Milborne and Dewlish
Sunday 25th February 2018
Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Mark 8.31-38
I don’t normally channel-hop much when I get time to watch television – usually I’ve saved up my favourite programmes to view when I get some time. But last week I was flicking through the programmes on itvhub, when I came across one that strangely transfixed me, though I didn’t watch it through to the end, I have to confess.
The programme takes three five-year-old children and their parents. The children are put into a fake school environment, which they think is real, and are then given certain tasks to do. Meanwhile the parents have to predict how their children will respond to the instructions they have been given.
The first task consisted of three covered tubs. The children had to feel inside the buckets and guess what they were touching. The tubs all contained something to put on top of the cookies they had made.
The first container contained small marshmallows, the second chocolate chips. All went well.
But before the children were allowed to guess what was in the third tub the teacher went away and told them to stand and think about what might be in the third tub. But they weren’t to touch it.
The parents were then asked to predict whether their child would follow the rules or take a sneaky peak.
The second exercise left the children with the game where you have to guide a loop of wire along a snaky wire without touching the wire.
The teacher again leaves the children and they are told to try and reach the end of the wire without it buzzing. If it buzzed, they had to start again. They would get a gold-star badge if they managed it.
The third task involved a load of party bags. All of the party bags except the ones for the three children contained lots of toys, but theirs only had two things.
What would the children do when left alone with the bags? The added temptation was a robot in the room who told them they could take toys from the other bags to make theirs fuller. Would they do what they knew was wrong?
I have to say I felt rather sorry for one set of parents at the start. They thought they knew their little girl as obedient and wanting to please and not do the wrong thing or break the rules.
But it didn’t take too long before they realised that that was not quite the reality. They assumed that she wouldn’t peek inside the tub – which contained green icing. All the children were caught out because they managed to guess not only what was in the tub but also the colour of it, even though they insisted they hadn’t peeked.
They also assumed that she would not get a gold-star badge because they thought she was too honest to cheat at the game. No such luck. All the children cheated and then lied about whether they had managed to crack the game or not.
After the first two rounds they became slightly wiser and predicted that she would indeed swap some of the party toys because the robot would give the legitimacy for her to do that.
I don’t expect I’ll watch that particular programme again, but it did strike as being strangely apt for Lent.
The children all knew what was right and wrong in the situations that were testing them, but even so the temptation was too much when they were left alone. They resisted eating the chocolate iced buns when no one was looking because they were smart enough to realise the crumbs and chocolate round their faces might give them away, but in the other cases they didn’t take too long to give into the temptation.
In many ways we are like those five year-olds. We know what God holds as the right behaviour but so often we fail to avoid temptation.
There are all sorts of things that tempt us. We’d probably manage to avoid the temptations the five year-olds were set, but just think of all the times we don’t manage to avoid temptation.
What tempts us to stray from the pathway of the cross? Where do I begin? Resentment, selfishness, greed, small-mindedness, a judging attitude, anxiety, anger, a lack of forgiveness, a lack of time for what’s important, setting our own priorities while disregarding God’s, not trusting God, wanting glory not suffering, laziness, prejudice, wanting a comfortable life, fear, dishonesty, lying and so on and so on.
I don’t need to go on – I hope we all know what the values of God are. And if not, then get your Bibles out.
Lent is, of course, the time when we particularly stop and think about our lives and our temptations. We are encouraged to take stock of our lives and to ask for forgiveness from God and others, to put right any wrongs we have left undone and to turn back to God.
But spoken of less often is how we can learn to avoid giving into temptation when it arises.
God isn’t some kind of all-seeing Big Brother character waiting to catch us out, but God is all-seeing. As we say at the beginning of our communion service, Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no thoughts are hidden . . .
Of course the first answer as to how to avoid temptation is to look at the example of Jesus. When the devil was tempting him the wilderness, his responses all came from Scripture. So embedded in his life were the words of God that he could call them up and use them as a weapon in the fight against temptation.
How many of us know our Bibles well enough to be able to use them in this way to withstand temptation? I suspect the greater temptation for many is to leave the Bible unopened on a shelf. I wonder how many dusty Bibles there are around our homes.
Reading the word of God can gives us the strength to withstand the onslaught of the enemy. St Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church calls the Word the sword of the Spirit – it is a powerful thing.
It is powerful in withstanding temptation, but it is also powerful in refining us. The more we have Scripture in our hearts and minds, the more readily we will be able to follow the path of Christ and have the tools at our disposal in order to do that.
The second response to temptation that we can use is prayer, both in an emergency when the temptation is there in front of us, but also in building a sustaining and life-long prayer life, which will always stand us in good stead. The more we pray the more we will be guided by God and the less likely we will be to give into temptation.
The commentators remind us that Peter is drawing Jesus back to the temptations in the wilderness when he rebukes him for predicting the Passion.
The temptation to turn away from God and the path he has set was just what was happening to Jesus in the wilderness, but Jesus held strong in both cases.
It may seem a bit strange but we can also speak to our temper and tell him or the temptation to get behind us. By saying it out loud, it can give us strength to take the right path.
These first two are so important in withstanding what entices us, but they can be used hand-in-hand with other remedies.
Forgiveness is a great way of helping us to avoid slipping into retaliation or revenge. We’re unlikely to be good forgivers, if we’re not also good Scripture readers or pray-ers, but forgiveness can free both forgiver and the forgiven. If we forgive, then there is no room for hatred or bad thoughts towards another.
If something is calling to us we can turn our backs on it and flee – distract ourselves, go for a walk, do something positive.
Remove yourself from a potentially flammable situation until you are calm enough not to respond badly. The negative can be overridden by a positive act or thought or kind word instead of a harmful one. But again the more in tune with God we are, the easier these things become.
It has often been said that it takes 21 days to break a habit such as overeating or smoking or that nightly glass of two of red wine, and form a new one, though researchers more recently have said it is more like 66 days. The point is that it takes practice to form a new habit, it’s the same with our Christian lives.
Lent is a good time to try and make new habits. It’s not quite 66 days but 40 is a jolly good start to that.
The idea that we can take up whatever we have given up for Lent once Easter has arrived can be a bit distracting – yes it’s fine for chocolate, wine, puddings and so on, but most of our Lenten disciplines perhaps are things we should see as lifelong ones. Lent is the start of the journey towards holiness, not the whole thing.
Our Lent film shows a particular journey and the changes that occur in the lives of those who travel the Camino. But I don’t believe for one minute that Tom, the main character, will ever return to being exactly the same person he was before he started his journey.
And I’m sure that God wants us not to be he same people at the end of Lent as we are at the beginning.
Jesus never said it would be easy following his Way, but he did say he would never leave us on our own, and he has never asked us to do anything that he himself was not willing to undertake: let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.
He goes first, he gets there before us, and he will be with us all the way. He faced death and brought life.
 The Way directed by Emilio Estevez