Let us Pray:
O LORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew iv. 5,6)
Fulton Sheen reminds us in his Life of Christ that Christ is tempted to take shortcuts for the redemption of man and to the Kingdom. So many Christians are tempted to take shortcuts in their Christian pilgrimage. They think that they are blessed enough with earthly prosperity and they give up on the pilgrimage before it even begins! Man shall not live by bread alone (Idem), Christ insists. We believe that we have done enough, given enough, prayed enough, and sacrificed enough. We believe that we have sufficiently followed Him. And now we find the Second Temptation. We no longer want to turn stones into bread or bread into mammon. Stones are stones and bread is bread. True bread is food for the soul and true wine is a spiritual drink.
So, beyond the first kind of temptation, Christ invites us into a second. Rather than treating material things like food, drink, clothing, mammon and money as gods, Christ is tried, tested, and tempted to treat his own abstemious human nature as an end in itself. Like all of us, having fasted and prayed, abstained from food and drink, and relying on the nourishment of God’s Word, Christ is tempted to presume that God will ensure His safety no matter what. Here, Satan says, Well, it is good that you are entrusting your body to nourishment on God’s Word. If that is the case, it doesn’t matter what you do with your body. Throw it down. God will rescue you for your faithfulness and obedience to His Word. He will not let any harm come to one who is so faithful and true!
Satan tempts us into thinking that because we have embraced a certain degree of holiness and righteousness in our lives, we can do whatever we like with our bodies. Our souls are what matter. The soul lives on and the body is of no consequence. The first temptation is alive and well in the second. So long as we are faithful, say our prayers, live respectable enough lives, don’t harm our neighbours, God will not allow any harm to come to us. Since earthly things are of secondary importance we can do something heroic or maybe even rash in order to prove that God is with us and will not suffer any harm to come to us! We might be tempted here to throw ourselves to the proverbial lions or to provoke the Caesar’s of this world to wrath. God will rescue us and then the people will believe. So we aim at becoming martyrs. We shall provoke or tempt God to perform a last minute miracle for us as we prove our faith in Him! God will protect us. He will ensure our security. Our overindulgence of earthly food and mammon have threatened us with despair. If we have overcome them, we might be tempted to presume that God will protect us as we prove to the world that He is with us in our asceticism.
Now our abstemious denial of things earthly threaten to tempt us with a presumption of things heavenly. Our fasting from food, drink, clothing, money and mammon might very well urge us to prove to a fat, drunk, glamorous, rich, comfortable, and otherwise occupied neighbours that we are faithful and true to God. We will wake you up to it as we provoke God’s favour before your very eyes! People who give up earthly things are often tempted to lust for miracles, signs, and wonders. I had a very ascetic Orthodox priest friend who was forever fasting and praying. But he had this very odd habit of having to tell me about his miraculous icons, one of which was always weeping real tears. He kept insisting upon talking about these miraculous icons and finally he screamed at me because I wasn’t much interested. You seem so uninterested and bored with what I am telling you. I responded, I am. He screeched back at me: Why? I replied: Because I am much more interested in how we can bring real human beings to shed tears over their sins because they realize that Jesus wants us still. I wasn’t trying to be rude. I was being honest. Denying things earthly only to have to provoke signs and wonders to prove our faith in Jesus the Saviour of the World isn’t very faithful. It is superstitious and highly problematic.
Satan tempts Christ to think that we provoke signs and wonders from God to prove His presence in our world. So many around us worship mammon. Now the ascetics want mammon miracles. Mammon miracles are supernatural events that are meant to jolt and shake us out of unbelief. Don’t just stand there, do something! Satan cries to Jesus. Throw yourself down if you are the Son of God. Throw yourself down and God will snatch you up and bring you back to Himself. Throw yourself down. There is no need for suffering, passion, or death upon a Cross! Give us a good miracle and all will believe and follow you back to God!
The priority of the body has been denied. The soul is right with God. But most men won’t see it. So, it seems rational to throw down the body to prove that the soul is most important and that God will not let such a faithful soul perish. If the soul’s good is of utmost importance, then surely, we should prove to the world that our souls are protected and secured by God’s never failing providence! Like the Orthodox priest, haven’t you noticed that when people give up the food, drink, sex, and money they start blabbering on about miracles and signs and wonders?
But how can what is irrational and unreasonable be of God? The body is created by God, is good, and is to be used in His service. The soul is made for reason and knowledge and should never embrace what is irrational in order to provoke God’s favour! Christ has taken on our human nature. He has taken on the laws that rule and govern our lives. He has taken on our natures not to destroy the body or the soul and not to overturn the laws that rule both. He has taken on our natures to save us through the good use of both in the service of the Father! God doesn’t rescue His children from the logic of their choices. God doesn’t cater to the immature whims of rash or cowardly fanatics who want to win the applause of a mob. God’s providence doesn’t allow men to suspend wisdom so that men might be won by cheap Grace. God’s Grace is not cheap. God’s Grace does not destroy nature but redeems it.
Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
Jesus will not lead us back to God the Father through signs and wonders. The effects of miracles last for about as long as post-modern man’s attention span. Jesus has come down from Heaven to work sin out of the world and righteousness in. This can happen only when man embraces the pattern that Jesus establishes. This pattern is one where human life becomes a living sacrifice to the Father because God’s mercy moves the human heart. That mercy must move our hearts to hear the Word of God and keep it in our bodies and in our souls as we move with Jesus through temptation and towards the holy city of Jerusalem. There will be time enough for signs and wonders. But the real sign and wonder that we shall find will be in the human heart that begins to believe that Jesus the Crucified One is the miracle of God’s love before our very eyes. Here is the pattern. The real miracle comes about when we shall see the great wonder of God’s own Son suffering and dying for us. Follow the love of Jesus down to the Cross and discover that Jesus is still loving us in death. Follow the love of Jesus down to the Cross and discover that Jesus is living to die and dying to live. Embrace the love of Jesus with joyful obedience. This is the true miracle, the true sign and wonder. The real miracle will be found in that joyful obedience that in utmost faith with love gives itself over to Jesus. Willy Mae Ford Smith, the African American Evangelist, reminds us that when we give ourselves over to Jesus, His Holy Spirit comes alive in us deep down and in between the bone and marrow.
Do I demand that God should prove His existence by dancing to my tune and fulfilling my every whim and fancy? Come down from that Cross and save both yourself and us! Do I provoke His favor by feeling that I have done enough and should not be required to do any more? Is Christ’s obedience to the Father not enough for me? Is the shedding of His blood not sufficiently miraculous for me? Is His giving from the Cross not adequately loving of me? Why is Jesus not enough for us?
In our quiet time let us pray about how we have sought for signs and wonders in our Christian lives. Let us pray about how we have desired miracles on our bodies, others’ bodies, and yet only at the very last minute have called God into the picture to have the priest sprinkle holy water on those who waited too long to call upon God. Holy water won’t save us. Priest mostly aren’t much good at miracles. Let us pray that we might work on our souls, the souls of our loved ones, the souls of our brothers and sisters in Christ so that rather than provoking and tempting God, we might have a rule of life that welcomes Jesus into our struggle with sin. Let us embrace the Word of God in our hearts so that we can walk with Jesus down to the Cross. No shortcuts to His Kingdom! No shortcuts to avoid Suffering Love!
Let us Pray:
ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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St. Michael and All Angels Sermons