Reading Luke 4:1-13
Preacher The Revd Alan Sykes
Having heard that story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, you may be tempted to think that those temptations aren’t very relevant to the likes of you and me.
Not many of us, I suspect, would be able to turn stones into bread, even if we wanted to. After all it could put Warburtons and every baker in the land out of business in a flash.
No-one in the history of the world, as far as I am aware, has held sway politically over all the kingdoms of the world – though I dare say that the odd megalomaniac may have harboured such an ambition.
And not many of us would find an invitation to throw ourselves from the pinnacle of a very tall building in the least bit enticing.
The temptations that Jesus faced are not the ones that we face. That much is obvious. But I would venture to suggest that there is a deep connection between his temptations and our temptations.
That connection, I believe, is the temptation to separate ourselves from others. So let’s take a quick look at these temptations of Jesus to illustrate what I mean.
Firstly, this suggestion from the devil of turning a stone into a loaf of bread – in other words Jesus is being tempted to pander to purely material needs but thereby ignoring that which is deepest and actually most essential in a human being. We do not live by bread alone.
Of course we all need to eat, to have clothing and shelter and so on but to cater solely for those needs and to ignore our deeper needs, in effect, would be to ignore the real person in favour of the shell of that person.
So you could say that Jesus would be separating himself from the whole person, the real person. And that just isn’t what Jesus is about.
For Jesus to engage with people purely on the basis of their material needs would actually be a form of disengagement.
And lest you misunderstand me, let me stress that I’m not implying that a person’s material needs are unimportant. They most certainly are important. But they are not the whole person and Jesus is about the whole person.
Secondly, this temptation to absolute political power, to holding sway over all the kingdoms of the world. Well, there’s that old adage: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the words of Lord Acton, a 19th century historian and politician.
It’s not quite so well known that he went on to say that ‘Great men are almost always bad men’. I guess that’s because, if it’s true, people who acquire great power are in the majority of cases those who lust for power.
It’s not power in itself that necessarily separates the power-ful from the power-less, though I reckon that’s always a danger. It’s the lust for power that separates people most profoundly.
And that’s what the devil is trying to encourage in Jesus – a pure, naked lust for power. Once we give in to that lust, relationships of genuine love become impossible. We separate ourselves from other human beings – from the strong as well as from the weak. Perhaps especially from the strong for they become our rivals.
And lastly we have this temptation of Jesus being invited to throw himself off a high building – purely, one assumes, for the sake of impressing the onlookers, of putting himself on some pedestal from which would radiate his superiority.
And when we desire superiority, we are cutting ourselves off from those to whom we feel superior or wish to feel superior. We are cutting ourselves off from those to whom we still feel inferior and of whom we are envious. Separation, again, separation all along the line.
I’m tempted to say that that is what temptation is – to be inclined to cut ourselves off from others for the sake of some perceived but ultimately hollow benefit.
Temptation is always a temptation to separate ourselves from others. To separate himself from other human beings – and so from God, that is the bigger temptation that lurks behind these three temptations. Jesus is refusing all that.
But it’s a temptation that we all face all of the time, just as Jesus faced it.
There’s nothing wrong in themselves with food, with political power, with miraculous abilities. But when they threaten to separate us from others – and from God – they become temptations. More than that, they can become sins.
Of course we don’t like to talk about sin these days but, since it’s Lent, perhaps I can get away with it. Sin, by definition, is a temptation to which we have already succumbed. It’s the next domino in the row to topple over. It’s the succumbing within our spirit that turns a temptation into a sin, not the temptation itself.
I’m convinced that the fundamental characteristic of sin is separation. Anything we do, say, think or feel that separates us from other human beings is a sin. Or you could say that sin is the absence of love. It amounts to the same thing.
Now, I’m speculating a bit here but I think I’d go so far as to say that anything that separates us from anything that exists is a sin – anything that removes us from a relationship of love with whatever exists. That would include all our fellow creatures and it would include God.
It seems to me that union, communion on all levels of our existence is what the Christian faith is all about. It’s about healing the rift that has occurred between us and God, between ourselves, between ourselves and the rest of creation.
Which is a tall order but God thinks it’s possible – and so must we.
To end with let me change tack a little – though still on the theme of separation and temptation.
However much we may feel that we are tempted, however much we may give in to temptation – and I presume we give in to temptation a lot of the time – there is always a path from that place where we’ve come to that can lead us to God.
God is so faithful that ultimately nothing can separate us from him, however stretched (as it were) the elastic gets. He can always find a path for us. Our job is to find that path – or rather our job is to allow God to show us the path.
The elastic may get very taut but it never snaps. Whatever we’ve done, whatever temptations we may have succumbed to, there is no place from which our separation from God cannot be remedied.
Such a place simply cannot exist.