This is still God’s world, and therefore the rule of love is always at work in it.
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
By David Barton on 10 March 2019.
Ten years ago I went on a retreat in the Sinai Desert, in Egypt. It was in an area of desert where great rocky outcrops pushed up out of the surrounding stones and sand. By night we slept out in the open, snuggled into sleeping bags against the sharp cold, with the most extraordinary and wonderful canopy of stars above us. By day we found a cave out of the heat of the sun and used the time for meditation and reading. In the evenings we gathered round a fire for meals cooked by the local Bedouin tribe. The desert is an extraordinary place. It’s tough. It’s risks to life are palpable. It makes things clear, exposes weaknesses, sharpensthe mind. Small wonder then that Jesus goes to the desert to ponder his future.
Because this is decision time for Jesus. In the section before our reading, Luke tells us that John the Baptist has been thrown into prison by Herod. Then, when Jesus is alone, he sees the Spirit descending on him and the voice of God says: “You are my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” You get the sense of the momentum now moving from John to Jesus. So Jesus goes into the desert with pressing questions: is he to be another John? And what about that voice? Adam was also God’s loved son. He failed. How will Jesus succeed? What kind of Messiah?
Luke calls these three tests “temptations”. But the word for him doesn’t really mean what we understand it to mean now. We tend to think of temptation as rules we would like to break or impulses we must we must learn to tame. But the truth is different. This is about finding a way of true worship, true service. God calls us to love and serve him in every moment, and in doing that we grow into the human person we are. Temptations are about luring us away from that, shortening our sights, settling for something second best. The Greek word for sin actually means ‘missing the mark’. Like an arrow falling short of the target. Sin is about missing what it is to be fully human, falling short of who we could be.
So Jesus goes into the desert to sift the ideas. And the devil here is not so much a devil as we think of him, but more like Satan, which is the Hebrew version of this word. Satan is the advocate, the one who goes to Job, allowed to do so by God (please note!), to test how deep Job’s faith really is. Now he comes to sift and sort Jesus. And notice the difference between suggestion and outcome.
Satan begins with food. Hunger can’t have been unfamiliar. Jesus knew first hand the grinding poverty and hunger of his home villages around Galilee at that time. Stones into bread would create abundance. It was needed. But he refuses. Yet….look ahead and see what happens. The same Jesus emerges from the desert, and eats and drinks and values human company, and makes a rich banquet the sign God’s coming kingdom.
Then Satan dangles the prospect of political power in front of Jesus. Again the answer is a refusal. But none the less, in his first sermon not long afterwards Jesus announces that he has been sent “to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” It may be a quote from Isaiah, but it certainly has a political edge.
And the Jesus who refuses a dramatic appearance in the Temple, nevertheless enters Jerusalem on a donkey and drives out the money changers with a whip. Which was dramatic enough.
The ideas here matter. But what Jesus rejects is any notion of human power – the power to manipulate or control. In the desert Jesus came to understand that power in all its guises – political, religious, even well intentioned charitable power – disfigures humanity. Power negates the equality of each one of us before God. The only power Jesus will choose is the power of God’s love. And for that to show he chooses something that in human terms looks like weakness. (Luke points to that when he tells us that the devil left Jesus ‘until another time’. That ‘other time’ was Gethsemane.)
And the result is a message utterly different from that of John. John spoke of God’s wrath and coming Judgement. Jesus speaks of God’s great gift of salvation. John was austere in food and habits. Jesus shuns fasting and adopts an almost festive lifestyle. He doesn’t cancel the idea of Judgement. But he wants people to understand that God invites, welcomes everyone. People were to see God’s great compassion.
The bible is so familiar that we easily miss what a bolt of lightening Jesus is when he emerges from the desert. The desert lesson was that we are precious to God, each one of us, and Jesus pours that truth out in healing, teaching and story. God is a woman who loses a precious coin, and sweeps and sweeps her house until she finds it. God is the shepherd who searches and searches for a lost sheep. God is the father who longs and longs for his erring son to return. That God-given love and cherishing makes us who we are. And Jesus knows that its abundance overflows in generosity from one person to another. Striding out of the desert into Galilee he seeks to create a new kind of revolution in the way we all live – one that he hopes will grow and expand until society changes of itself, from the inside, and does so from the joy it discovers in learning to be fully human before God.
Biblical words, biblical narratives, are always read in context – the place where the pages of the bible and the pages of the newspapers interleave. Jesus spoke in a society crushed by Roman rule. And we hear these words this morning as we contemplate an anxious society, where our politics is marked by indecision, in a world that is increasingly unsafe, where more and more we hear language of exclusion and hate. And we all struggle with the news of the tragedies in our cities.
There are two things we might take from this passage. In the face of a troubled society, we need to remember that this world is still God’s world, and therefore the rule of love is always at work in it.
The church can sometimes look like a cocoon of safety in a troubled world. But it’s not. Jesus in the desert had no place of refuge, and here in our particular form of desert we don’t either. Our mandate from Jesus is always to be alive and out in the world with concrete actions, each one of us inwardly safe and secure in the love of God. That’s why the collective action of this church is so important: Community Cupboard; our mission agenda; the harvest appeal; and the untold work of people in this congregation wherever you are. All of these things are expressions of the hope at the centre of our lives. If we hold onto that precious truth of God’s love of us, God’s cherishing of us, then our words and actionswill speak for themselves. The Christian life is a flow of life, from that central truth.
And there is secondly the simple action of prayer. Prayer can sometimes seem an ineffectual thing in the face of the troubles we pray about. We hold these things before God again and again, and wonder if it makes any difference. But to pray is to share in Christ’s choice of weakness as he leaves the desert. It’s an act of trust in God’s love. We may never know the outcome of our prayers. But if we stay there, we begin to glimpse the immense depths of God’s compassion. And that is enough.