Minister's Sermon - Sunday 10th March 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 10th March 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Luke 4.1-13

I gather that over the past weeks, social media has been full of ideas, about how to spend Lent. I say, I gather, because I’m not into social media. I gave it up a few years ago, in Lent, because I was wasting too much time on it. But in Tuesday’s Guardian, Dawn Foster said that “many of my WhatsApp conversations include a casually dropped ‘what are you giving up for Lent?’ While older friends… mention cutting down on chocolate, tea or coffee, people of my age seem more extreme, and serious, in their choices: quitting Twitter, no alcohol or smoking… becoming vegan, or even looking into fasting regimes previously practiced by monks.” (1) She’s a Christian, but many of her friends are not, and yet they were still asking the question! Her conclusion is that because the purpose of these practices is to become “a better person, less prone to excess, less rapacious. You don’t necessarily need to take the Gospels as gospel to participate… hyper-consumption does not bring happiness… why not use this month to… embrace the promise of self-improvement.” (1) My response is Oh! Is this really what Lent is about? Is the world appropriating a Christian practice and turning it into self-improvement? Or is it that churches haven’t communicated well enough what Lent is for? One of the challenges today’s Gospel reading faces us with, is not to reduce it to a story about what we do, or do not do about our temptations. Lent is an invitation to grow. And we can do that through a discipline of some sort or other. But neither discipline nor giving something up is the point of Lent. Each is only a means to the end, and that end, is to become ever-more fully the person God created you to be. To embrace your identity. To discover your vocation. And to discern how you will exercise that calling. So, even ‘though Daniel has created us a picture of Jesus’ temptation in the desert for today’s service, that’s not the place I want to begin this morning.

The story of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke’s Gospel begins with three powerful events. The first, is his baptism in the Jordan, the second is the temptation in the desert, and the third his sermon in the synagogue in his home-town. The first two stories were for Jesus. No one else is aware of them. While the third was public. But together, they reveal his identity, his vocation, and how he will live. At his baptism, as the Spirit descends on him, he hears the truth about who he was, about his identity. “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He is he spirit-anointed Son of God, precious, and beloved. His vocation is revealed in the synagogue, in his home town, when he quotes from the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim

release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

So, the first story tells us who he is, and the third, what he will do. The story of his temptation in the desert, comes in between, and through them Luke reveals how Jesus will fulfil his Spirit-anointed vocation as Son of God. How he will live out his identity as the Son of God. How he responds to the devil’s “powerful assaults on that truth” (2) and how the devil “tries to get Jesus to question who he is.” (3) It’s that “how,” that I want to focus on this morning, as we explore the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Because it’s how we live out our identity as God’s beloved, and the vocation we share with Jesus, that Lent helps us to discern.

When the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, she leads a human being, who will become even more vulnerable than he already is. After forty days without food, he was famished, and the devil targets him at his weakest point. When the devil says, “If you are God’s Son…” he’s not questioning Jesus’ identity. He knows full-well who he is. This “if” is more like a “since.” Since you are God’s son, the devil says, how will you respond to your hunger. You don’t have to be hungry. You can turn stones into bread and have plenty of food. So why don’t you? There is nothing inherently wrong with the need for food. Later in his ministry, Jesus feeds 5000 hungry people, because it was a good thing to do. The problem is the implication that undergirds the temptation. That God’s beloved should not hunger. That unmet desires for safety and security – whether in the form of food, drink, clothes, possessions, money - is somehow unacceptable. That human beings must be safe and secure. And there is truth in that.

The stories about the impact of austerity, the government’s hostile environment and rising house prices, should leave us in no doubt about how damaging it is, when society does not fulfil its responsibility to ensure that everyone is fed and housed and treated with respect. Amber Rudd has recently acknowledged what people have been saying for a long time. That the rise in food bank use is a consequence of the way universal credit is being rolled out. The government has had to say sorry to members of the Windrush generation being denied health care, being imprisoned and returned to the countries they left when they were children, because they were unable to gather enough documents to prove their right to be here. And I know I’m not alone is being concerned about young people, families and divorced women being uprooted from their rented homes, time and time again, because they can’t ever hope of owning their own house.

