Temptation and Repentance


I’ve been thinking back to Lent in my childhood, trying to remember what marked it out from other seasons.  I don’t remember being asked to give anything up, but during and immediately after the war there were few luxuries to give up – my one sweet a day, perhaps, but plain biscuits and homemade fruit cake were a useful part of the diet for growing children.  There were some restrictions – my father, by no means a killjoy, did not approve of going to the cinema or the theatre during Lent.  Church services were marked by hymns and psalms in minor keys, and the Litany – all of it!  I suppose the sermons were suitably admonitory, but the only thing I remember from any of them must have been in my teens, when perhaps the idea of giving up something was more common; one Sunday morning Prebendary Howard said ‘Of course, even in Lent, Sunday is a feast day, so you shouldn’t fast’- he probably earned the undying gratitude of half the congregation!


Yes, Lent is a penitential season, but it gives us opportunities we don’t get at any other time.  In Advent we’re often too busy preparing for the Christmas activities to use the four weeks properly, but in Lent we know that we are journeying towards the Crucifixion before we can rejoice at the Resurrection, and there is space to think about our priorities, to grow in understanding of ourselves and deepen our trust in God. 


Our readings help, and today we have heard Luke’s account of Jesus in the wilderness, facing some powerful temptations.  Luke makes it clear that this is not a once and for all experience; the devil, he says, left Jesus ‘until an opportune time.’  If we ever think of Jesus as some kind of superhero who conquered temptation in these forty days and never had to face it again, we’re way off the mark.  More than once he is tempted, by Peter, by the soldiers at the Cross, even by one of the thieves crucified with him, to abandon his purpose.  Jesus knows only too well how temptations return, especially at a low point when resistance is hardest.


When he goes into the wilderness after his baptism, having heard his Father’s words of love and affirmation, he is seeking space and solitude to decide how he is going to fulfil his mission.  What does it mean to be God’s Son?  What sort of Messiah will he be?  He faces three possible answers – to appease his hunger, and therefore the hunger of others; to live by worldly standards, allowing himself to be made king; and to win people’s admiration by spectacular displays of power.  As Luke tells it, these temptations come at the end of forty days in which Jesus has eaten nothing; imagine how he feels, lonely, tired, probably cold, and famished – no wonder His first thought is the possibility of turning stones into bread!  But he doesn’t dwell on that thought, nor on any of the others – he turns instead to the Hebrew Scriptures which he would have known from boyhood, and finds words from the book of Deuteronomy which strengthen his resistance: ‘Man does not live by bread alone’, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’.  By the third time the devil is getting wise to this, and quotes Scripture himself, from today’s Psalm: ‘He shall give his angels charge over you ... lest you dash your foot against a stone.’  But Jesus is able to answer, again from Deuteronomy, that God’s power is not there to be tested by cheap stunts, but to bring life and healing: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’  These temptations to put himself and his needs at the centre of his work are, of course, in his own mind; he faces them squarely and rejects them, knowing that above all else he must trust God and follow his costly and painful path to the end.


None of us is exempt from temptation, and we all give in to it at times.  I’m not talking about sneaking the last chocolate biscuit from the tin when no one is looking, but the choices we make, almost without realising it, which put ourselves at the centre rather than God, and sometimes cause us to neglect those who need our help.  The temptations that face Jesus as he struggles with his vocation symbolise the ones we all face; in Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go’ one of the verses begins, ‘preserve me from my calling’s snare’ – Wesley had evidently experienced the fact that it is often in the tasks to which we feel particularly called, which seem to use our abilities best, that we are tempted to think it is all our own doing and forget that it is God who has given them to us.  It’s not only bankers and journalists who are tempted to use their power for the wrong ends – we can all do it.  And then there are the things we wish we didn’t do – speaking the sharp answer, the unkind word about someone; or those we wish we were better at making time for – the letter of thanks or sympathy, the offer of help.  Perhaps we’re tempted to feel we are too busy, or too young or too old, too powerless, to engage with some of the world’s big problems in any way, but we have the freedom to protest at injustice without fearing reprisals, unlike many in other parts of the world.  Do we use that freedom?


A positive and creative way to use Lent would be to find some time when we can be quiet and alone – easier for some of us than others, I know – to consider our lives, humbly and honestly, and how we can resist the temptations to which we are particularly prone.  We may find it helpful to remind ourselves of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, where there are some very clear guidelines about living in God’s way: ‘Be merciful’; ‘Do not judge’; ‘Love your enemies’, for example.  We’re not meant to wallow in guilt, just to acknowledge our failings before God, to repent and say ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ and to know that in God’s great love we are forgiven and able to make a new start.


The writer Michael Mayne, said: ‘Repentance will change me: it will not make me grovel to a God of whom I am afraid; it will deepen my trust and my love, and allow me to be truly myself.’


May this Lent be a good and healing time for us all.


Sheila Richmond, 1st Sunday of Lent 2013