A sermon and prayer based on Luke 4:1-13.
Last year I did some training with Christian Aid in how to lead what they call contextual Bible study and ended up leading one such study on-line at their virtual Changemakers conference. We looked at the story of Jesus temptation in the wilderness. The story we have heard this morning, but on that occasion the much shorter account in Mark’s gospel.
The method we were taught involved a first stage of asking a question simply to encourage the group to read the passage in a little more detail. For this study it was, “What characters are involved in the passage?” Mark’s gospel actually mentions several characters but Luke only mentions two.
It looks at first as if there are just two characters (in Luke’s account), Jesus and the Devil, but one person in my group identified a third, the wilderness. She saw the wilderness as an important element in this story, sufficiently important to see it as an additional character. She saw the story as an interaction between Jesus and the devil and the wilderness. Jesus hasn’t just wandered round the corner, he’s not withdrawn to his bedroom, he’s not sought a holy place like a synagogue. He’s wandered into the wilderness.
The wilderness is a hostile place, a place where we cannot feel at home, a place without food or comfort. It is interesting that all three accounts of the temptations mention specifically that Jesus went without food for the entire forty days. Wilderness is a place we must leave at some stage because if we don’t we will die. It is in this place that the temptations take hold of Jesus. It is in this place that Jesus’ faith is tested, but it is also in this place that Jesus’ faith is formed.
It feels to me as if, in Western Europe, in the early part of the twenty-first century that we are in a place of wilderness. It’s a hostile place in which we cannot feel at home, a place that offers little real sustenance, a place which we must leave because otherwise we will die. There are many factors that contribute to this, there is our descent into consumerism, our tolerance of economic inequality and injustice, our increasing focus on rights and independence of the individuals rather than the health of the community . But this lent I’ll be leading a series of sessions on the climate crisis, and this morning I’d like to explore how this reading can focus our thoughts on this issue. We are rapidly turning our planet into a place that cannot sustain us, a hostile place where we can no longer feel at home. A wilderness. It is in this place that our faith is being tested, but it may also be this place in which our faith can be formed.
The first temptation that comes to Jesus is that he should turn the stones to bread. He should look for a technological solution that will allow him to continue living where he is, in the wilderness. Jesus says “No, what use is that. Living in the wilderness on stones turned into bread is no life for anyone. I do not live by bread alone. I’ve come to live life in all it’s fulness. I cannot live fully by finding ways of sustaining myself here, on my own, in this desert. I need to leave this place, I need to discover new ways of living”.
There is a temptation, when dealing with the climate crisis, to look for technological solutions that will allow us to continue living in our wilderness. We can allow the ice to melt and the forests to burn and the farmland to parch because human ingenuity will allow us to find ways to continue to exist despite this. We need to scream out a resounding “No, this is not what life is about. We are here to live life in all its fulness, not merely to exist. We need to leave this place, we need to discover new ways of living”.
The second temptation is to join forces with the devil. Jesus is taken up to see the kingdoms of the world from the same perspective as the devil. “Just go with the flow and I’ll give you success on my terms” says the devil. Again, Jesus rejects the temptation, “No. I wasn’t created to serve you, I was created to serve God”.
How tempting is this in relation to the current emergency? Let’s just go with the flow and see the world from the perspective of those who are causing the problem. Let’s continue to extract and consume and pollute. “Invest in me and I’ll give you high levels of return on your pension fund and keep you in comfort for the rest of your life.” Those of us in the affluent west can stick together, we’re in a part of the world that is least likely to be affected. Who cares what happens anywhere else?
Like Jesus, we need to resist this temptation. Fulfilment will not come from looking after ourselves. Fulfilment will come from loving our God and loving our neighbour. We cannot connive with a world order founded on extraction and exploitation, we need to create a new world order founded on that love.
The final temptation is for Jesus to throw himself from the highest part of the temple. The devil tries to persuade him that he should give up any responsibility for his own life and assume that God will save him. For a third time Jesus says “No, what a ridiculous suggestion. It is not for me to test how far God will go to protect me. I need to take responsibility for my own life. Testing how far God will go to rescue me from my own irresponsibility is a crazy idea.”
The other temptations have a universal parallel in the context of the climate emergency, but this one is specific to Christians. It is so tempting to assume that what happens here on earth doesn’t matter because our reward will be in heaven or because on the Day of Judgement all things will be made new. The climate emergency is a product of this world. Wouldn’t we would do better to concentrate on what awaits us in the next? Isn’t that crazy. How can we possibly believe that if we abdicate our responsibilities on this earth, God will automatically come to our rescue in the next.
One of the major themes of Luke’s gospel is that we need to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. It culminates in the parable of the sheep and the goats. In this entry to that Kingdom is granted to those who share their food with the hungry, their drink with the thirsty and offer a welcome to the stranger. If we abdicate our responsibility for the climate emergency we are choosing to deprive the hungry of food, the thirsty of drink and to turn our back on the stranger. I for one don’t want to test the strength of God’s love for me, by taking that choice.
When our faith is tested within the wilderness of the climate emergency we need to use the opportunity to allow that faith to be reformed. We need to avoid the temptation to look for ways to continue living the way we do and instead look for ways out of this wilderness to live more fully. We need to avoid the temptation to just go with the flow and live as everyone else does. We need to avoid the assumption that God will come to the rescue and take responsibility for our own actions and lifestyles.
But for the moment let’s pray.
God of love,
We come to you to give thanks for Jesus – that part of you that came to be with us. We thank you that through him you understand what it is to be human. Knowing this we offer our prayers to you with confidence that you will understand.
We pray for this world which is not as you intended. Generations of humans have not honoured or cherished this planet on which we live and are turning it into a wilderness. All too often we live in ways that continue this destruction rather than offering healing and restoration.
We are so often tempted to ignore your word and continue to live as we always have. We come to you intending to change, to take responsibility for our own actions, to work for a world that is as you would wish, your Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Please gives us the commitment and strength to carry these intentions through, to make a real difference to this world, your world. Encourage us in the way we live and the way we love to find a path from the wilderness of this world to the fulfilment of your Kingdom.
Help us to do this in large ways and in small. Let’s start off today by focussing on just one action that we can take to make a difference or one person we can help to see you love. Let’s treasure that action or that person in our heart. Let’s hold that action or that person before God and ask to be empowered to do God’s will.
Send us into the world to love and serve you.
We ask this through your son, who knows what it is to resist the temptations of this world and through doing so was rewarded with fulness of life in your Kingdom.