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Sermon for First Sunday in Lent

The Rev’d David Curry, Rector of Christ Church, preached this sermon at Holy Communion for the First Sunday in Lent, based on Hebrews 5:8 [1].

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”

Learning through suffering was an ancient maxim of the Greeks most wonderfully illustrated in the story of Odysseus. Many in modern times have been graduates, too, of that proverbial school of hard knocks. Necessity can be one heck of a teacher.

But what is it that is learned through ancient suffering and the contemporary school of hard knocks? What are the lessons? For the ancient Greeks, they are to know the order of the cosmos and man’s place within that order. For modernity, whether in aphorisms or in clichés, the lessons are more ambiguous because more individual. Yet, at the very least, they are about a sense of ourselves and our world, too, as having some sort of purpose and meaning.

The lessons of this holy season, however, go beyond knowing the order of the cosmos and negotiating the ambiguities of contemporary experience. The Letter to the Hebrews spells out the lesson which Lent illustrates. The lesson is obedience. The illustration is the life of Jesus Christ concentrated into the intensity of forty days.

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” “Although he was a Son”, this is who he is, the Son of the Father. The Son is defined by his relation to the Father. These are all the tough lessons of theology. He is the eternal Son of the everlasting Father: “there was not when he was not”. He is always the Son of the Father. His whole being is defined by his love of the Father’s will. It is obedience. The obedience is not just doing what one is told blindly and ignorantly. It is the doing of what in fact he is in his love for the Father. A knowing and loving obedience is the nature of the eternally and only-begotten Son of the Father.

The Letter to the Hebrews underscores what he essentially is in order to highlight the mystery of our redemption. Yet in what he essentially is, obedience is not learned. It is not something acquired, but something possessed. He is what he is and he does what he is; his act is his being. A knowing and loving obedience belongs to the act of his essential being.

The mystery of our redemption follows in what he learns through suffering. He learns obedience. How can he, who is the obedient Son, learn obedience? How can he learn what he already is? Because he has engaged himself with our world and with our life. He has entered into it and identified himself fully and completely with all that belongs to the truth of our humanity. But that is to place himself in the finite context of a human life. He wills to place himself in the place of suffering. He wills to learn through suffering.

Lent begins with the temptations of Christ. The temptations belong to the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry, to the beginning of the way of the cross, the way of suffering freely embraced. Jesus wills to learn what we have failed to learn and live. He learns obedience through the suffering which belongs to our failure to accept and live what God wants us to do and be. To be tempted comes with the territory of our being rational creatures. It belongs to the truth and good of our being.

To succumb to temptation, on the other hand, belongs to our sinfulness, to our falling away from the conditions of our creaturehood. Its essence is disobedience – a willful denial of God’s truth upon which our being depends. In other words, Jesus does what we should have done but haven’t done. Jesus does what we should have done but now cannot do – such is the reality of original sin and its legacy – however much we may want to do it. He learns obedience through suffering all our disobedience.

Classical Protestantism (drawing especially upon Augustine) had a wonderful syllogistic aphorism that captures this understanding perfectly. Man before the Fall from grace in the Garden, was “posse non peccare,” able not to sin; Man after the Fall is “non posse non peccare,” not able not to sin; but in Christ, our humanity will have achieved that perfection which is fully realized in Christ, though not yet fully in us, namely, “non posse peccare,” not able to sin. You have to love the concision of the Latin!

The temptations of Christ are a most dramatic illustration of the lessons of our redemption. Biblically, Christ is the new Moses who overcomes the acts of Israel’s disobedience and ours. The difference is that Moses can only state what Israel failed to learn; Jesus shows us the lessons in action. He is ever the Word in motion, the Word that is done; “the Word made flesh.” The temptations relate to the reality of the Incarnation. He learns obedience in the being of the creature whose refusal to learn is disobedience.

“Although he was a Son” signals that he freely is what he freely wills to learn. It belongs to the mystery of our redemption that: “Jesus always receives what he bestows”; that Jesus “underwent what he redeemed”; that Jesus “who delivers from death himself died”; that Jesus “who gives resurrection himself rose from the dead”; that Jesus “who baptizes was himself baptized”; that Jesus “who saves in temptation was himself tempted;” in short, “because of what he is, he causes in us what he himself undergoes” (Hans Urs Von Balthasar).

The temptations of Christ show us the obedience which he learned and which we have failed to learn. But the lesson is shown so that we in him may learn to be what God would have us be, obedient sons and daughters who are willing to learn through the suffering which our disobedience occasions. The temptations that Christ undergoes are the temptations of Israel, and they are our temptations too.

Israel in the wilderness complained to God about bread and water. They tempted God; they put God to the test. In other words, Israel sought to make God serve the demands of our bodily and worldly desires, our appetites. Israel endeavoured to make God subject to our wills, to do for us what would make him acceptable to us. There is perhaps, no greater temptation than the contemporary demand that God accommodate himself to us and to our view of things. That is not all. Israel in the wilderness denied the truth of the God who had delivered them from bondage in Egypt. They worshipped instead an image of their own making, the golden calf. As if you could be saved by a dead cow! Thus, Israel categorically denied the God who had commanded that “thou shalt have no other gods before me”- that is to say, “thou shalt not serve any other gods.” Moses fasted “forty days and forty nights” in intercession to God for sinful Israel.

The whole story of the exodus is deliberately recalled, recapitulated and re-worked in the person of Jesus Christ. He bears the temptations of Israel in himself and overcomes them. That he does so is not a display of divine power, an effortless banishment of the devil and all the vanity of his show; he does so only through the agony of suffering. “He learned obedience.” There is a struggle, a fight in the wilderness. It is, literally, a battle of words.

Jesus’ answers to Satan are the lessons which Moses taught but which we and Israel fail to learn. The answers are always and ever true but, more especially, they are true in him who does what he says and is what he does. What are those answers? “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”; “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”; and, as if to bring all things home to truth itself, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve.”

These are the lessons which have always and ever to be learned by those who would be the humanity that God would have us be. Yet they are the answers which we all have failed to learn. He who is the Word of God wills to bear our disobedience in his free-willing obedience to the Father’s will. He has done so in what belongs to us. He has done so that he may continue to do so in us, if we will go with him. If we will go with him, then, we, too, will learn the obedience of being the sons of God, but only through him who is the Son of God.

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”