Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Lent 2022
Jesus was being tempted to be first the Provider; second, the Possessor; and third, the Performer.
The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor
Sunday, 6th March 2022 at 11.15 AM
Those being trained in the art of preaching are often encouraged to structure their sermons around three main points, presumably so that, when asked, over Sunday lunch, what the vicar said in their sermon, the faithful can rattle them off, to prove that they were listening. Being ill-disciplined, and suspicious of anything reduceable to bullet-points, I usually resist this homiletical straight-jacket, but today I am chastened by a gospel that is precisely and poignantly tripartite.
Jesus is tempted in the wilderness in three ways: to change a stone into bread; to grasp worldly glory and authority; and to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple.
The former Bishop of Winchester had a penchant for plosives—he arrived in the diocese with a three-pronged strategy, each prong beginning with a P. Somewhat wilfully, I cannot now remember what the three were, but let me offer you three P’s as a way of digging deeper into these three temptations. I propose to you that Jesus was being tempted to be first the Provider; second, the Possessor; and third, the Performer.
And in uncharacteristically compliant manner, let me take them exactly in the order that they appear.
The Provider. ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus was famished at this point, after forty days of fasting. Why not use the power at his disposal to provide for himself?
Our culture is big on self-reliance. Wealthy individuals (which I guess includes all of us, by global standards, not just oligarchs and their super-yachts) wealthy individuals justify wealth with the thought that they have ‘earned it’—they have worked hard and this is their just reward. And the sense of righteousness is bolstered further with the thought that, being able to provide for ourselves, we will not be a burden on others, or on the State. The wealthy provider thus bristles with virtue.
But the truth is that our ability to provide has only so much to do with our own hard work or virtue, and has much more to do with what is sometimes called moral luck—happening to be born in a wealthy society with decent education and healthcare; happening to have certain physical and intellectual capacities that allow us to take advantage of the opportunities we (and not others) are offered. There are so many factors that have little or nothing to do with our own intrinsic merit. It might be comforting to imagine that others’ inability to provide is down to their own laziness or other moral failure, but the fact is that it wouldn’t take much of a shift in circumstance (a war perhaps) to leave us similarly dependent.
We need one another. We are created within a whole network of interdependency. The self-reliant, rugged individual is a myth, and a lonely one at that. And this inescapable interdependence, upon one another, upon the whole creation, is not an accident of evolution, it reflects the ultimate reality; the absolute dependence of the creation upon the Creator—upon the One who causes things to exist at all.
One does not live by bread alone, said Jesus, almost teeing us up to join in: ‘but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8 verse 3). This is about dependence; this is about not imagining that everything is down to us, our own abilities and capacities, our own merits. This is about understanding that we depend on God absolutely, for everything, for our very existence, just as we depend on one another for so much more than we might be inclined to acknowledge. This is about Providence; God as the ultimate provider.
Temptation number 2: The Possessor
The devil offers Jesus the glory and authority that he (the devil) claims over all the kingdoms of the world. Worship me, he says.
The power of possession, and the possession of power, creates an allure that few can resist. One of the many extraordinary things about being here in Westminster is occasionally coming up close to really powerful people. Even if you don’t like them, or respect them, or agree with them about anything, you still somehow want to be noticed by them, in the hope that their power might somehow benefit you in some way. It’s all deeply Darwinian, and, we should remember, demonic.
The power of possession and the possession of power creates the greatest jeopardy for human flourishing, and survival. We need look no further than Ukraine, but we might also list the climate emergency. Warfare is, though, the purest expression of this lust for power, this drive to possess, but, in truth, it lurks in every human heart; in every declaration that this or that is ‘mine, not yours’ (and certainly not ‘ours’).
Jesus affirms to the devil that there is only one kingdom—it is the one he already possesses, the one he will proclaim in his parables and in his passion—the kingdom he possesses by dispossession; by humbling himself, emptying himself, offering himself for the life of others—the mystery we will receive into our hands later in this Eucharist.
To accept the devil’s offer is to imagine that we have nothing unless we take it to possess it. St Paul will tell us that it is by having nothing that we possess all things; that it is only when we learn that everything, even our life, our existence is God’s gift, it is only then that, in fact, all things become ours.
Temptation number 3: The Performer
Jump off the pinnacle of the Temple. Call on the angels to catch you and lift you up. That will get you noticed. That will convince everyone how special you are—if you really are the Son of God.
The temptation to perform, to dazzle and amaze, this temptation comes perilously close to this preacher’s heart. We want to impress others, to burnish our image. We want others to talk about us in hushed, impressed whispers. Wow—he’s the real deal; so inspiring, so intelligent, so holy. We present an image, carefully curated, and we hide, equally carefully the less impressive stuff—the one who sits on the sofa in a onesie, eating crisps, drinking cider, watching Hollyoaks.
We perform because we are afraid we are not good enough. I’m struck, and slightly horrified by how much energy the younger generation of my family put into their profile pictures on social media, confecting cheekbones and pouts straight out of Love Island—it doesn’t look like them at all. But that is just a particularly modern way to perform; to get noticed, to present yourself as special. We all do it.
Do not put your God to the test, Jesus replies. You couldn’t be more special to him. You don’t need photoshop because you already bear His image. You don’t need angelic appearances to boost your media profile, you don’t need to throw yourself from anywhere, because you are already in the arms of angels—beloved and protected by your heavenly Father. You do not need to perform; you are loved because you exist, and because you bear God’s image.
Performance; it can be harmless fun, but it is always a mask; a fear that we are not good enough, that we won’t get the attention we need unless we shout for it, whether from the pinnacle of the Temple, or from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey. God calls us to be at peace with him, and at peace with ourselves—not testing his love, but resting and relying upon it.
So, there we have it—a three-point sermon—but I can’t resist throwing a spanner in the works.
A fourth point.
Underlying all these temptations—the Provider, the Possessor, the Performer—is the fundamental temptation of all human kind, which is the temptation to create gods in our own image. The whole of the Old Testament might be summarised as a call to Israel to stop worshipping things, ideas, projections. The only thing worthy of our worship is God, and that requires a constant effort because we are all such avid and expert idolaters; worshipping possessions and power and image; ultimately worshipping versions of ourselves.
The temptations of Jesus offer us a template, a way to escape these destructive idols of self-sufficiency, of worldly power, of the desperate quest to create a self that is acceptable. We are God’s creatures—he couldn’t love us more, he couldn’t give us more. The gods we create will never be as gracious, and, most importantly, like the devil himself, they will not be true, and they will not, ultimately, be real.
May we be given grace this Lent to draw nearer to the one true God; the only Provider, in whom we possess all things, and in whose image we can cut the performance and be at peace.