Lent 1, Luke 4, 2013
We are close to the start of something here, in this morning’s Gospel Reading, as we hear again the voice of Jesus and the truth of Jesus made present in the middle of us. We hear Jesus thinking and praying. We watch him discerning his purpose and discovering his path.
Let’s put our reading in context first. When he is about 30, Jesus goes to the River Jordan and joins the hordes there who are baptised by John. As he emerges from the water a voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, my beloved.” Luke follows this moment of revelation with a genealogy which reinforces the humanity of Jesus, his links to Adam, the fact that he is like us. And then comes the reading we’ve just heard as Jesus is taken into the empty wilderness for 40 days, as Elijah was, one day for each year Israel wondered in the Wilderness on the way into the Promised Land: and when he returns from this time of temptation and solitude he strides into the synagogue in Nazareth, takes up the scroll and announces that God’s words are being fulfilled this day in their midst. Those 40 days matter very much indeed- in them and through them Jesus finds his feet and rhythm and course.
The three temptations placed before him for his consideration are fascinating. They all offer Jesus a painless shortcut to his goal if only he will worship Satan. God offers no painless shortcut, no effortless ladder, but Sin’s allure is precisely its ease and its comfort.
I hunger for that. I could be famous. Everyone would be impressed. The allure of passion, and ambition, and glory.
Will Jesus achieve what God has placed in his heart step by painful step or will he fly straight to his throne? Will Jesus obey the Father or will he give in to the voice of the tempter as Judas will in Holy Week, in his act of shocking human betrayal? And even though he might not know the path in full, Jesus trusts the voice of God in his heart and knows that God’s plan for him is better and bolder and absolutely world-changing. He has not come to sit on a lofty throne or to perform party tricks by leaping from the Temple and waiting for the angels to support him. He has come to bring in the Kingdom ofGod heart by heart, healed leper by healer leper, transformed life by transformed life, bloody footstep on the Via Delarosa by bloody footstep.
These 40 days are about Jesus securing his roots, establishing his language of encounter and mission. And what we do in Lent is very similar- make the time, bury yourself in God, trust his promise to be with you in everything, put your hand and your heart in his and travel on with confidence, resist the siren voice with conviction because you know the voice of God and you know the difference between them.
The time in the Wilderness is about Jesus deciding exactly what he is called to, and how that builds on who he is, and hence what he will not do and where he will not go. In these temptations Jesus looks at some things he could do and knows that they are wrong. He will not use his divinity to rescue himself, he will not seize power with force, he will not demand that God rescue him at the last minute. Jesus walks back into the world armed only with the burning fire of God’s love for his people. It is impressive and humbling and it is done for us, to bring us back to God.
Jesus places himself utterly and without restraint into the providence of God. He has left his escape routes out in the desert.
And now the question is this: how will the world deal with someone who is a living rebuke to the choices we have made? So often we’ve said that we have no choice but to go along with this, no choice but to compromise, no power to change things. We say that we’re just trying to get by, that we’re not responsible for those who get trampled under or who are born and live and die without the global community noticing or doing a thing to help.
Jesus is a breathing, walking challenge to us today, and to every other generation. It’s not that Pontius Pilate and Annas and Caiphas are crueller or more corrupt or more ambitious than any other generation of leaders, or we ourselves. So much of life is holding onto our beliefs when our boss or our business or our lifestyle demand that we fit in.
I don’t know if anyone has just been watching Borgen, the Danish political series which follows a very normal MP and mother and wife who becomes Prime Minister: I am a few episodes behind so please don’t tell me too much about the end of Series 2, but the overarching theme of it is the way Birgitte loses her compass both politically and ethically as she goes deeper and deeper into the rabbithole, until she becomes a person who does things which would once have caused her to leave politics. She struggles to hear her own voice amid all of the competing voices which threaten to swamp her, which shout out that passing the next bill or solving that problem now is all that matters. Noone asks who am I? Noone asks what is moral or right or honest? It is all about solving the crisis or passing the bill now. And that feels very believable in every walk of life, even the Church.
Pilate and Caiphas and Birgitte are just human beings, like us, who have made certain decisions and certain compromises and certain allowances to get where they are and then to keep it- and then Jesus comes and lives a life which challenges everything we’ve buried our conscience and our best dreams to win. Will Pilate and Caiphas grasp the lifeline of restoration: or will they deaden their soul once more, and defend, Gollum-like, their precious? And more to the point, will we?
Jesus leaves the world’s precious things in the desert, where they are lost and buried in the sand. When he steps back into the world he walks with a light step because he’s not weighed down with physical comfort, the drive for ambition, the thirst for glory. He will not have to compromise and trim and trample to follow them. He is a man on a mission- step by step, soul by soul, heart by heart, parable by parable, to heal and restore, to restore and transform, to transform and complete, and, in time, to be raised up and, in that raising, to redeem creation.
Look at his set face. Look into his vibrant eyes. He has disarmed himself in the wilderness. And now, relentlessly, unerringly, amazingly, wonderfully he is coming weaponless, open-armed, to save you and to save me.
This gift of Lent, may you too go into the desert and come face to face with God.
May you too see God’s plan and purpose and longing for your life.
May you be shown which compromises demand you pay too high a price.
And may you emerge from the desert when Lent turns into Holy Week as a faithful disciple of Christ, having left self behind, armed only with God’s love for God’s imprisoned creation. Amen.