Lent 1 ~ Take That Call - Matthew 4.1-11
Perhaps you have heard on the news, that it is now twice as bad to use a mobile phone while driving than it was last week. The government have, rightly, decided that the previous punishments for doing so were too lenient, and people are actually getting killed as a result. Sadly, such an incident happened several years ago, only yards from here when a lady called Yvonne was knocked down on the pavement in the Ridgeway by a driver who was distracted by his phone and so mounted the pavement. Very tragic, in the modern sense of the word.
So now, it’s a £200 fine and 6 penalty points on the driving licence. As you may know, if you get 12 points in a 3 year period, you are banned from driving. Although some other recent news suggested that there are many people still on the roads with many more points than that, who have somehow persuaded the magistrates that even though they are clearly terrible, even dangerous and at least inconsiderate drivers, their ‘need’ to drive’ outweighs the inconvenience of being deprived of the right to do so.
This is not my point though – I’m interested in the radio adverts that are on at the moment, telling us about the doubling of the penalties for using mobile phones. These adverts, seem very fitting for Lent. After explaining the new law, which came into effect on March 1st, the speaker says how tempting it is to use one’s phone while driving, and so suggests that drivers should put their mobiles in the glove compartment. ‘Make the glove compartment the phone compartment’ they say. Good idea. And the reason? Well they say, that the best way to resist the temptation to answer a call or text of whatever, is to put your phone ‘out of temptation’s way’. By hiding your phone on the other side of the car, behind a closed door, not so much the temptation but the ability to answer it will be removed. So the way to handle this issue, to save a fine, and ‘even a life’ is to put temptation out of reach. It’s a good idea – a simple idea, which, I daresay is also effective.
According to the Daily Mail – a newspaper which I examine with great caution – the average Brit makes 22 calls a day and checks their phone every six and a half minutes. A survey was commissioned by Nokia, the company that was in there at the beginning. And it’s interesting to note that their most successful, candy bar shaped phone, which sold millions years ago, has been relaunched. No bells and whistles, just a straightforward phone with a huge battery life. Perhaps there is a new Lenten discipline out there, to return to simple, cheap technology!
Apparently, of the 22 times a day our phone rings, we miss sixteen of them, that is to say, these are interruptions to our lives that we do not want. I’m sure there is an age profile to this too – younger people are more attached to their phones, and tend to want the latest, more sophisticated ones, and they do more with them than simply make calls. In 1998 I had the dubious honour of having my photo printed on the front page of the Times, and subsequently appeared on the ‘Today’ programme, because I had written a spoof marriage service between a mobile phone and its user. The phone just said ‘beep’, but the user promised to keep it by their side, pay attention to it, cherish it and so on. I wrote the daft thing for a parish magazine but the Times picked it up on that new-fangled thing called the internet, and I became famous for a day or two, prophesying a future weddedness to mobile phones. I was of course, joking, although, as they say, many a true word is spoken in jest. And we are indeed wedded to our phones. Try suggesting to someone that they give up their phones for Lent and watch the horror spread across their faces!
This is of course why we now need to pay more attention, and prevention to what else people are doing when they are using their phones. Driving, operating machinery, anything potentially dangerous, is best avoided. The temptation to do so, needs to be avoided.
And that’s the approach – avoid temptation. It sounds very Lenten, doesn’t it?
But it is not. Cast your minds back to the Galilean wilderness two millennia ago. Jesus does not avoid temptation, he does not run away from it, or put it in the glove compartment where he can’t reach it and it can’t reach him. He does not turn his back on Satan or avoid the places where Satan lurks. Rather he goes into the wilderness, almost seeking Satan. He goes into Satan’s domain – the wilderness – and it is not long before Satan arrives and starts tempting, or testing him. Firstly there is the temptation to be self-centred; secondly to test or control God, and thirdly to sell out and take the easy route. Each of these was a real possibility for Jesus: to use his powers and connections to satisfy his own needs and desires; to dictate terms to God of how he would go about being the Messiah, or to do it the easy way, justifying the end by whatever means. In response to each temptation, Jesus quotes scripture, grounding himself and his ministry to come, in Jewish tradition, spirituality and obedience. For ultimately his response to the three temptations is threefold: trust God, obey God, worship God.
Trust God, obey God and worship God – these are three things that we can do well to reflect on in the coming weeks. But before we do that, it is good to remember how we got to these simple truths. For in order for Jesus to both experience and reveal these simple truths, he has to be tested. These three truths emerge from the temptation to do the opposite. When presented by Satan with the opportunity, and encouragement to trust in himself; to do as he wished and to make an idol of himself or other things than God, then can we learn from the temptations he endured, not only for himself, but for us.
Here, at the beginning of his ministry to humanity, we see the one who is God incarnate, behave in a manner that is seamlessly human and divine. In the desert, he reduces himself to basic humanity: parched, starving, delirious, exposed to heat and dry air, no shelter, companionship or stimulation. These are deprivations we dread, which are sometimes used as punishments by unscrupulous judicial systems. These huge challenges, willingly entered into, therefore create huge temptations, temptations to bale out and cave in. It is important to realize that these temptations do not just appear, they are not something which arise randomly for Jesus. Rather he goes out to meet them, he goes into a situation where they will certainly arise. Then, being tempted, his divine will, determination and clarity of purpose, carry him through. In doing so he not only sets an example for us, but actually succeeds for us. As in so many ways, he has gone before us in facing and resisting temptation, and in turning the tempter’s dark power to good. The outcome is that we understand that our calling, in following Christ, is to trust God, obey God and worship God.
What Jesus does in the wilderness is exactly the opposite of putting temptation out of harm’s way. Jesus seeks temptation, whereas we often think in terms of avoiding it. If you give up chocolate for Lent, you make sure there is none in the house. If you want to avoid the temptation to answer your phone while driving, put it in the glove box or leave it behind. But if you want to face temptation, rather than avoid it, and thereby really grow in spiritual discipline, then leave the phone on the seat next to you and make sure there is plenty of chocolate in the fridge! Just don’t eat it, or take that call. People who give up alcohol for Lent stop going to the pub. That makes it easier.
Yet we are human, and we do not necessarily need to seek temptation, it is all around us anyway. And when it comes to spiritual discipline we can never play in the same league as our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness, is a tour de force of spiritual power and self-control. Jesus doesn’t make it easier for himself, he makes it harder – as hard as possible. Harder, perhaps than any human could endure. He has set the gold standard in temptation-resistance.
May that help us but a little as we seek to honour him in this season, and strive always to take that call after all. The call, that is, to repentance and self-denial in the face of the temptation to fail to trust in God, obey God and worship God.
Good luck – in the name of the Lord!
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 5/3/17