05 March 2017
10.30 Parish Eucharist
First Sunday in Lent
Canon Simon Cowling
Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11
‘Failure to prepare is preparation for failure’. This was the watchword of a former colleague of mine. His views about the importance of preparation are ones that I heartily endorse. So, I am pleased to say, does our PCC whose members gave their initial approval in January to the Priory’s next Strategic Vision that we launch today. Since that initial approval, the Vision has been enriched by some very helpful feedback during the consultation stage. Much of this has been incorporated one way or another into the final version which you will all be given a copy of as you leave church today. My hope, my prayer, is that this Vision will enable all of us to prepare for the future. A future in which we will not fail either to receive what our contemporary culture might be saying to us or to offer that culture, in return, something of what we value as a community of faith, committed to welcome, worship, and witness to Jesus Christ. Being alert to the signs of the times does not mean we have to be slaves to every passing fad; it does mean that we are less likely to react as the character in the cartoon reproduced on your news sheet who ignores a trend in the hope that it will simply go away.
It is not a coincidence that we are launching our Strategic Vision today. During the succeeding Sundays in Lent our preachers will be offering both lay and ordained perspectives on the relationship between business and faith, speaking from their own direct experience of industry and commerce. Central to the success of any business, as many of you will know from your own working lives, is a robust business plan – which may be thought of as roughly equivalent to our Strategic Vision. It’s been well said that a business plan ‘can’t guarantee success, but it can go a long way toward reducing the odds of failure.’ In the same way a church’s Strategic Vision, or Mission Action Plan, or whatever it decides to call it, cannot guarantee an immediate spiritual or numerical revival; but it can ensure that enough attention is being paid to the planting and watering of the Gospel seed to allow God to take care of the growth.
In today’s Gospel reading we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. The account is mysterious, almost surreal. In three brief scenes the devil, or the tempter as Matthew also calls him, encounters Jesus in the wilderness, takes him to the Jerusalem temple, and finally takes him to an unspecified ‘very high mountain’. It’s as though the tempter is working steadily through his own business plan: he tries to get Jesus to succumb, after forty days of fasting, to a desire to satisfy his personal needs by turning stones into bread; he tries to inveigle Jesus into taking advantage of his close relationship with God by hurling himself off the temple pinnacle and trusting himself to the angels; and finally the tempter tries to seduce Jesus into accepting the glory of earthly kingship in return for worshipping him. The tempter’s failure is summed up by Matthew in a single terse statement: ‘Then the devil left him..’. The devil’s morally corrupt business plan fails. It fails because it is unable to withstand Jesus’s steadfast witness to the faith embedded in his own Jewish scriptures and tradition: that it is not only bread that gives life, but the very word of God; that God is not to be put to the test; and that God alone is worthy of worship.
Immediately after his testing in the wilderness Jesus begins his public ministry, moving from Galilee eventually to Jerusalem. One way of understanding that public ministry is to see it as, in some way, redeeming the devil’s corrupt business plan. Jesus refuses the tempter’s challenge to turn stones to bread to satisfy his own hunger, but later in St Matthew’s Gospel we will hear an account of how Jesus, having compassion for the hunger of a crowd of many thousands, feeds them with five loaves and two fish. Jesus refuses to put God to the test by assuming that God will command his angels to hold him up when he throws himself off the temple pinnacle, but at the end of his life we will learn the extent of Jesus’s trust in God as he offers up his life, high on the cross, for the life of the world. Finally, on the very high mountain, Jesus refuses the offer of worldly power in return for worshipping the devil, but after his resurrection he reveals himself on a mountain to his disciples as the one to whom God has entrusted all authority not only in earth but also in heaven. All that was corrupt in the tempter’s business plan has been revealed for what it is by being refined and purified through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The precise nature of the temptations to which we are prey in our own time will, of course, differ in detail from the strange account Matthew has left us of Jesus’s experience in the wilderness. Yet we can discern broader equivalences: the temptation to satisfy our own physical needs whilst ignoring those who are unable to satisfy theirs because of poverty or disability; the temptation, however subliminal, to try to make spiritual bargains with God in order to protect ourselves from harm; the temptation to accommodate ourselves too easily to the morally ambiguous nature of much contemporary political culture and its self-seeking exercise of power. These and similar temptations are all characteristic of the tempter’s twenty-first century business plan. Recognising the power of such temptations is the first step to overcoming them. May God bless us all as we support and encourage one another in all that challenges and tempts us, encourages and delights us, and as we journey together under God over the next few years, planting and watering the seed of the Gospel as we go.