So, we need to be clear that when Jesus resists the devil’s temptation, to turn stones into bread, he isn’t questioning our need for such basic security. Jesus answers, “the scripture says, ‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone.” He’s quoting a “reference to the journey of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.” (4) God fed them throughout the journey, to make them understand, that “one does not live by bread alone, but the word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8.3) Jesus accepts this same dependence on God. With it he affirms his humanity, his mortality, his vulnerability. And he invites us to accept ours. This is not about not having the basics for life. It’s about wanting more than is necessary. Insisting on, desiring more than our fair share. And using that desire to avoid our responsibility to others. Debie Thomas outs it like this. “By inviting Jesus to magically sate his hunger, the devil invites Jesus to deny the reality of the incarnation.  To ‘cheat’ his way to satisfaction… to manipulate creation…To turn what is not meant to be eaten — a stone — into an object he can exploit. As if the stone has no intrinsic value, beauty, or goodness, apart from Jesus’s ability to possess and consume it.” (2) Becoming the people, the humans God made us to be, means learning to trust we can be “loved and hungry at the same time.  And that when God nourishes us, it won’t be by magic. It won’t be manipulative and disrespectful. It won’t necessarily be the food we’d choose for ourselves, but it will feed us, nevertheless.  And through us — if we will learn to share — it will feed the world.” (2)

The devil doesn’t give up. He took Jesus up – I think that like Daniel we can assume that he took him up a mountain – and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. “I will give you all this power and all this wealth,” said the Devil, “All this will be yours… if you worship me.” “The “if” of this temptation is different from the first if. It’s the if of a conditional exchange. Something unlike the bribe parents are sometimes tempted to use with children. If you do x, then I’ll give you or allow you to do, y. Pretty similar to the government’s promise to give MPs’s constituencies money if they vote for her Brexit deal. The curious thing here, ‘though, is why the devil can give the kingdoms of this world, with their authority and glory, to Jesus? Surely, they are God’s and God’s alone, to give! The best answer I have found, is that in the Greek original, it does not say that the ultimate power belongs to the devil. Rather that his power is only temporary. But none of that takes away from the devil’s suggestion that Jesus could have power – fame, recognition, clout and all the wealth in the world - now. The implication is that there is no need for God’s beloved Son to work in obscurity. In a poor, occupied state, far from the centre of power. That being God’s Son “is to be centre stage: visible, applauded, admired, and envied.  For a God who really loves us will never ‘abandon’ us to a modest life, lived in what the world considers insignificance.” (2)

When I was going through the process of candidating to be a Methodist Minister, I was asked if I liked being a “little fish in a big sea, or a big fish in a little sea.” At the time, I didn’t get the question, and didn’t understand why the person was asking me. She didn’t relate it to anything. So, I didn’t know if she was saying that becoming a minister would make me a big fish in a little sea, or a little fish in a big sea. Or if she was commenting on the job I had before I became a minister. I’m still not sure. Her question implied that becoming a minister is about power, and I wasn’t offering to be a minister, so I could gain power. There is truth in her question. It’s impossible to ignore how ministers, priests and pastors – as well as other Christians in leadership – have misused their role, to gain power over children and vulnerable people. It’s why our safeguarding policies, processes and training are so important. Yet, for me, being a minister, or a church leader isn’t about gaining power for myself. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been asked a few times what I want to do here, and what my vision for the church is. I’m sorry if that’s what you think a minister is for. Because it’s not what I think I’m here for. For me, the power and responsibility I have as a church leader, is to enable us to shape this church together. So that together, we use our power, to shape the future of God’s world. Of course, in that process, I have a particular set of ideas, experience and knowledge that I bring at this time. But churches only have a future, when we create them together, in the image and likeness of God. And “The uncomfortable truth about authentic Christian power is that it’s seen in weakness.  Jesus is lifted up —on a cross.” (2) 

That’s at the heart of Jesus’ answer. He quotes another verse from the Book of Deuteronomy as it continues to tell the story of the people of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The book “lays out the way of life that defines the people of God, giving them their character and their purpose in life,” (4) and it all flows from their dependence on God and what God does for them. So, Jesus reminds the devil, “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.” We see what that means in Jesus’ life. And Lent and Holy Week is the time we see it most powerfully. The leadership he offers, the power he has, is of humility. If you haven’t already realised, I see this as being central to the life of faith. And it’s best expressed in the hymn to Christ’s humility in the 2nd chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Of that, Jane Williams says “Christ humbles himself, and hands over power to others even to kill him, and that is what makes him worthy to be our Lord… But the truth is deeper than that: Jesus shows us something of the nature of the eternal God who is always like this.” (4)

