Old Royal Naval College Chapel

Sunday 21 February 1999

First Sunday of Lent

TEMPTATION

...and lead us not into temptation"

Our subject this morning is Temptation

Those words "...and lead us not into temptation" which form part of the prayer which Jesus gave his disciples to use as a model for their praying have caused more arguments and problems than almost anything else which he said.

The General Synod of the Church of England spends a lot of its time trying to decide how we should conduct our public worship: and every time Liturgy is on the agenda the question of these words seems to come up. One school of thought is strongly in favour of changing the way they are translated, on the grounds that it's inconceivable that God should lead us into temptation; another, equally strong opinion is that they should be left as they are.

It's a good idea, then, to begin our study of temptation by reminding ourselves of three facts.

Firstly the Lord's Prayer comes to us from Jesus himself and therefore is something "given". Our first task is to discover what he meant by what he said rather than changing it to what we would like him to have meant.

Secondly, we should remember that our Lord spoke to his disciples in Aramaic, which is a language about which we know very little today. A language derived from Aramaic is still spoken by a tiny handful of people in the Middle East today, but we have no possible way of telling what relation it bears to that spoken in the first century AD. So we can't be sure either about what word Jesus actually used for temptation or how his disciples would have understood it.

But thirdly, and perhaps most important of all, the Greek word peirasmos which the evangelists Matthew and Luke in this context (St Mark has no reference to the prayer at all) can equally well be translated into English as test, trial or temptation.

So, for example, if a Greek-speaking manager were to say "I find my young secretary Miss Fishlock a great temptation" he would not necessarily be thinking of her in the same light as someone like Mr Clinton might be. He might mean that she was always turning up late, having a lot of time off, forgetting to do what she was asked or constantly filing important documents in the wrong place; and Miss Fishlock's fellow workers might agree with him and say "Yes, Jane is a great temptation to us all".

"I'm faced with a big temptation" the Greek-speaking trainee bank-manager might say. He might mean that he feels the urge to dip his fingers in the till; more probably he would be referring to his Final Bank Exam coming up in a week or two's time upon which his whole future career depends.

"My eyes need tempting" says another person. Not with a diet of Page 3 pornography but at the opticians, with a view to enabling him to see better.

Now let us apply this concept of "temptation" as testing to those words with which we started "...and lead us not into temptation".

Testing, as educationalists are beginning to rediscover for themselves, is a vital facet of the learning process. Unless students of whatever age and degree of maturity are faced from time to time with an objective assessment (like a test or an exam), there will be no knowing how much they have learnt or, still more important, how much they haven't learnt about a particular subject or discipline; and that knowledge is every bit as important for the pupil as for the teacher.

 

Or, to take an example drawn from a different area, unless materials like steel are tested for their soundness, or foodstuffs for their purity, or the foundations of buildings for their security then disaster is bound to strike sooner or later. Office-blocks will collapse, people will get food-poisoning and ships will sink in storms. The whole discipline or process which we call quality-control is based upon the assumption that testing or trying out is as necessary a part of producing goods as examinations are of producing good nurses, policemen or bank managers.

 

These examples, and one can think of many more, should persuade us that our Christian discipleship, whose object, remember is nothing less than our perfection, will necessarily include our Heavenly Father allowing us to be tested or tried or tempted. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane we may pray that a particular trial or test or temptation be taken away or foreshortened; but, like Jesus, we must end that prayer as he did "Nevertheless, let your will, not mine be done" or as he taught us in the Lord's Prayer "Thy will be done".

 

So trials and temptations are bound to come the way of the Christian disciple or student. They are a necessary part of the discipline of learning. Don't forget that "disciple" literally means "someone who is still wearing L-plates." If God sees that a particular test is good for us then we have no alternative to facing up to it as Jesus did.

 

Here, some words of St Paul to the Corinthians are a great help. He says:

 

God is faithful and will not allow you to be tested beyond what you can bear, but will, with every test, supply a way of escape so that you can bear it"

 

That "way of escape" which he speaks about will certainly not allow us to avoid taking the test altogether. But over and over again people find when they are tested like this that something, or more often someone, is at hand to make it less of an ordeal. "There appeared an angel from heaven, strengthening him", says one evangelist. On Good Friday the presence of his Mother and St John at the foot of the cross, the repentance of the dying thief must both have gone some way towards changing the gloom of Maundy Thursday night with its betrayals, denials and abandonment by his disciples into a prescience of the victory that we know it to be. As the prophet Isaiah said so many years before "He shall see the travail of his soul and be satisfied"

 

The assurance of St Paul's "way of escape" is one source of comfort in temptation. A second source is when the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus was "tempted at all points like us, yet without sin"

 

Many people suppose, quite wrongly, that temptation and sin are one and the same thing. If they were, then Jesus must have been the most sinful person who ever lived since he was "tempted/tested at all points like we are". If this were so then he couldn't possibly have made that "one perfect offering, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world" that we shall be celebrating in our Eucharist in a few minutes. It was precisely because Jesus was "yet without sin" that he was also the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world"

However much alike temptation and sin may feel, they are in fact two quite different things. That's why, in a time of trial or temptation it's a good idea to bring someone else in to share one's ordeal. It's very natural to get distressed when the imagination plays one up and one thinks "Oh dear! I'm going to fail!" or "However do I come to have feelings like that?" The fact of the matter is that feelings only become sinful when we harbour or nurse them (like grievances, for example); and the fear of failing a test is precisely the reason why we should allow ourselves to be subjected to it -- in order to show up our weaknesses with a view to their being corrected.

Let me leave you to consider one well-known saying in the context of the close relationship between testing and tempting. He saying is: "These little things are sent to try us"

Notice the force of the word little. The most serious dangers in life are the small-sized ones that we are scarcely aware of. Any sensible person can see a big stumbling-block looming up in his path a mile ahead and take the necessary evasive action.

But it's the small objects, the nail, the patch of black-ice, the pothole, the broken paving-stone which do the real damage just because they aren't so easy to see.

Which in itself is another reason why it's worth subjecting the way we live to the discipline of an external, objective test or examination from time to time.

We may do a job which "looks all right" to us; but it's the examiner, the diagnostician, the auditor and the quality controller to whom we should turn to find out if it really is "all right" or only seems so to our eyes. It's possible to feel that we are doing "really quite well" just because or workmanship or our lifemanship is no worse than, perhaps even slightly better than that of our contemporaries in quality or quantity. It would comes as an awful shock, wouldn't it, to discover that our whole school, our whole production line, our circle of friends or department is achieves far less than others do. Worse still might be the discovery that we have been industriously turning out what assessment later shows to be trash.

Because we're not seeing the small tell-tale signs of what is wrong we may, in the absence of test, trial or temptation draw completely the wrong conclusion about ourselves.

The smaller, the less obtrusive are the faults in our discipleship, the less likely we are to be aware of them. It's the minor, irritating temptations, the one's we're inclined to put down to our "feeling out-of-sorts" or "having a bad day" that are the real tell-tale signs of what is wrong with us.

At this season of Lent we should be examining ourselves not for gross and obvious flaws in our moral make-up. The real defects we should be searching for are the small-sized ones: so small that in all probability at this present moment we are blissfully unaware of them!

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