A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent; 14th February 2016
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Sometimes a sermon doesn’t need to be original. Every once in a while, the most helpful thing you can do is to pass on someone else’s in a different – and hopefully, fresh – way. Indeed, original thinking wasn’t always as prized as it is today; of course, in a week when Einstein’s original thought – the existence of gravitational waves – has been amazingly vindicated, we should acknowledge the genius of originality. But, throughout history, there has been another way of demonstrating good thinking, and that is the ability to pass on a tradition of thought to others. Much preaching is about handing on the faith, albeit in fresh clothes. Tradition isn’t the dead hand of history passing on outdated ideas; tradition is passing on a living heritage of faith to a new audience.
Today is one of those days. Today I’m passing on someone else’s original thought to you. And I’m doing that because I have found to be a helpful insight worth sharing. It’s a thought about the story of the temptation of Jesus and the insight has come from a man called Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, theologian and spiritual writer.
Nouwen compared the story of the temptation of Jesus, which we have just heard, to the modern obsession with success. In a little book called In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen compares our modern preoccupation with upward mobility to the example of Jesus, which he characterises as “downward-mobility”. He takes this idea and turns it into a fascinating meditation on what it means to lead, whether a leader in business or government, a leader of some group in the church or even the leadership of children exercised by a parent. Basically, Nouwen says, if you have any responsibility over people at all – you will be tempted by the siren voice of upward-mobility and, if you are a Christian, you will be challenged by the example of Jesus as he faces his temptations in the wilderness. Because Jesus uses his power and authority to challenge his Accuser’s assumptions about the way power and authority should be used.
The first temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness is to turn stones into bread. In other words – and this is Nouwen’s insight – Jesus is tempted to use his power to gratify people; to make people happy. But instead of doing so, Jesus says these famous words, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
How easy it is to take the short cut and to try to make people happy. Anyone of you who is a parent or grandparent will know the debilitating experience of what we call ‘pester power.’ “Oh, mum, can’t I have that ice cream.” “Oh, grandad, I’d really love that video game.” Or, perhaps most cunning, “Dad said I could have it.” But making children happy is not necessarily the best way to help them learn. Saying ‘no’ is an important word for them to hear. What sort of adult would they become if they only ever were given what they wanted?
Having an outlook on life which always has someone seeking to please others is a short-cut for all sorts of trouble; how easy it is to be manipulated into doing the wrong thing just in order to please someone and perhaps to get them off our backs. As a priest, it’s very easy to be a people-pleaser; to be popular rather than challenging, to be universally-affirming (a cultural trend in our society at the moment) rather than principled and properly boundaried. Not everything we do is good for us, for others or for an organisation. Many of you will know the risks of that in the workplace and the home as well.
By contrast, Jesus way of “downward mobility” seems to be as someone who is not dependent on other people’s approval. His security was in doing his Father’s will and knowing his Father’s love. Because he knew God’s will and knew himself loved by God, he was able to do for people what was best for them – even if they were disappointed by it. For us, this Season of Lent is an opportunity to reflect on how much we seek the approval of others in our choices and actions; it’s an opportunity to reconnect with the truth that we can know God’s love and know God’s will and act out of those deep truths than in the immediate search for popularity and acclaim. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus second temptation as Luke recounts the story, and as Nouwen sees it, is to abuse his power. To the Accuser’s offer of all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus refuses the worship of the Satan, with another biblical quotation. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
We say “Use your force and influence to get what you want! “Bigger is better” “More”. To that, Nouwen responds like this and it’s powerful. “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It is easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
That’s a huge challenge to us all. Any parent faced with a recalcitrant teenager knows the challenge – how you lead when you no longer hold all the power. Authoritarian parenting usually comes a-cropper at this point, because such parenting has never learned how to lead through vulnerability. And that’s as true in the office as much as in the church. Of course there are times when certain people have to make certain decisions and implement them – even if they are unpopular (after all, we now know we are not there to please people), but to be a vulnerable leader, to be a vulnerable parent, to be a vulnerable minister, is to lead through love, to reveal that by giving away power and control we can empower and give grace to others, rather than simply to be the one who is always admired for their ability and influence. It is the Accuser, the Satan, who leads through power. Jesus leads through love. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
The third temptation that Luke records Jesus as facing is the one about throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. Nouwen sees this as a temptation to be spectacular, to be heroic. To that temptation from the Satan, Jesus responds (again Scripturally), with these words, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
We live in the world of the heroic leader, the cult of celebrity. On Saturday morning I heard the bittersweet story of Orion, who became famous in the aftermath of the death of Elvis Presley. Orion’s fame came from the fact that he sang just like Elvis, and many people thought that Elvis had in fact not left the building and that Orion was in fact Elvis himself. This was despite the fact that Orion was in truth a man called Jimmy Ellis, who didn’t look a bit like Elvis. But people thought Orion was Elvis because, in public, Orion always worse a mask. The irony was that, so great was the appetite for fame in Mr Ellis, he could never be himself in public. What sort of fame is that?
But such desire to be the hero, to be famous, to be spectacular is part of our modern culture, especially here in London. The unspoken competition to be the last one out of the office at the end of the day, the focus on the bottom line, the buccaneering entrepreneur, and the subsequent generating of a culture of increasingly-unrealistic expectations in the workplace. Or the pressure to be the perfect parent, as mums (and sometimes dads) engage in unspoken competition about the achievement of their amazing children. I was struck recently by the focus of someone who used to be part of this church who has now left. Their criticism of me was that the numbers of worshippers were declining and the financial health of the church were suffering, as though these were indicators of success in a priest. In fact, the finances are improving (we have a plan that is slowly working) and the numbers in churches fluctuate for all sorts of complex reasons, but even in church life we can become focused on these sorts of markers as indicators of success. Whatever the numbers might mean, the numbers, the bottom line seem to be the way we mark achievement.
But contrast that with Jesus ‘downwardly-mobile’ response. He walks away from the spectacular and instead, shows his leadership by serving others and by, in the end, being crucified. All his disciples fled from him. The outward signs of success meant nothing to him. Instead, Nouwen suggests, Jesus models for us a way of leadership that focuses on being a wounded healer, as the person who doesn’t worry about the acknowledgement or acclaim of others, but who loves other people and, in doing so, absorbs and shares their challenge, difficulty and pain. He gives away what he has for the sake of others, and bears the cost of that. He teaches them the way of the kingdom, which often goes against the grain of his society, and clearly does so in ours as well. Gain through loss, success through failure, new life through death. Against the gospel of the spectacular and the heroic, Jesus invites us to seek first the kingdom of God, to point our lives away from ourselves, to be faithful in obscurity, to follow Jesus when no one can see us apart from God alone. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
This is a challenging message for us all, I realise – to do the right thing rather than to please people, to shun power rather than to accrue and to risk vulnerability instead of admiration, to become not a heroic leader but a wounded healer. We can do none of this in our own strength, but only through God’s. It is telling to note that Jesus draws us back to God revealed in Scripture in each of his responses to his Accuser. Perhaps that points us to the secret of this upside-down form of success, which is to seek to know the will of God. In John’s Gospel Jesus says these words, “I only do what I see the Father doing.” That, in the Season of Lent, is an invitation to come closer to God, to feed on him in Scripture (and not just in church), to be nurtured through spending time with God in prayer, and thus to find ourselves modelling our lives not on the temptations we face – to please, to power and to heroism – but on One who shows a new and living way, a way of “downward mobility” through death but, ultimately, to resurrection. Amen.