And this brings me to the last of the devil’s temptations. The devil doesn’t give up. He’s not used to losing to human beings! Now he turns the tables. And starts by quoting from Psalm 91, as a way of goading Jesus to jump off the “tip” of the Temple in Jerusalem. “God will order his angels to take good care of you.’ It also says, ‘They will hold you up with their hands so that not even your feet will be hurt on the stones.’” The devil returns to “if” in the first sense. Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here and show me and all of Jerusalem, what you got that we haven’t. Since you keep telling me we should be dependent on God. Test God’s love. Prove that God will rescue you! The implication is that if you are the beloved of God, then God will keep you safe.  

This is a temptation we can all recognise. If God loves us, then why does God, not keep us safe? Safe from physical and emotional harm. Safe from frailty and disease. Safe from accidents. Safe from natural disasters. Safe from death. Debie Thomas says that the assumption that being a Christian means we’re safe, is “such an enticing lie, because it targets our deepest fears about what it means to be human in a broken, dangerous world.  We want so much… to believe that we can… get God to guarantee us swift and perfect rescues if we just believe hard enough.  But no. If the cross teaches us anything, it teaches us that God’s precious children still bleed, still ache, still die. But that we are loved in our vulnerability.  Not out of it.” I think that this one of the hardest things we have to learn. And learning it marks the transition between a faith that trusts in magic and a faith that is rooted in trust in God’s love for us - whatever happens to us. When I heard that I had a pituitary condition in 2012, my prayer was for patience and courage to face the waiting, the operation and the recovery, not for healing that avoided it all. Since the condition is a congenital deformity, I had to grapple with the idea that since God knitted me together in my mother’s womb, it’s part of who I am. I don’t blame God for it. It’s part of creation not yet being perfect. And the skills of the doctors and nurses and the support of family and friends are God’s gifts to humanity. But through it all, I received a gift, the gift of knowing that the only necessary thing is to trust God.

Jesus’ answer to the devil is “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” He isn’t interested in being the Son of God in a way that proves who he is – whether to the religious people who become an increasingly present part of his story in Lent – or to the devil. So, now he turns the tables, on this scripture-quoting devil. For this last temptation, is less a temptation for Jesus, than an attempt to tempt God to save him. But God is not to be managed or provoked, even for the sake of the Son of God, and this will become even more important when Jesus is crucified and is tempted for a final time. And so, Jesus affirms that God cares for us within our humanity, not by rescuing us out of it. To be beloved is not to transcend the truth of dust and ashes, that he and we will die, it is to learn that we are loved as vulnerable human beings.

The story of Jesus temptation in the desert, tells us how Jesus will fulfil his vocation, as God’s beloved son. How he will live out his identity as the Son of God. How he chooses to be human. And what that means as we try to live out our identity as God’s beloved and the vocation we share with Jesus. He invites us to accept that, as humans who are mortal and vulnerable, we are dependent on God and that what God has created is for all. That the power he chooses to lead with, is the power of humility, of becoming equal with us. So that we can work together with him. And that those who trust in God, do not need God to rescue us from the things that might harm us, for God is already with us. None of this is easy to learn. It is a life-time’s journey for those who are willing to take it. Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t choose to enter the wilderness. The Spirit led him there.  But Jesus chose to stay. “We don’t always choose to enter wildernesses.  We don’t volunteer for illness, loss, sorrow.  But the wilderness happens…” And when we’re cared for and supported - when we care for and support each other - the wilderness can become a place of transformation. Where we discover, as Jesus did, how we are to express our identity as God’s beloved and live out the vocation God has for us. So that we can become ever-more fully the person God created us to be. And if now isn’t a wilderness time for you, then use the discipline you’ve chosen for this Lent, as a way of entering the desert and opening your life to God. To deepen tour dependence on God so God might reveal your vocation to you. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

References

(1) The Guardian Journal Tuesday 5th March 2019 p5 (2) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2112

(3) https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5294

(4) The merciful humility of God, Jane Williams (Bloomsbury) 2018 p16 - 18