Getting spiritually fit (Ash Wednesday)

St Michael’s, 10th February 2016

Readings – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Matthew 4:1-11

I have never been a particularly sporty kind of person. I lack the co-ordination and speed of reaction to hit a ball. I also cannot throw or properly extend my arm. The one thing I can do, however, is run. And when I am able, doing a good three or four miles is a wonderful way to refresh both the body and the mind.

But even though I am not very sporty, I do know that in order to go for a run it is important to warm up properly. You can’t simply decide to jump out of bed and head for the front door. You have to stretch and flex the muscles you are using, making sure you don’t miss out on any of your exercises, so that by the time you leave the house your knees and your hamstrings and every other part of you is ready for the run.

And I guess if I were to take running more seriously and to enter a competition I would have to prepare even more thoroughly. Maybe I would have to join a gym or hire a trainer. I’d have to prepare a strict schedule of training runs and have an exacting programme of exercises. There wouldn’t be any days off just because the weather looked a bit damp or a bit windy. I’d be out there come what may, striving to achieve my goals (and please note, I am talking theoretically!)

Why? Because when the day of the competition came, I’d be wanting to achieve my personal best. I’d like to say I had put in my best effort, that all the hard slog in the weeks and months up to the event had paid off and now I had a time I was proud of.

How does all this relate to the Christian life? Well, when you sign up to follow Jesus, you are whether you like it or not, entering into a spiritual conflict. The evil one doesn’t appreciate the fact you have chosen to join the winning side, and he will do what he can to try and knock you off course. That’s why as believers it is so necessary to develop the habit of spiritual discipline, to spend time and effort in all weathers and in all seasons concentrating on building up our faith.

In the ancient world the second most important event after the Olympic Games were the Isthmian Games held near the city of Corinth. The people to whom Paul was writing in our first reading would have known all about the athletes and boxers and the training schedules every competitor would follow. Yet when you read Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church, you get the impression that the church itself was remarkable for its distinct lack of spiritual discipline. Although all kinds of wonderful things were happening, it was also a place where different leaders vied for attention; where sin was not only tolerated but celebrated; where there were divisions between rich and poor.

It’s for this reason that Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.

In other words, you Corinthians know how hard the athletes work to win first place in the Isthmian games. You’ve seen their training routines and their self-discipline. But you know that in a couple of years’ time there may well be a different winner and today’s victor will be yesterday’s news. You on the other hand are being offered a crown of glory that will never fade, a place among the saints that will be permanent and secure. So what are you doing to get ready for that day?

And to me, it seems Paul’s challenge to the church in Corinth is also a challenge to us. We all know how hard our athletes train for competitions. We know that the reward they receive is fleeting and how quickly champions of old get forgotten. Yet isn’t there something that we can learn from their example of self-discipline? So often we lose sight of the crown of the glory that Jesus has promised to all who love Him. We get distracted by the things of this life. We say we are too busy to read our Bibles properly or to meet together to pray. We believe there are more valuable things to do with our time. And when we think like that, we’re actually getting knocked off course and becoming weak and ineffective in our faith.

That’s why we need the season of Lent. We need a time of year not just to give up something like chocolate or coffee, but to take up new habits of spending time with the Lord, both on our own and with others. Lent is a time of year to remind ourselves that, yes, our faith really is the important thing in our life, and to take pro-active measures to build up and strengthen our relationship with the Lord.

So how do we do this? This is where I want to turn to our gospel reading from Matthew. To put it into context: Jesus has just been baptised by his cousin John the Baptist. At the moment he comes out of the water the Spirit of God descends on Him like a dove and a voice from heaven declares: This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased (Matt 3:17). If there were any doubt before, we can now be absolutely certain – Jesus is the one anointed and appointed by God to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, the long-awaited Messiah come to save His people.

What then is the first thing Jesus does? Well, instead of immediately rushing out into the countryside of Galilee, announcing His presence, He goes into the desert. Or to be more precise, He is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1). Now the more you think about the verse, the more you begin to see this is truly remarkable. Here is the Spirit of the living God leading the Son of the living God to be tempted by the one who in the ultimate scheme of themes has no real authority, who can claim no final victory.

Why? Because Jesus also came to this earth as a real human being, to identify with us in our every weakness and every temptation. And just like us, He needed to develop the self-discipline necessary to remain on course and so fulfil the will of His Heavenly Father. So He ends up in the desert, a place where there is nothing to see but vast expanses of coarse sand and nothing to hear except the wind howling across the dunes – all so that, when He finally begins His busy public ministry, He is sure He is able to identify His Father’s voice and live obediently to His will.

Of course the temptations Jesus faced out in the desert were of a completely different order and magnitude to the ones that we face. But isn’t it interesting that we nonetheless have a written account of His experiences? This tells me, at least, that later on Jesus must have shared something of what He suffered with His disciples, because He recognised that fundamentally the temptations He went through were of the same nature as ours.

And what exactly were these temptations?

First of all, the temptation to self-reliance:

Matthew 4:2-3: After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Now it’s important to realise that in this verse the tempter isn’t questioning the identity of Jesus. He knows Jesus is the Son of God, the living word through whom all things were made. And he knows all about Jesus’ baptism and how the Spirit has led Him out into the desert. No, what the tempter is saying is actually more subtle. “You know who you are. You know the power you have been given and you know your immediate need. Go on. Use that power to meet your needs. There’s nothing stopping you doing it, is there?”

