This morning I preached my sermon that set alongside each other Luke 4: 1 - 13 and John 2: 1 - 11. I was intrigued to explore the interplay between abstinence and abundance. I'm not sure that the sermon ever quite got itself honed enough to do the job, but it was fun to try, and it certainly raised some interesting questions as I revisited the beginnings of all four gospels.
Mark, generally deemed the oldest gospel, starts with Jesus' baptism, then devotes a whole two sentences to the temptation of Jesus, without any elaboration whatsoever on what they may have been. He then moves into a series of exorcisms and healings.
Matthew begins with a genealogy a birth story, and a Baptism before giving an expanded account of Jesus temptations. He then moves fairly quickly into the extended teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, pausing briefly for a few disciples to be called.
Luke, having outlined his intentions, has an alternative birth story, and an account of the Baptism followed by an alternative genealogy, before his account of the temptations, in a different order from Matthew, before moving into the start of Jesus' ministry with the Nazareth manifesto. Luke alone hints at temptation as a recurrent factor in Jesus' life.
Clearly, these three writers consider it important to describe a Jesus who is vulnerable to temptation, maybe as much as anyone else. This seems to be concerned with demonstrating his humanity.
John seems totally uninterested in any of this. After his poetic prologue and an account of John the Baptist which hints at Jesus being baptised (though never says so), we find some disciples choosing to go with him (sent by John and/or sitting under trees being told by friends, contra synoptic accounts) and then we have the 'fist sign', the wedding at Cana. This story, rich in symbolism and layers in meaning, speaks of exuberance rather than temperance, abundance not abstinence, and so paints a very different picture. Religiously important water jars used as containers for ludicrous quantities of fine wine (120-180 gallons) - is Jesus some kind of a lush then? Face saved for a bridegroom who faced social embarrassment and shame if the wine ran out. This seems as far from the temptations as it is possible to be!
In my sermon, I suggested that the temptations seemed to operate in in three spheres, the personal and materialistic (bread from stones), the 'worldly' and corrupt (bowing to the devil/Satan/evil) and the religious (supernatural conjuring tricks as signs of power). I suggested that the same three spheres could be detected in the Cana story - religious ritual (both the wedding itself, and the water jars symbolising purification), societal attitudes (the risk of shame and disgrace if the wine ran out, with ongoing consequences for the bridegroom (who clearly couldn't organise the proverbial...), and personal, material (the physical thirst of the guests, their desire for a good time).
Maybe I was overstretching the connections, but I was left pondering where the middle ground is that avoids us being so fearful of sin that we become boring, self-righteous prigs at one extreme, and so centred on the immeasurable, inexhaustible love, grace and mercy of God that we become laissez faire or licentious at the other. Where is the middle ground that holds together creatively the reality of temptation and the freedom to rejoice and celebrate?
No proper answer, but we ended our service by pushing back some of the chairs and a number of adults and children sharing in a simple circle dance while we sang Sydney Carter's 'Lord of the Dance' set to a Shaker folk tune. I think we got that bit right anyway!!