There`s a wonderful moment in the Television series `Outnumbered` (BBC TV) where a Vicar attends a wedding reception and he finds himself placed on a table with a very precocious little boy… And while they`re eating the little boy takes the opportunity to corner the Vicar with all manner of questions ….And at one point he says: “So Pilate put Jesus on a cross… well why didn`t Jesus just Zap him?” It`s the kind of scene that brings the likes of me out in cold sweat… but it`s not a million miles away from the kind of question I`ve heard from many an adult…..We look at the presence of so much evil in the world and we want to know, “Why does God allow it?…” We say, “Why doesn`t he DO something?”
Now, having raised questions like this all clergy are obliged to say something rather slippery like, “We`re in the presence of a great mystery here” and of course that`s but any attempt to then go on to provide some kind of answer almost inevitably descends into a few well-meaning platitudes. I sincerely don`t want to do that this morning…. And I`m not being at all slippery when I say that I don`t think that as Christians we are actually in the business of finding `answers` to these often painful questions anyway. No, my guess is that our tradition actually teaches us how to live with these questions rather than answer them…..So how do we do that?
Well firstly, I think we have to recognise our humility. It would be easy (as I`ve often done) to lift out the old quotation:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”. (Isaiah 55.8)
and attempt to leave it at that; and you can call this a platitude if you like. But I think we need to remember that this isn`t a text that`s designed to shut down debate or questioning ….. No, it sets the scene. it`s simply about realising our limits.
Then, secondly, one little exercise (for Lent) that you might like to try is to read the little book of Ecclesiastes.
You see this is where we discover something of the great breadth of material in Scripture. Ecclesiastes, for instance is full of the kind of speculation; and the questions “why?” that we tend to ask on a daily basis… And the simple point is that it`s there “IN Scripture” is really important. In other words, it`s very presence tells us that questions such as these are not out of bounds or alien to the way faith but actually part of it. So, when you read that little book you can`t help thinking that compared to our Jewish forbears we are a very timid people. You see, they didn`t run away from these questions.. No, they became the very subject matter of their praying….. In other words, “This is the stuff we should be praying about”. We`re invited to take these knotty issues out of the intellectual sphere and bring them to worship.
Take another example, when was the last time you sat and read the Book of Lamentations? (I`m really not joking!)
The writer speaks to the Lord and says:
“Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure”. (Lamentations 5.20-22)
I`ve lost count of the times people have apologised because they prayed like this…. And I`ve often wondered why? Why can`t we pray like this?… in this `gutsy` way?…. And I`ve often wondered, why do we hardly if ever get to use this kind of thing on a Sunday morning? Why aren`t more of our prayers framed as questions like this? Or even as protest like this?
It seems odd to say it but although it`s not always pleasant to have a good old rant we do need to ask “who taught us to believe that this kind of candour is `out of bounds` or a sign we`ve gone astray?”… When all the while our Jewish ancestors saw this as part of what it was like to be one of the people of God…..?
So first of all it helps to realise that questions are OK … Secondly, we`re allowed to have a good old rant ….. But then thirdly, here`s the rub… It helps to listen out for a reply. It helps, in other words, to become more familiar with how our God chooses to go about his business…. How he actually deals with these things that trouble us so much. This, I think is where this morning`s Gospel reading helps us.
In this desert time we call the `Temptations` (Matthew 4.1-11) Jesus is pondering on Israel`s failure to reflect the loving purposes of God to the creation…. To be a blessing. And in all the things which the tester lays before him we hear echoes of Israel`s their disobedience in the wilderness (their hunger, their protest, their idolatry). And what seems to be at stake is; in the light of Jesus`s Baptism, ….where he is declared “Son of God” …….how will he go about being the new Israel? By what means will Jesus go about restoring the creation? Putting it almost simplistically, Jesus is offered three short-cuts…. Three relatively straightforward paths…. They`re the equivalent of `Zapping` Pontius Pilate!
So the tester says, in effect, “Come on Jesus, Do something relevant (meet the peoples` needs). Do something exciting and gain everyone`s attention (make yourself popular)…and then, throw your weight about (Show them you`re in control).
These were the wholly plausible ways forward with which Jesus was presented but he stood back… and took a different way. Why does this matter?
Well, let`s remember that Jesus was far from being a stranger to the questions that we ask.…. For him, the presence of evil was no `academic` matter. He was born under one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever known…. But he is quite clear that you don`t reflect the life of God to the world by using the world`s methods and short-cuts. This is the point.
Because the end doesn`t justify the means. The means we use ARE the message….. And we see from the replies that Jesus gives to the tester that the means he chooses are a waiting on the Word of God; abandonment to his providence and a single-minded devotion. In other words, he turned his back on being relevant, popular and powerful.
And if we listen carefully, this is the direction his Spirit will take us. Our living in the world and seeking to reflect his light will take the same shape and form. The great sadness is that we have a track-record of resisting this. I mean, do I really need to spell out what happens when Christians fail to listen to Jesus?
The tester says, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread”. But when meeting immediate physical needs becomes the priority we all become consumers of God. “Throw yourself off the pinnacle”. But when what`s spectacular takes precedence we package Jesus as a commodity to entertain and amuse. And as for “fall down and worship me”, well even the military know the importance of taking the longer way of trying to as they put it “win hearts and minds”. But for generations the Church`s reputation for colluding with power and controlling people has been less than admirable.
Yes, we all have questions about why some things happen and where God`s providence might be in some of the heart rending things we see or experience. Asking those questions and praying (even protesting) with these things is part of the way forward. But becoming more familiar with the ways of God is equally important. Putting it bluntly… how do you go about saving a world?
Well, what we learn this morning is that Jesus rejected the short-cuts… of meeting everybody`s needs; keeping them entertained and throwing his weight around. Instead, he took the long, painful and patient way of the cross. More of that in the weeks to come.
For now, this is where the Lenten season points us. I`m suggesting that Lent is a season of training in which our instinct for the short-cut is challenged and we`re inducted in the same way of the cross. The first step is often learning to pause and recognise the temptation for what it is. Remember to look out for the short-cuts. So, for example, this Lent might be a chance for us to reflect on how many of our relationships are all about us meeting others` needs? That is to say, `pleasing people`? How many of our relationships are about, as it were doing the spectacular thing…. about seeking or needing approval or attention? How many of our relationships are founded on a need to be in control of others?
These are the kind of tensions we face at work and at home and we need to pray with them. Our response… the degree to which we are prone to taking these short cuts is an indication of how in tune we are with how our God goes about saving a world.