of our brothers and sisters in Christ, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and direct access to God through prayer. “Lord, have mercy” is perhaps the simplest and most powerful shield we have against temptation. It’s also the one prayer that fits any occasion.
So if an attractive person that you’re not married to puts the move on you, close your eyes, bow your head, and say, “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy,” over and over again. Or when you see a hundred-dollar bill fall out of someone’s purse and are tempted to pocket it yourself– “Lord, have mercy…” Or when you know it’s time to push away from the table but don’t feel you can, “Lord, have mercy…” God will hear your cry, and he will come to your assistance. But you’ve got to reach up to him so he can grab your hand. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+