For a lot of people, temptation is not such a big deal any more. Temptation is a chocolate cream cake, naughty but nice. Temptation is a lass dressed up in a black and red basque with little horns and a tail. Temptation is about being self-indulgent or enjoying a fumble with someone you’re not married to. These days, you’re not meant to resist temptation; you give in to it. You resist what is conventional and staid. You do it your way, which means doing whatever takes your fancy, however it might hurt other people, whatever damage it does to your soul.
The film “Fifty Shades of Grey” was released on Valentine’s Day, and attracted a huge audience and massive box office takings. The books themselves have sold 100 million copies. It’s a tale of bondage and sado-masochistic domestic abuse. The problem is that it makes these things appear normal and could encourage people to think that this kind of behaviour is OK, a temptation to do whatever turns you on. It changes you from the inside to become someone who is more likely to make evil choices.
Temptation has been trivialised, reduced to individual choice about finding more and stranger ways of self-gratification. And when you do that, you are less likely to think about others or put them first.
The whole thing is bigger than that! There is a battle between good and evil, and it goes on all the time.
Within the last fortnight, 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded in Libya by Islamic State. They were given the chance to convert to Islam, but they refused, knowing fully what the consequence would be. As each one was killed, they called out ‘Jesus is Lord.’ They were witnesses to Jesus right to the end.
This is happening in our time. You may think it is happening far away, on another continent, but their deaths matter, the evil that is being done to wipe out Christians in the middle-east matters. We need to pay attention to their witness and martyrdom, and bring them into our prayers.
Our temptation is to push it to the back of our minds and ignore it. We need to remember them and honour them, and pray for the people who are doing such terrible evil, that their hearts may be changed.
People do bad things all the time, and sometimes it is out of desperation and sometimes it is out of laziness and sometimes they are gripped by the conviction that they are doing what is right and good. Islamic State doesn’t believe it is doing evil – they are utterly sure that they are doing God’s will. The battle between good and evil brings us into a world of many delusions.
Jesus begins his ministry proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near. Eventually, we will come to see him as the king in God’s kingdom. But before he gets going, the way Mark tells the story, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, dry and deprived, cut off from all the good things, all the pleasures of life. And there the battle commences, the battle between Jesus, the anointed one, the man born to be king, and Satan, who rules the realm of sin and evil.
And so we designate 40 days each year in the run-up to Easter as Lent, as a time of fasting, prayer, reflection. You need to find the ways in which you can get closer to God through prayer or reading the Bible or studying a book – like we will do at the Lent Course on a Wednesday. Listen to God a little more, by making a little space for silence each day, just a few minutes. Or maybe you will come to know yourself better and your own delusions and the way you respond to the bad things that go on around you.
Jim Craig was on the Sunday Breakfast Show on Radio Newcastle last Sunday morning, saying that he was giving up giving things up for Lent. For him, Lent had become a Piety Olympics with people competing in acts of piety and penance. Instead, he said he would try to buy more copies of the Big Issue. He was also taking up knitting squares for Lent. To be honest, I’m not sure I agree with his approach. I challenged Jim on Twitter to spend an extra half an hour a day praying, but he didn’t take me up on that.
The point of Lent is that we too are engaged in that battle between good and evil. What are the things that really tempt you to do bad things – even if the bad things are moaning about other people or speaking about them behind their backs, or turning away when people around you are doing bad things? You’re not doing it to appear holier than others. You’re doing it because it matters, you’re doing it for the good of your own soul, you’re doing it because Jesus did it and you want to get closer to Jesus.
For me, I am looking at how I can live day by day closer to God. And part of that is simplifying my life. So I am letting go one book off my shelves every day, and I have been trying to reduce the clutter to some extent. I find that really hard.
Lent matters. It’s your choice. There are people who are dying at the cutting edge in the battle between good and evil. We have it very easy. Do something. Come to the Lent Course. Come to the Stations of the Cross. Or set yourself a task to discover something new about God and your relationship with him. Get to Easter in 6 weeks time with a stronger sense of God’s presence in your walk of faith. Easter will be all the more glorious if you put the work in now.