It was Oscar Wilde who famously had one of his fictional characters say, “I can resist everything except Temptation” …….. and quotations like that are part of the warp and weft of this Lenten season.
Of course, some might suggest that in one sense we`re setting ourselves up for a fall. Having resolved to renounce this that or the other during this Lenten Season almost every inclination to indulge in just a little bit of chocolate or a sneaky biscuit with our coffee assumes carries a somehow greater weight than if we were simply doing a bit of weight-watching. But as a colleague helpfully pointed out to me the other day what we`re really dealing with here is a matter of choice. We speak rightly of the Temptations of Christ but there in the wilderness He was faced with a series of choices about how he would live out his vocation; how he would best mirror the life of God to the world ……and there in that desert space he weighed up the alternatives. And when we set aside the relative trivia of chocolate and all the rest that`s really what we`re trying to get to grips with ourselves. We`re being invited to reflect, shall we say on the `godliness` or otherwise of our daily choices.
In our reading this morning (Luke 4.1-13) Jesus is presented with three very stark choices, `Command this stone to become a loaf of bread`, `Worship the devil and all this authority will be yours` and `Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple`…. Or to put it another way `Do something relevant, something that will make a difference (after all you`re hungry). Exercise power and control, get things done; Do something spectacular and entertaining; make a name for yourself`. These are the very plausible choices Christ is invited to make….. and I want to suggest that they are the equally plausible choices that we individually and as a Church are all too often prone to make… to our cost.
Firstly these three paths are those taken by the Church to our cost. Choose to `Do something relevant, something that will make a difference`. And so we end up with a church that is constantly chasing its tail trying to meet everyone`s needs and desires and we market ourselves according to what will appeal to particular segments of the community. And what we end up with is `church as self-improvement`. This, as I`ve often said, is faith as a lifestyle choice; something that will adorn, justify and endorse the others choices I have already made. But faith isn`t a means of helping us cope with life… it`s about giving us a different one. You see, basically we collude with the world`s narcissism; with those who believe that they, their self-improvement and physical well-being are the be all and end all.
Secondly, choose to `Exercise power and control, get things done`; and so the Church becomes a corporation; so very clean, tidy and well organised…. and we have found it very easy to rub shoulders with those who are the world`s power brokers. And this is a particular danger for us as the National Church. For example, I don`t think we have begun to appreciate the damage we did by allying ourselves so uncritically with power during the First World War…. and yes, the obscenity of people such as me calling young men to the battlefield. It`s a place of tension illustrated beautifully by Bishop Helda Camara when he famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Thirdly, choose to `Do something spectacular and entertaining; make a name for yourself`. And we notice how wrapped up we have become in the market place for peoples` attention. Worship at a time and a place and in a style that accommodates every taste and fancy… as long as it draws a crowd. And we make ourselves dizzy trying to think of even more novel and `exciting` ways of attracting people to our religious pageant…. It is little more than Disney with hymns.
So I am by definition suggesting that these are not the Christ-like choices. What we might summarize as Relevance, Power and Popularity are as our reading makes clear, not the Christ-like way but sadly they are the options, the temptations into which we fall as a Church…. and in this Lenten season it`s good to recognise this and repent. But if that sounds a bit theoretical remember that what`s true of us as a Church applies to us individually as well…. to our cost.
Choose to `Do something relevant, something that will make a difference` could easily be expanded and applied to our personal relationships. So for example, we anxiously worry about meeting someone who is going through a hard time and yes we want to do something to help or to make it better…. to turn their stone into bread.
But how would it be if we would pause and resist the temptation to `fix them` and instead choose just to be present; to offer patient listening and allow room for the Lord to work through that?
Choose to `Exercise power and control, get things done` could also easily be expanded and applied to our personal relationships. I mean how often do we find ourselves having to have the last word or find ourselves needing to be in the right? How would it be if we were to be less defensive; accept being wrong or allow ourselves to be led for once?
And choose to `Do something spectacular and entertaining; make a name for yourself`. How often do we find ourselves doing something so as to be seen or at very least so that others won`t think badly of us? I sometimes wonder if we aren`t creating a generation which is so hooked on gaining attention that it will be incredibly hard to find anyone who is prepared to do anything that is behind the scenes in a quiet and unassuming way.
Twice in the passage we heard, Jesus is told, “If you are the Son of God”. In other words what`s at stake here is Jesus`s identity… You`ll remember it was proclaimed at his Baptism. And the assumption the devil puts before him is that if this is true of him the THESE will be the choices he will make. And this is what we live with constantly isn`t it? We`re the Church …. that`s about meeting needs… isn`t it? We`re the Church; our life and message should be so compelling that the whole world should be at our feet… We`re the Church of course we`ll be popular, people should come flocking. We accept all of this without thinking…. Because we believe Relevance, Power and Popularity are what we`re about we choose accordingly.
And in our personal lives we`re brought up to think the same. “If we`re a Christian then surely it`ll turn our stones to bread; it will give us more control over our lives; become an instant passport to the friendship and popularity we crave…. Won`t it? Well no. And what we see this morning is that Jesus`s understanding of being `Son of God` leads him to make different choices. Not Relevance, Power and Popularity… He realised that this was NOT the way to mirror the life of God to the world… and neither is it the way we as a Church or as individuals will do it.
Our identity as sons and daughters of God calls for a different path… and it has something to do with a cross…. The cross we will sit before in a few weeks’ time. It`s all about the choices we make and how we go about mirroring the life of God to the world. The problem is …. that means letting go of Relevance, Power and Popularity…. and that`s a hard choice to make.