And we can only imagine how powerful that temptation must have been to Jesus, weak and exhausted as He must been. Because – and this is where these verses become relevant to us – when you are in need, the natural human reaction is to fix the problem ourselves. We sometimes say half-jokingly how we resorted to a prayer as a last resort, when we didn’t know what else to do. It might simply be, of course, that we forgot to pray. But I reckon most of the time the problem is more deep-rooted in that. There is a streak of pride in all of us which means we look to ourselves more than to our Heavenly Father, to rely on our own resources than on His ability to provide.

As I said a few weeks back, this is one reason why we find it so hard to live by the values of the Beatitudes. We may know in theory that blessed are the poor in spirit but we so often lack the discipline to depend day by day, hour by hour, on our Heavenly Father. We think we don’t really need His help, and we keep Him as a fire-alarm God, there to be used only in emergencies. The first and most important spiritual discipline, therefore, we need to learn is to come before Him with empty hands and willing hearts, trusting that He will supply our every need.

Then there’s the temptation of self-promotion.

Moving on to verses 5-6: Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “”He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Wouldn’t that have been a spectacular way to start your ministry? A death defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem down into the valley below. You could imagine how the news would spread like wildlife, how Jesus would be feted in every town and village where He set foot and how the crowds would bow down before Him. And at least according to the devil, there was good Scriptural reason to think that Jesus would indeed be kept safe by His Heavenly Father. Surely those who trust in the Lord can rely on His protection, can’t they?

Well, I hope you can begin to see by now why this line of thinking was so flawed. Even if Jesus didn’t end up as a bloody mess on the valley floor, the end result would be to glorify Him not to honour the Father. But even so, it still remains the case there are followers of Jesus who still sadly abuse the word of God to promote themselves, a ministry based on a verse taken out of context, often backed up by slick promotion and spin. The only ministry that matters in any church is that which glorifies our Heavenly Father by promoting the name of Jesus Christ.

And even beyond this, there is also I believe a less dramatic but still relevant for all of us. God’s word is not like a chocolate box where you can pick out a random verse that suits your purposes. That’s why, I for one, have issues with those Bible reading notes or phone apps where you get an unrelated verse each day. Properly used, they can be a great resource. But if you want to understand the whole will of God, it’s important you know how Scripture fits together.

So taking this Psalm which the devil quotes, it’s striking to note that he doesn’t quote the previous verse but one which puts his words into a proper context – Psalm 91:9: If you make the Most High your dwelling – even the Lord, who is my refuge. You see, this psalm is not about sticking your neck out and believing you will be rescued from every foolish act. It’s about humble, dependent trust in the Lord, the very opposite from the way the devil tried to make it sound.

Finally there is the temptation of self-fulfilment.

Verses 8-9: Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Here in this temptation we see most clearly how the devil is the father of all lies. We’ve already said how ultimately Satan has no real power, no real authority. Yet he likes to exaggerate his importance. He likes to think that the kingdoms of the world really are at his disposal and that he has the power to give them to whoever he wants.

But the reality is, that power does not belong to him. Yet he knows how to exploit our weaknesses. He knows that most of us in our idle moments imagine what it would be like to have a little more, take life a little more easy, spend more time just as we wish. And human nature being what it is, it can be so easy to get knocked off course in our faith by following the dreams.

What we need to recognise, as Jesus did, is that our dreams can never satisfy. The problem is that whatever you have is never enough. Often the people with the most are the people who are most unhappy. We may think that wealth and power are the route to success, but the only way we can find true fulfilment is through loving service of our Lord.

That’s why I have deliberately put the word “self” in front of all three temptations – “self-reliance”, “self-promotion”. “self-fulfilment”. In the spiritual battle we face day by day the constant temptation is make ourselves rather than the Lord the centre of our attention. And if we want any encouragement, the world, the flesh and the devil are always there telling us that focusing on self is good, that we don’t really need God, and to rely and trust in Him is either wishful thinking of a dangerous fantasy.

So how does Jesus resist these temptations? If you look carefully at verses 4,7, and 10 you will see that every time he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy. Jesus doesn’t fight temptation with a few random Bible quotes or his favourite couple of verses. He obviously has been spending the past forty days deeply, deeply meditating on this particular part of the Bible, reflecting how to live faithfully for the Lord and seeking out His Father’s will for His life.

And I believe there is a really important lesson for us here. I talked earlier about the need to get spiritual fit, and the need to train each day for the conflict we face. I expect all that I have said hasn’t been particularly new to most of us here. We know the importance of reading and reflecting on God’s word. We do want to run in such a way as to get the prize. We do want to honour our Heavenly Father.

The trouble may be, however, that over the years our training regime may have fallen rather out of shape. I would be surprised if any of us didn’t from time to time skip a day or two, or find it hard to get enthusiastic about their Bible, or struggle in their prayer life. That is the reason why this Lent I have set myself the task of meeting with folk to talk about their walk with the Lord. Not that I am in any sense better at this than anyone else. But if together we find a new love for Jesus, hear Him speak afresh through His word, and rediscover the joy of prayer, then I believe that we will journey to the cross this year with a new sense of thankfulness and joy.

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