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Getting the Balance Right Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11

Introduction
There is a great deal of anxiety about the comments made by the Archbishop in his lecture on Thursday about the law. I do not necessarily feel the need to defend him whilst being loyal. But I do think we need to rise above the angry complaints in the media and try to understand what Rowan Williams was actually saying. Part of his leadership as archbishop is to raise difficult questions. I believe, on an initial reading of his lecture (which is available online), that he is asking a question about balance. Bearing in mind that there are significant religious minorities who are part of British society, like Moslems or orthodox Jews, how can we frame the law in such a way that it avoids forcing a choice in loyalties? How can we get the balance right between loyalty to the law of the land and loyalty to your religion when there might be a clash, say in marriage or personal morals? It is actually a question that some Christians have had to ask themselves, too. We are being asked to face up to the reality of our present society, and to be grown up in how we grapple with the need to change in order that we may live peaceably, securely and with proper freedom. We begin to do that by looking closely at the foundations of religious law and the foundations of British law.

Balance in the Wilderness
Our Bible readings today, whilst not giving us a direct answer to these complex questions, can also be seen as a search for balance. Jesus was driven, after his baptism, into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. On one level it is a story about the way Jesus withstands temptation as a preparation for his mission. But in order for it to mean something to us, we need to work a little at interpreting it. I suggest that we may look at it in terms of getting the balance right. Balance is not a bland thing – in order for an aeroplane to take off, a careful balance between air pressure either side of the wing enables flight. We all know the importance of a balanced diet in nourishing our bodies properly.
Jesus prepared for his mission by working out the right balance in the questions which would face him during his life and work over the three short years that led to the cross. So let us look at each of the temptations in more detail.

First, a general comment about all the temptations: the devil uses something that is rightly a part of human nature and tries to twist it to his own purposes. The three things are appetite, affirmation and ambition. I may be forcing it a little, but it helps us remember if all three begin with the same letter!

Appetite
Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness. In this Matthew means us to recall Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness as they wandered about, going without a home, in order to learn God’s will for them, preparing to enter and settle in the Promised Land. But where so often Israel failed in God’s plan for them Jesus succeeds. There may be nothing wrong in offering a starving man something to eat. Like any other human, Jesus had an appetite. But the point is that Jesus must end his fast in his own way, at the right time, under his own control, rather than giving in to the suggestion that he could use his miraculous powers to satisfy his own craving. To give in to his appetite on this one occasion would open him up to giving in every time his appetite cried out for satisfaction during his ministry and when he hung on the cross at the end.

The response Jesus gave was a quotation from Scripture. We are dependent on physical food, but we also need to feed our spiritual nature with the word of God. In resisting the temptation Jesus maintains a right balance. So often we starve the spiritual need for nourishment because we are so busy giving in to the demands of the physical appetite – whether it is food, intimacy or comfort. It was a balance that Eve and Adam forgot to maintain as they saw how appealing the forbidden fruit was and forgot that there was plenty of other food in the garden. If they were to maintain their communion with God, walking with him every evening, they would need to obey his command not to eat the fruit of that tree.

Affirmation
Every human needs affirmation or love. Jesus had just received his heavenly Father’s affirmation at his baptism in the form of the words from heaven: “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!” But the devil’s temptations take the form of questioning that affirmation with three “ifs”: if you are the Son of God then do this or that. Again, just at a weak point the devil comes to a man who has been on his own for 6weeks, and offers him a way of gaining affirmation from admiring crowds. Create a spectacle! Jump from a high place and land safely because God will send his angels to protect you! After all, you are God’s precious son!

Jesus’ scriptural response is that God is not to be tested. If God has said something, he means it, and it does not need to be tried out. Whilst Jesus needed love just as much as any other human, and whilst affirmation would have been part of his healthy development as a child and a young person, trying to force popularity and adulation from the crowds was not necessary to fulfil his mission. Whilst Jesus called people to accept him, he already knew that his heavenly Father affirmed him. The need for human acceptance was balanced by divine affirmation. If he gave in to the temptation to make a spectacle to gain a following now, then every time a miracle was called for during his ministry, he would never be sure of performing it for the right reason.

Achievement
A great deal of education in the modern world is about providing each individual with the means to achieve their full potential, to so teach a child that she or he may do what they are capable of, whether it be less or more, physical skill or intellectual ability. Every person needs to know that they can achieve something worthwhile, to make their life fulfilling and meaningful. In some senses, there is nothing wrong with ambition – the desire to do well and push the limits in order to achieve your full potential. But again, the devil hits Jesus’ at a weak point. Just as Jesus is wrestling with the way to fulfil his mission, the devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world. In other words, the devil offers Jesus power by acquiring the splendour of political rule. In the days when the religion of a king or emperor determined the religion of those he ruled, this will have made more sense than it does to us in the modern world.

However, there is a cost involved: the devil wants the Son of God to hand over allegiance to him: bow down and worship me and then I’ll give you the power to achieve your mission on earth! It is as if the devil finally blows it – he has tried too hard. Of course Jesus wants to achieve his mission, to complete that for which his heavenly Father had sent him into the world. But what the devil offers is only an illusion. Did the devil really have all the kingdoms of the world to offer as his own? In fact, did he really have the affirmation and the fulfilment of appetite to offer in the previous two temptations? The devil is actually lost in his own world of illusions – he lives in delusion, and that is all he has to offer: illusions. His greatest delusion comes from his desire to be God when he is not. He cannot accept his lesser state and therefore he rebels and tries to persuade all others to rebel against who they are. But Jesus knows who he is and accepts his role and mission. He keeps the balance between achieving his mission and remaining in the worship and service of God.

Conclusion
Keeping your balance is a lifelong challenge. (And for some that may be literally true!) Today’s scriptures and our society calls us to renew that search for balance. Without constant adjustment, we fail to go forward or stay upright. As with the need for society to maintain its balance between many competing interests, so also we need to maintain our balance in those three aspects of being human: appetite, affirmation and achievement. May the Spirit so help and guide us to be who we are: fully human created by God!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith

 

   


 
 

Heavenly Father,
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen


 

 



Acknowledgements