Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is it safe to go out in the snow?

Psalm 91.1, 2 & 9-16, Romans 10.8b-13, Luke 4.1-13

Psalm 91 begins by assuring believers that putting our trust in God places us under the shadow or shelter of his constant protection. He is a refuge and a fortress, like the base camps where British soldiers regroup for their constant forays against the Taliban. But what does that mean in practice?

The Psalmist boldly asserts that living close to God, and putting our trust in him, means that no harm will ever befall us and no disaster will ever overtake our home or our family. The other morning, when it was really icy, I saw a jogger running down hill into Hemsworth. Suddenly he took the most desperate tumble. He actually bounced on the frozen ground. Even sitting at the wheel of the car I winced. It must have been agony. But he was up in an instant, and ran on as if nothing had happened. According to the Psalmist he must have been a believer, for the Psalmist says that divine messengers will guard us when we go out, so that we don't even trip up on an uneven pavement. In fact, even meeting wild animals like poisonous snakes and fierce lions won't faze believers. Just as Daniel found that the lions' mouths were stopped when he was thrown into their den, and just as the Prophet Isaiah foretold a day when a little baby would be able to play safely over the hole of an asp and a toddler would be able to put is hand into an adder's den without being bitten, so believers will have nothing to fear and can expect to be rescued from danger and rewarded with long life.

Yet the Psalmist's understanding is contradicted at every turn, isn't it? What about the many believers in Haiti whose houses were struck by disaster and whose families were harmed or even killed when their homes fell down during the earthquake? We may not meet poisonous snakes and great lions on our way to work, or to church, but we do drive cars and cross the road on foot in front of buses and lorries, and there is no guarantee that God will keep us safe from harm or prevent us even from stubbing our toe.

The Devil quoted Psalm 91 when he told Jesus that angels would prevent him from striking his foot against a stone but, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus found that the cup of suffering could not pass from him and far from being protected and living a long life his total intimacy with God meant that he had to be willing to accept a premature death in order to show us what God's salvation is really like. Furthermore, instead of the cosy promise that believers can expect to be rescued from harm and constantly protected, Jesus gave us the bleak warning that we must be prepared to carry our own cross in order to follow in his way.

So, in what sense is the Psalm's cheery optimism true? Ultimately God is indeed our refuge and fortress. Ultimately harm and disaster cannot permanently scar us and wipe out the meaning and purpose from our lives. God will rescue and protect us, but not by preventing any harm or pain from befalling us. The sort of salvation which God shows us in Jesus is the salvation which comes through death and resurrection.

As Paul says in his letter to the Church in Rome, if we believe in our hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead, we will be saved. Paul doesn't say that if we believe all these things in our hearts, God will always rescue and protect us, and prevent harm from befalling us and disaster from coming near to our homes and families, and that his angels will prevent us from striking our foot on a stone, or that we will be able to tread upon lions and cobras. He doesn't say that if we believe all these things in our hearts, we will be saved. He says, if we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, we will be saved. It is only as we pass through death and resurrection with Jesus that God becomes our shelter and shadow. The Psalmist was right when he said - in so many words - that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, but he was wrong if he imagined that God's protection is some kind of lucky charm.

Luke tells us that Jesus was at one and the same time led by the Spirit and tempted by the Devil. In that sense, of course, he is just like any other believer. Even when we are trying to follow the guiding of the Spirit, we are always tempted to take a wrong turn.

The Devil tries to persuade him that it isn't necessary to face hunger and hardship, even when we are deliberately denying ourselves and fasting. It's a bit like looking for an easy diet, isn't it? I looked on the Internet for easy diets and there were six-and-a-half million websites promising an easy way to lose weight. But actually there is no easy way to lose weight, is there? Or if there is, I've not found it! We can only lose weight by enduring at least some minor discomfort. And Jesus, by fasting for forty days and eating nothing, inflicts extreme discomfort on himself as he prepares for the harsh destiny that will confront him when he lives completely in God's way. The trouble with anything made easy is that it's often made wrong, and there's no easy way of following Jesus. He expects us to be ready to suffer and face discomfort in his service. In that sense the Psalmist was certainly wrong to promise an easy ride to those who love God.

Next the Devil tries to offer him an easy route to power. 'You have only to do homage to me,' he says, 'And in an instant or in a flash all the authority and glory of the powerful will be yours.' But again, Jesus knows that there is no easy or painless shortcut, no First Class journey, to real authority and glory. There are easy routes to celebrity. And it's possible to gain great political dominion and authority by climbing the greasy pole of intrigue. But glory is a gift that has to be bestowed. It's not ours for the taking. And enduring authority isn't the sort of thing that comes from striking political deals or winning elections, it depends on strength of character and integrity, qualities sometimes in short supply in modern politics. Jesus knows that true authority and glory can only belong to him if he chooses the long hard route that will take him to the Cross.

People sometimes think that the Devil took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem because there, by throwing himself down from the highest pinnacle, he could make a very public spectacle of himself and win an enthusiastic following. But, actually, I think the Devil takes Jesus to the Temple because he knows Psalm 91 much better than most Biblical commentators. Remember how the Psalm begins, 'Whoever dwells in the shelter of the most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.' Some people think that's a reference to the Temple, that the Psalmist is saying it's the safest place to be - a sanctuary in every sense of the word, a haven, a place of security, a refuge and fortress, a place of protection like Camp Bastion. Here, as no where else, it will be impossible for Jesus to strike his foot against a stone, even if he jumps.

But Jesus knows that the obvious meaning of scripture is not always the right one. God will rescue and protect believers, and show us salvation. He will guard us in all our ways, and if we call on his name we will be saved. But this indestructible safety net is only ours because of the suffering of Jesus which we are called to share. It's a shelter and security that only becomes ours as we pass through the furnace of affliction, not as we skirt safely around it. As we have seen, God's protection is dependent on resurrection, not on some built-in power of invulnerability.

The lesson of the temptations of Jesus is that to look for easy ways to the good life is to put God to the test. And we are always tempted to look for the easy way. That's why the Devil bided his time, knowing that Jesus would be tempted again to look for easy solutions. He was tempted as we are, yet he never gave in to the easy way and if we take his hand and journey with him we can resist temptation too.

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