Sermon for the first Sunday of Lent – Year C

“When the devil had finished every test he departed from him until an opportune time”

That doesn’t sound good.

“So having come to the end of all these temptations, the devil departed, biding his time”

That actually sounds quite sinister: the devil, biding his time; furtively following; hiding behind trees; crouching in caves on the hillside; beady eyes watching, waiting, biding his time.

The wilderness time: the time of stones, not bread, the time of testing and dreaming dreams.

That’s where temptations should be:out there in the wilderness, the devil out in the open flaunting his power and taunting the weak.

We know that devil in the wilderness and the tests that Jesus faces. That seducing thought of miracles and wonders; the potent pull of power over all others; and look at me, I’m special as God’s angels catch me as I fall. It all happens out there, in the wilderness, where Jesus is led by the Spirit, say Matthew and Luke.

Says Mark: the spirit drives, propels Jesus into the wilderness time of stones not bread.

Matthew and Mark bring angels into that barren land to minister to Jesus in his time of need. Not so dramatic as catching him when he jumps off the pinnacle of the temple, but still necessary and welcome.

When Jesus has resisted all the temptations Matthew says the devil left him. Mark, always in a rush, barely has time to mention: 40 days; Satan; wild beasts and angels before Jesus is out on the road proclaiming good news, the wilderness left behind.

It’s Luke who rocks the boat with a cliff-hanger ending to this particular story. “So having come to the end of all these temptations the devil departed, biding his time.”

And from now on, as we read Luke’s story, we watch out for that hidden devil in the background: waiting, watching, unseen, biding his time.

And we have an uneasy sense that that’s how it is in our lives too. There are times when we know only too well that we’re in a place of stones, not bread. And we too put God to the test: “If you are a loving God, stop young people carrying guns; If you really care then heal the sickness in this child and let her live; If you are a God of peace, stop the fighting and the bombs.

We know when we’re up against it, struggling with temptations of fear and doubt. Those testing times are very real, never under-estimate their strength. Our faith is on the line and it’s show-down time.

But what happens at those other times, when the test is much more subtle. How does the devil bide his time? and who is this devil anyway? Is he real? Surely he isn’t red with tail and a toasting fork? Is he Spirit as God is Spirit? Does he control our inner demons? Or is he himself the inner demons? Are we aware of what he’s trying to do?

It sounds like the psalmist knew about him:

“Who can tell how often they offend?
O cleanse me from my secret faults!
Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins
lest they get dominion over me:
So shall I be undefiled
and innocent of great offence”
(Psalm 19:12-13)

It looks like Jesus faces his particular temptations all through his life: He hears them from the crowd wanting miracles and wonders: “Heal us; feed us”. He hears them from his disciples who want him to do things their way not his. He hears them from his enemies when they taunt him: “He saved others: now let him save himself, if he is God’s Messiah, his Chosen One”.

Does a day go by when he doesn’t have to hold tight to his resolve to do things God’s way, to be who God calls him to be?

And we have our own temptations to face day after day. The devil bides his time with us too. And what tempts me may not tempt you. Things you struggle with may not trouble me. We don’t necessarily know each other’s weaknesses and what triggers an unloving response in us.

For me the devil bides his time until I’m tired, until I’m a bit stressed; until I’m worried or uncertain about something. Then my resistance is low, my inner demons get to work and I fall right into the trap. The trap that makes me speak without thinking; makes me critical and intolerant; tells me I’m useless and why would God love me.

So this Lent let’s listen to Luke telling us that the devil, however we think about him, bides his time, sets the trap and wants to see us fail. Let’s keep watch and be aware of his hiding places, the time and circumstances in which he might act and how we’re especially vulnerable,

Lets take from him the element of surprise. Let’s blow his cover. Let’s remember and hold on to what Matthew and Mark tell us: “In the wilderness, angels minister.”

Let’s minister to each other and keep firm the resolve to do things God’s way and to be the people God calls us to be.