Sermon 9 March, 2014

Jesus tempted in the desert

Some of you may know that among the many odd things about me, one of the oddest is that I have a passion for the stories about a certain boy who discovered he was a wizard. In the fourth of that series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a boy called Cedric Diggory is killed by Voldemort. Professor Dumbledore speaks about him to the school and ends: “Remember Cedric. if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good and kind and brave because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort.” “If… you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy...”. That is temptation and that, usually, is sin. When we think of sin we usually think of the big sins, the people who do terrible things – the drug pushers, the men of violence, those who corrupt young children. Those sins are easy to spot and it would be hard to tempt us into them. Or we think of anger, drunkenness, jealousy or adultery. Yet sin is much more subtle than that.

So in today’s story we read of Jesus being tempted by the devil. I have seen several pictures of this, designed for Sunday Schools where a very devilish creature, complete with horns and a tail, is busy tempting Jesus. I am quite sure it didn’t happen like that. Jesus would have seen through that in a moment. The devil slips in more cleverly than that:

Jesus is hungry. He has become aware he can do astonishing things. Not long afterwards he turns water into wine and multiplies a few loaves into enough food for thousands. Would it not have been easy to turn a flat, Judean stone into a flat Palestinian bread? Perhaps it would but Jesus knew that the extraordinary power in him was not for his own use. Later he would know that he couldn’t use that power even to save himself from death on a cross. It may have been easy; it would not have been right. Jesus said No. Simon Magus in Acts thought he could buy power off Peter and use it for his own ends. We might not quite do that, yet as we set about our priestly ministry there are all kinds of subtle ways we can use the authority and gifts we have for our own purpose. We are not really far from the temptation of Jesus in the desert.

The next scene is on the temple roof. Light headed with hunger, perhaps, yet knowing he must somehow turn all these people away from their current concerns to attend to God, Jesus thinks “why don’t I show them that God is in me, by jumping off the roof and landing quite safely. I do have this special relationship with God. This is not for my glory but for God’s”. It was the choice of the easy way, the short cut. Rather than months or years wandering through the hot, dry country of Judea and Galilee, having no home, nowhere to rest, only a few friends and ending up in the agony of the Cross he could just work a few spectaculars, attract everyone’s attention. Tell them about God and all would be well. It’s easy for us to see the flaw in that but don’t we, in our way, do the same? Mission for us becomes a matter of getting a new website, producing beautiful service sheets, putting on really splendid vestments or making the music really jolly. If we can just do this people will flock to church. So we spend lots of money, invest lots of time and are surprised to find nothing happens. We haven’t actually preached the Gospel at all. We haven’t been visiting the sick, caring for the poor, telling people about the Kingdom of God, suffering the loneliness and rejection of being a priest in today’s world. That has to be the right way, because that was Jesus’ way. Websites, splendid vestments and jolly music on their own are short cuts which lead us away from the truth where God is.

I used to think the final temptation was really the devil at his most stupid. How could he persuade Jesus to bow down and worship him to gain a whole lot of earthly kingdoms he probably didn’t even want? However, I suspect it wasn’t quite like that. Jesus knew he had great power within him, an authority which came from God. God had sent him into the world to do something very important. He looked around and saw the evil done by Romans, Syrians, Persians, Egyptians, as they ruled people with brutality. Surely this is what God wanted him to change? He had the power; he had the authority; he could quickly gather an army and sweep all these rotten kingdoms away. He could establish a kingdom of God where justice and peace reigned supreme. Surely that is what he should do. We know that temptation. We have seen it several times in recent years when our governments have used their undoubted power, with the best of intentions, to sweep away corrupt and brutal regimes, only to find they have created a monster worse than the one before. In Lord of the Rings, Galadriel recognises she could take the Ring of Power and become a great force for justice and peace. She would be irresistible in her power and her beauty but, having cast down Sauron, she would become terrible in his place. She turns away to depart into the West. Jesus too found that power is not what we think it is. Becket in Murder in the Cathedral was tempted to become a martyr to do really great things.

“King is forgotten when another come; saint and martyr rule from the tomb. Think Thomas, think of enemies dismayed, creeping in penance; frightened of a shade.”

He could do so much good as a martyr and live in the glorious presence of God, yet  he refuses: “The last temptation was the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason”.

So how does this touch us in Lent. Most of us have made those agonising choices whether it is to be chocolate, or gin, or lying in bed on Saturdays that we will give up. They are, to be honest, pretty small things but they are important to us. Faced with a chocolate at tea should I take it (which would be easy) or refuse it which would be right? Those little acts train us over Lent. They teach us we do have the power inside us to refuse what is easy and do what is right. Then we need to look honestly at our lives to see how we are handling those choices. When people are slagging off the unpopular member of our group it is easy to join in but it is not right. When we hear of the poor in Africa, or the men and women trafficked across Europe for sex or labour, it is easy to turn aside and do nothing but it is not right. When the newspapers we read shout unjustly against asylum seekers, immigrants or other minority groups it is quite easy to agree with them but it is not right.

Of course, it is not all bad news. Each of us is here today because, at least sometimes, we have recognised where the choice lay and done what was right. Being the only practicing Christian in one’s class at school and sticking to it; leaving a good job to come to a crazy place like the College at Mirfield; each one of us can tell of times when we did see we must turn away from what is easy and do what is right, or we wouldn’t be here. Yet if we keep our eyes open, as we should in Lent, we will see more and more of these kind of choices waiting to be made. Can we ask God to give us the grace to see them and the strength to make them?

I fear I make it sound all a bit grim, a bit public schoolish, like the hero of the boys’ comics that Fr John reads who will die a thousand deaths rather than betray a friend. It isn’t grim. It is actually enormous fun. Jesus always did what was right and no one ever found him boring; he was full of life, immensely attractive, able to teach, heal, even raise from the dead. He cared for people because he had learned not to care for himself. When we make the choices that are right we place ourselves where Jesus is and that is never a dull place to be!

            Nicolas Stebbing CR