Go on – spoil yourself

Sermon preached at Evensong, Christ the Servant, Stockwood, Bristol, 7 March 1976

Are you superstitious? I think everybody at some time crosses their fingers, touches wood, and many will not dare to walk under ladders – and not just from fear of a fancy-free paint pot landing on your head. Others hate seeing crossed knives and can’t bear putting shoes on the table.

You feel very uncomfortable if you break these taboos and superstitions. So vague fear, or threat of having transgressed some tribal or ancient gods, or the bears, if you tread on the lines and not the squares.

There are other things which make you feel uncomfortable. That’s when you do something you know you ought not to do. If the bus conductor forgets to collect your fare and you get off without paying.

You may get away with your 20p still in your pocket, you may get away with doing many wrong things, but you don’t always feel very comfortable. That’s the guilty conscience, for there’s more guilt in not being found out than in being caught in the act.

Of course there are many other things which can make you feel uncomfortable, things which are not really your fault, but you are made to feel inadequate, lacking somehow.

Take cakes, for instance. They can be mouth-watering and tempting. You could yield to their tempting and be all right. But if you were a diabetic, yielding would certainly do you harm, and you’d spoil yourself quite considerably.

The central issue is more complicated than whether or not to eat cakes. Man is an animal with certain basic needs, needs which are essential for him to remain alive. He has a large appetite for food, sex and power. These three will ensure that his species will continue. The same time that he has these appetites, he has also a built-in conviction that he ought to control them, and even at times to control them for the good of his fellows.

There you have again the tension between “I want” and “I ought”. If “I want” proves to be greater than “I ought” then you get acutely uncomfortable feelings that you have betrayed the interests of your fellow men, because the approval of the society in which you live is also very important to your survival. If you put what you want first, then you run the risk of earning the disapproval of everybody else. Do the opposite, and you get approval.

But even being able to win the approval of society may not always be an easy task. The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness make this strikingly clear.

The silence. The stones. The sun. The heavyweight heat. But most of all the silence. Why should Jesus be there at all? To be alone, faced only with yourself, without the distractions, “the dazzling sights and sounds”, is the way to stay strong. A man who runs away from himself to the crowd is useless to the crowd, for the crowd will absorb him, overwhelm him and find his strength wanting.

What did Jesus see on the canvas of his mind?

He saw that he had power. Power. One of man’s basic needs for survival. He had the power to feed people. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to use that power to feed, turn the very stones into bread? Power to feed people who were hungry, men grown callous by their empty stomachs.

Jesus says, “no.”

No charity share-outs. No patronising. He will not give bread. Share bread, break bread, but he would not dish it out like charity from the rich man’s carriage.

He would not use his power to feed himself, but neither did he yield to the tempting suggestion – oh so subtle – of doing good, but a good with strings attached.

Man shall not live by bread alone.

No. Man needs bread and circuses. He needs excitement. Something to sharpen up his drag existence… like winning the pools.

Jesus could provide excitement. What a thrill – jump off the Temple and float gracefully to the ground. What a miracle! What a crowd puller! What surer way than to have a ready-made audience to whom to teach the message of the love of God?

What a subtle temptation, yet again. Think what good could be done! He could come down from the Temple. He could come down from the Cross.

No miracles just to excite the populace.

“No,” says Jesus. This is testing or tempting God. Bending his will to ours, not obeying. With enough miracles you could have the world. Gain the world and lose your soul.

Jesus has power to feed. Power to excite. He has also power to govern. He is the Son of God. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords. All things are to be brought into subjection under his feet.

Maybe so. But Jesus will not coerce, or force or drag men to his throne. He is a king. But a king in whose face you can spit on the way to the Cross and walk away unharmed. He does not keep anyone beneath the jackboot of his authority, as little crawling men.

In love and worship and praise with joy shall you come before God, and not in chains or dust.

With such great riches was Jesus tempted. With such subtle but twisted good was Jesus put to the test.

It is from such an ordeal that we know of the stuff of which he is made, and it is by such ordeals – not the same, but still producing in us the same anguish of spirit, the same turmoil of soul, that we know the stuff of which we are made.

“What shall I say then, Father, save me from this hour?”

Christ in the Garden of Agony. You in the wilderness of temptation and indecision.

“No. For this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Yet we pray in this and every service:

“Lead us not into temptation…”

“May we not be put to the test…”

“Do not bring us to the time of trial…”

Let us not fall back into weakness and sin, nor grasp anything which is not your will.

Let us not rest content, or helpless in time of need, or be cowardly in act or speech.

But God allows this trial, and is sometimes even deaf to frantic appeals, in order to test you and to bring you to greater trust. Only when you expect nothing of yourself and everything of God can you be at peace.

You have to be very little to be carried by God.

“You are too proud, you still rely on yourself. If you want to surmount all temptations, without falling or weakening, calm and serene, you must surrender yourself to him, and be guided like a little child.” (Michel Quoist)

If there is mud, he will carry you in his arms, and save you from falling into evil.

For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, for ever and ever. Amen.

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