Jesus Tempted in the Desert
I start my sermon not in the Judean desert, but in a place well known to some of us: Hogwarts school and the world of Harry Potter. In 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. But 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 temptation 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. The Devil is clever. He is, of course, Lucifer, the light bearer, the most beautiful of the angels. He knows how to tempt us with evil cleverly disguised as good. That is what he does with Jesus.
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 be 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. Power is dangerous. God gives us power as priests, as Christians, but it is a power that must not be used for ourselves, but only for others. This power is found in weakness, in gentleness, in compassion. It is quite unlike the power being used in the Ukraine today.
I used to think the second 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? The whole world was his; how could the Devil give him kingdoms? But, of course, it wasn’t like that. Jesus knew he had great power within him, an authority that came from God. God had sent him into the world to bring the world back to God. 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 had the intelligence; 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. That is what the Messiah would do. 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. We have seen it tragically in this last week when a man with enormous power thinks he can use it to establish a new order for his country. Power is particularly dangerous when it is joined to a religious zeal which makes your country a place which is special to God. Holy Mother Rus. If Jesus had used his power to fight a war, he would have been bowing down and worshipping Satan. If Jesus had used his power to try and destroy the evil kingdoms of this earth and build a new one, the result would have been like Vladimir Putin’s, or Hitler’s attempt to do the same. 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 very dangerous even for him to use. Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral was tempted by power to become a martyr and do really great things.
“King is forgotten when another comes;
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.
And he refuses: “The last temptation was the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
The final scene is on the temple roof. Jesus has turned away from raw power, yet he knows 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 get this right, people will flock to church. So we spend lots of money and invest lots of time in this kind of glittering activity. It looks good in the Church Times. It produces lovely pictures of beautiful people doing exciting things. But nothing really 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.
So how does this touch us in Lent? Most of us have made those agonising choices what to give up for Lent; will it be chocolate, or gin, or lying in bed on Saturdays that we will give up? They are, to be honest, pretty small things, especially when you think of the suffering of people in the Ukraine, 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 whether we are carrying forward this process of choosing to do what is right. 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, or immigrants it is quite easy to agree with them, but it is not right. When we read of the suffering of the Ukraine we can feel utterly helpless. It is easy to do nothing. But is it too hard to pray?
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 place like 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 these choices 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 would die a thousand deaths rather than betray a friend. But 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!