Tempted as we are yet without sin


Tempted as we are yet without sin

Published: 24th February, 2024

The First Sunday of Lent
18th February 2024
Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-end
Psalm 25:1-9
Mark 1:9-15

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The story of Jesus’ temptation is a familiar one, but Mark’s telling of it feels unfamiliar.  We are used to the versions we find in Matthew and Luke, with detailed descriptions both of Jesus’ interactions with Satan and of the specific temptations themselves.  These stories give the preacher much more to get stuck into; there are many interesting points of reflection that can be drawn out of the details that are found in Matthew and Luke.  But these details are not found in Mark’s account.

It is characteristic of Mark’s gospel that he is in a hurry.  Mark is very much shorter than the other gospels.  There are fewer stories, there is much less of Jesus’ teaching.  And the stories that there are are often told with great brevity.  This morning’s gospel is a good example.  Three significant incidents, each of which is usually given a Sunday in its own right in the Christian year, are compressed into a few short sentences.  Sentences beginning with “and”, the use of the word “now” and Mark’s favourite word “immediately”, combine to give the passage a sense of urgency and haste.

The interesting thing about Mark’s account of the temptation, bereft of the details that give so much colour and interest to Matthew and Luke’s accounts, is that we only really have one thing to focus on: the fact of Jesus’ being tempted.  And that could be quite important.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”  So writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.  This verse is always on the back of my mind when thinking about Jesus’ temptation.  It’s important because it saves us from a good deal of agony and angst.  All of us are tempted.  Numerous times each day some unpleasant thought will present itself to us; numerous times each day some deceptively pleasant thought will present itself to us.  We are tempted to say something hurtful, we are tempted to gossip, we are tempted to some act of selfishness, we are tempted to neglect our duties to God and neighbour, we are tempted to avoid doing some good thing that we could very easily do.  And it’s very easy to feel guilty about all these temptations.

And when we feel guilty about the temptations we often find that our resistance to temptation is weakened.  If we think we’re doing something wrong just by being tempted to do some tempting thing, then the step from being tempted to actually doing the tempting thing doesn’t seem so great.  By feeling guilty about temptation, we inadvertently reduce the psychological gap between temptation and actual sin.

But here is the first piece of good news about Jesus’ temptation: this story tells us that there is nothing wrong with being tempted.  Temptation is the common lot of humanity: Jesus shares with us in being tempted.  And yet the bible is clear that Jesus is without sin, so we must be clear in our minds that there is no sin in being tempted.  Recognising this will make us stronger to resist temptation, and it will also save us a whole lot of unnecessary guilt and angst.

The second piece of good news is that Jesus’ shows us the possibility of triumph over temptation.  Curiously this isn’t actually obvious in Mark’s account; unlike Luke and Matthew, he doesn’t specifically say that Jesus succeeded in resisting temptation.  But given what follows, we can surely take it as read that Satan’s tempting of Jesus was unsuccessful.  Here too is great encouragement for us.  Our own struggles with temptation can at times feel overwhelming and even hopeless.  We grow frustrated with ourselves, we even despair of ourselves.  And of course it is just here that we make ourselves even more vulnerable to temptation.  We are tempted to throw in the towel.  Why bother with the struggle to be the person God wants us to be when we keep on making such a hash of it?  May as well just embrace living a self-centred life.

But as Christians we are not merely in the business of trying very hard to be better people.  Of course we do need to try very hard to be better, but that’s not actually the main thing.  The main thing is that humanity is already perfected and fulfilled in Jesus Christ; in Jesus Christ humanity has already defeated temptation and sin and death.  Yes the Christian life is about struggle, but that struggle is a part of a much bigger picture in which redeemed humanity has triumphed in Christ.

And so when we struggle with temptation, we do not struggle alone.  Not only do we share in the struggle of the whole church militant here on earth and triumphant in heaven, with whom we are united in the deepest bonds of communion; but Jesus Himself also struggles with us.  Resisting temptation will feel less overwhelming, less hopeless, when we remember that the victorious Christ is at our side.

And the third piece of good news in today’s gospel is the reminder that Jesus fully shares in our humanity.  Perhaps this sounds like a silly thing to say: most people today don’t have any trouble believing in Jesus’ humanity; it’s believing that Jesus is Divine that people have trouble with.  But for those of us who do accept the Divinity of Christ, we have to be careful that we also fully acknowledge His humanity.  When Christians speak about Jesus, we do quite often make Him sound like some sort of first century superhero, in a way that does not do justice to the fulness of His humanity.

Let me read you a portion of the Athanasian Creed, taken from the Book of Common Prayer, which sadly almost no-one reads in church any more:

For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;
One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.

The hope that we have in Christ is the hope of the redemption, fulfilment and flourishing of humanity; this hope is both collective and individual, it is for each one of us and it is for all of us.  The work of our redemption begins for each of us at our baptism, by water and the Holy Spirit.  It is the work of lifetime.  But this hope all depends on Jesus being fully human.  Not God pretending to be human.  Not God as it were dressing up as human.  But Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.