Sermon - Sunday, 1 March 2020

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 1 March 2020

Scripture: Deuteronomy 8: 1-10 / Matthew 4: 1-11

Text: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights he was hungry.             (Matthew 4: 1)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

You can’t paddle a canoe with one foot on the bank!

That is one of the proverbs the present Moderator, Colin Sinclair, remembers from his time working in Zambia.

You can’t paddle a canoe with one foot on the bank!

Writing in the March edition of the Church of Scotland’s Life and Work magazine[1], Colin explains that far from being a time to give something up – chocolates or whatever – the season of Lent is when we remember the focus of Jesus’ ministry turning from being the wandering preacher, teacher and healer in Galilee towards Jerusalem and the cross.

From being the prophet who teaches and heals, Jesus becomes the priest who suffers and dies and as the journey to Jerusalem quickens, it is noticeable Jesus spends much less time with the crowds and much more time with his disciples.

Evidently Jesus is concerned not just to warn them of what lies ahead but to teach them that if they really are committed to being one of his followers then it is not always going to be a walk in the park.

His journey – Jesus’ journey – will involve denial, betrayal, suffering and crucifixion – and although it will not end there – the surprising joy of Easter dawn awaits – Jesus’ disciples should understand that sacrifice may be required of them too, a sacrifice so eloquently captured by the German theologian and martyr in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship.

Did they grasp that – do we grasp it – the cost of discipleship, that is, Jesus’ calling us to living a very different way of life and to aspiring to very different values and standards from those the world often considers appropriate.

The plaque nailed to his cross proclaimed him king of the Jews – yet here was a king crowned with thorns, not jewels.

And far from being served and treated as a celebrity, the centre of attention, fawned over and waited on hand and foot, the invitation was to follow the example Jesus set when he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the dirty feet of his disciples.

Glory it would appear is not what it seems, discipleship comes with a cost.

So to make sure they understood the cost, Jesus told his disciples about three people for whom following Jesus proved to be a step too far[2].

The first declared his willingness to follow Jesus but it was clear he was only interested in what he could get out of it and not what he would be willing to give.

The second hesitated, prevaricated and pleaded an excuse, something in which few of us need many lessons.

This man needed to bury his father - on the surface very reasonable for when would a family funeral not take priority – except the suggestion seems to be his father was not yet dead and he was simply postponing the moment of decision.

Meanwhile the third person was the most plausible – let me put my affairs in order and say goodbye to friends and family.

As Colin observes however, Jesus sees what we cannot see, senses the hesitation in the man’s heart and tells him (and us) that a ploughman only looks straight ahead, never backwards, if he wants to plough a straight furrow. 

Or as they say in Zambia; You can’t paddle a canoe with one foot on the bank.

So what of Jesus as we hear about him being led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil?

Although they differ slightly in detail, what are known as the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all record that following his baptism and before his return to Galilee, Jesus spent time in the wilderness.

Evidently Jesus’ ministry as the Son of God, something so dramatically confirmed at his baptism, is about to be put to the test.

Notice please I use the word test rather than the word tempt.

Although this period of 40 days and nights which Jesus spent in the wilderness is traditionally described as the temptation of Jesus, the English language doesn’t do justice to the original Greek.

The Greek word in question is the verb periazo and although it can be translated by to tempt it has a fuller, more nuanced, meaning than simply temptation.

Whereas to tempt is to induce or persuade someone to do something wrong, periazo means to test in the sense of finding out if someone or something is suitable, fit for purpose, we might say.

All these years earlier rescued from slavery in Egypt, God led Israel through the wilderness on her long sojourn to the Promised Land, long and difficult years during which the people of Israel complained, rebelled, created golden idols to worship and pleaded with Moses to take them back to Egypt.

Yet as the Hebrew author of Deuteronomy discerned,

The Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.[3]

So what was in Jesus’ heart?

And would Jesus prove fit for purpose?

As the story unfolds Matthew takes us on a journey.

The journey begins in the desert wilderness, a place of danger and chaos but in Hebrew tradition a place of revelation where, for example, Moses encountered God in the flames of a burning bush. 

The scene moves to Jerusalem, the centre of political, economic and religious power in ancient Israel and the focal point of Israel’s hopes for restoration.

And the journey culminates on a mountain with a panoramic view over all the kingdoms of the world.

If you are the Son of God…………..

Famished at the end of his fasting, the issue is not whether Jesus has the power to turn stone into bread but whether he will use his God given power to satisfy his own needs.

If you are the Son of God…………

The scene moves to the high point of the temple, the visible symbol of God’s presence and the meeting place of heaven and earth.

Again the issue is not whether God would send angels to catch Jesus but whether or not Jesus feels the need to put God to the test.

If you are the Son of God…………

The final test again challenges Jesus’ vocation for each test has opened new and broader horizons and now all the kingdoms of the world are set before him in all their glory, his to order and control, his to manage and do with as he pleases, if only he will change his allegiance.

Here is the heart of the matter, a question of power, for the power offered is the power to dominate, manipulate and exploit, the power to conquer and control, divide and destroy, the use and abuse of power we see exercised so often in the affairs of international politics or in the workplace or even in the church or even in the home.

Whatever it is, it represents the complete opposite to our Lord’s way of the cross and the power of God’s healing, renewing and sacrificial love.

If you are the Son of God…………

Christianity is very much a minority religion in Sri Lanka and one of the things Margaret and I learned during our recent visit is that the Christian church is not allowed to evangelize or advertise its presence.

Does that mean it is powerless?

Established in 1842 by tea planters, St Andrews, the Scots Kirk, in Colombo is a vibrant and much trusted presence in the city.

The international congregation numbers about 100 members, some native Sri Lankan, others drawn from various Christian denominations – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic - from around the world.

As well as Sunday worship the congregation offers a worshipping space to the Korean Christian community, runs a residential care home for women with learning difficulties, and serves lunch each week to some 140 people drawn from the poorest and lowest paid people in the local community.

And one of the things which really impressed was their commitment to being an open, welcoming, hospitable, tolerant and inclusive presence in a society which is not without its ethnic divisions and quite shocking political corruption.

Lent – the time when Jesus moved from the towns and villages of Galilee and started on his journey to Jerusalem.

Lent – a time to reflect upon the things in life that really matter and the people in life who really matter.

And as in the coming days we ponder the cost of discipleship, Lent is also a time to recall you cannot paddle a canoe with one foot on the bank.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] The Rt Rev Colin Sinclair,. Get Ready, Life and Work, March 2020, p15

[2] Luke 9: 56-62

[3] Deuteronomy 8: 2