Ash Wednesday Sermon 2020 – Temptation
Temptation and Lent
Do you go or have you ever been to a gym? The idea of a gym is to build our physical fitness and is a good thing to do even when we are older to strengthen deteriorating muscles and make it less likely that we will fall over and injure ourselves; balance is something that can go as we get older. Working in a gym can restore our weakening balance. Unused muscles cannot help when we need them in an emergency and we can get injured even seriously.
Ash Wednesday today is the beginning of Lent. Lent is a spiritual gym; a season of the year when we can choose to strengthen our spiritual muscles to be able to cope with unexpected temptation which comes round the corner: temptation which can come from:
the world – its standards which are so different from the standards of the Kingdom of God;
the flesh – when we are constantly pushed about by what our bodies are saying to us; and
the devil – when we are being tempted spiritually particularly giving priority to things which are less important than what God is calling us to do or procrastinating about things which God is calling us to do.
As with physical muscles, we need to put our spiritual muscles under stress to learn how to respond when we are tempted. The difference between strengthening our physical muscles and our spiritual muscles is that any spiritual discipline that we engage in can help us resist any temptation.
I don’t know how good you are at dealing with temptation, but over the course of my life I have had great sympathy with Oscar Wilde’s great comment in his book the Portrait of Dorian Gray “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it’.
Whilst I might argue that giving in to many of the sort of temptations I face: an excessive interest in cake, for example, does not do harm to anyone else, I think I have actually been protected against really serious temptation which could affect others, those I love….
Only by a life spent in regular self discipline in small areas can we expect to be able to deal with serious and potentially disastrous temptation when it comes.
How can we use Lent to build our spiritual muscles?
Firstly, lets not treat Lent as simply another way to diet not eating chocolate or cake really is too self regarding to be a proper way to build our spiritual muscles, because we have more than one motivation for doing it – less sugar less weight as well as resisting something we want out of a wish to honour God.
Lets instead build our spiritual muscles by determining to change our behaviour in positive ways this Lent by adopting new patterns of behaviour which we will of course be tempted to abandon when other priorities challenge them, like the temptation to abandon going to the gym In January. But how do we go about this?
Last year we held a Lent Course on the Diocesan Rule of Life. Establishing a rule of life and then sticking to it is a really good way of ensuring that we can grow our spiritual muscles in response to temptation.
For example, one of my tutors at theological college had a rule of life that he always gave money to anyone who asked him so during the class that he explained this one of the students immediately asked for money, and he gave her 10p!
I am not suggesting that we all have that rule, but we might like to think about establishing a rule about when we give in the street and when we do not.
What I tend to do is pray for discernment and do give if prompted to do so.
But the key thing with a rule of life is:
to implement; and
to review the rule which we establish
Tomorrow, as the first day in Lent we should be deliberate about planning a rule of life. We should pray about it and see where God guides us, it should be challenging, not box ticking.
So taking us out of our comfort zone, out of what we would feel easy about doing, but not so difficult that we wont achieve it.
The Diocesan Rule of Life is only a suggested approach. The rule suggests that we work out how we are going to live in the three key areas:
I will hand out at the end of the service a pamphlet called ‘Sharing God’s Life’ which suggests ways of doing this. The pamphlet is a bit complicated and frankly a bit ambitious for many of us, but it might give a sense of the range of rules that we might plan for our Lent.
So lets keep it simple: I suggest that we adopt three resolutions, only three, of something new that we are going to do during Lent in each of these areas:
So these are mine
I am going to listen to a Christian podcast with Lucy at least once a week, we will diarise this
I am going to assemble and pray daily for a list of people in the parish that they come to faith in Jesus Christ
I am going to be more disciplined about my conversation with people. And as I mentioned In February IVN Avoid the ‘thud’; avoiding being gloomy or negative In conversation
Its always going to be a temptation to fall into usual way of doing things as we determinedly decide to emphasise these things we have chosen to do for lent, If other priorities come in and affect us, we need to resist. Lent is about proceeding anyway even if we don’t want to its difficult
and so we will not be able to do this by ourselves. We will need to call on the Holy Spirit to help us to give us the self discipline to give us the persistence and to change our hearts so that we want to stick to what we have decided to do.
But if we can manage this, as our habits change, so will our character and we will find that it is much easier to fight off really serious temptations when they arise.