A Sermon from Sherborne

A testing time

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 10 March 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


In September 1928 the Journal of Immunology published a paper by Peter Heinbecker and Edith Irvine-Jones entitled ‘The Susceptibility of Eskimos to the Common Cold’. Put simply, the reason why Eskimos (or the Inuit, as they are now known) are, or used to be, so vulnerable to colds is that until Danish colonisers arrived in the 18th century, they had no experience of them. They had therefore never built up any immunity to them. By contrast, in this country we all catch our first colds in the cradle, keep on getting them and learn to ignore them and carry on regardless. In other words, only by being exposed to bacteria and viruses do our bodies build-up immunity.

In many ways, the human soul is remarkably like the human body, and we can take what happens to our bodies as an illustration or analogy of what happens to our souls. Take, for example, the invasion of temptation which sometimes hits us with epidemic force, and sometimes creeps up on us like some crafty little virus. As Christians we are often unprepared for it, because we imagine that as Christians we should never feel temptation, whereas in fact it’s only by being tempted and tested that we can develop any resistance to evil, that we can fight against it and grow spiritually strong.

It’s important that we never forget that. Every one of us, parishioners and priest, prelate and pope, knows temptation. Never imagine your rector won’t understand your problem, because he too is human, and only human, and no more than human. And even if sometimes the clergy do lack sympathy and understanding, the New Testament tells us that we have in Jesus a high priest who knows all about our weaknesses because he has been tempted or tested in every way – ‘tempted in all points’, as one translation puts it – just like us [Hebrews 4: 15 ].

Then, as now, Christians found it hard to understand just how Jesus could be both human and divine, and that undeniable truth nevertheless remains, in the best sense, a mystery, resisting every attempt to impose a human explanation on it. And something else that hasn’t changed down the centuries is that we all know temptation. That’s what makes it so important that Jesus was too. You see, the whole point of the incarnation – of Christmas, if you like – was that the Son of God really became one of us, limb and tissue. The Greeks had plenty of myths about their gods coming down from Mount Olympus and walking about in human disguise, but that was not incarnation. Unlike the Son of Man, these mythical gods were never hungry or thirsty or tired or suffered pain. But Jesus, the pre-existent Son of God, set aside all his divine power to accept all the limitations and weaknesses of really being human – ‘tempted in all points as we are’. What a wonderful and amazing thing, that God should seek us out and enter our world like that, in the form of a servant, weak and vulnerable and powerless – and all for us, for you and for me.

And so, being a man, he knew temptation. It came in full force in the wilderness, at the start of his ministry, in that time of testing and trial we commemorate in this season of Lent, and about which we heard in today’s Gospel reading [Luke 4.13]. It came at the end of his earthly life, when he was tempted to flee from his destiny, to pray that the cup might pass from him. They were the same temptations that we face, except bigger, because his strength and his reliance on God his Father were stronger. There was the temptation to turn stones into bread at the devil’s bidding: the temptation of greed. There was the temptation to gain power over all the kingdoms of the world: the temptation of ambition. There was the temptation to prove his divine nature by jumping from the highest pinnacle of the temple: the temptation of self-glorification. And there was the oh-so-understandable temptation to avoid the costly path of duty and discipleship which he knew would lead to the cross: the temptation of cowardice and fear. So very human. Just like us.

But Jesus won all his battles with temptation. And why? Not because he had access to a strength denied to us. No. But rather because he used the access to his Father’s strength, which is available to us all. And he used it because he was fully aware of the great unseen war which rages against wickedness and wrong­doing, the fight against cosmic powers and the superhuman forces of evil. Like viruses and bacteria, the powers of evil cannot be immediately seen and identified, and so we grow complacent, show no resistance, and let temptation catch us unawares.

The way to win the battle is to realise that it starts first in the mind. A little thought comes to us, urging us to do this or that. Conscience says no, but conscience is often a very unfit and flabby part of our soul, and easily beaten. We need to keep close guard on our thoughts. That’s why the Psalmist prayed, ‘Examine me, O God, and know my mind; test me and discover my thoughts’ [139:23]. And that is why Jesus taught that it is possible to commit murder in the mind, or to be adulterous simply by playing with and enjoying the thought. There’s nothing sinful about being tempted: what is sinful is giving the temptation house-room in your heart, letting it get a grip on your mind and imagination. You may eventually rouse yourself to banish it for a while, but you will have been spiritually weakened, your resistance lowered, and when the temptation returns – as it always does – you will be much closer to surrender than before. No wonder St. Augustine prayed ‘O God, make me beautiful within.’ If Lent is a ‘testing time’, so is the rest of the year.

The story is told of a young chartered accountant, who was given the opportunity to make a great deal of money, over a quarter of a million pounds, by helping a client arrange his financial affairs in a way not exactly illegal, but certainly pretty dishonest. He thought about the proposal for a few days, and finally asked his wife for her advice. Her reply was simple. ‘Jim, usually when I try to wake you in the morning I shake you hard and you don’t stir. Then I shake you harder and you give a little moan. And then I shake you as hard as I can and you open one eye. But for the last few mornings you’ve been wide-awake and tired and hollow-eyed. Is that how it will be from now on if you take the money?’

The young accountant turned the offer down. He has been sleeping soundly ever since. Peace of mind, the ability to look yourself in the mirror each morning and not be ashamed, is too precious to trade even for a million pounds. But on our own we find it hard to resist the sheer profusion and variety of temptations which come our way. But ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’. And because Jesus was tempted in all points as I am, yet without sin, I knew that he understands my weaknesses, and by his grace can turn them into strengths. And for that, indeed, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 10/03/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne