24 March 2021: Rev’d Alice Wood from St Matthew’s Church, Blackmoor and Whitehill
It’s all very tempting
I’ve been to the dessert where, according to the Gospel writer Matthew, Jesus was put through a series of spiritual trials or temptations. – A bit like Iron Man for the soul. It is an endless space of harsh light. I visited in January 2017 and it was still hot with a wind that got in your hair and clothes and made you feel itchy and restless. The terrain was stony with big yellow rocks strewn about, not sandy like the Sahara desert from films I’ve seen. One poor lady slipped down an incline and broke her wrist. There was nowhere to hide. You felt exposed and vulnerable just being in such an inhospitable landscape, where lizards scurry and trails of ants cross the ground, was unsettling. The thought crossed my mind-this is a place where people would die. I was quite glad to get back in the air conditioned coach and drive onto a nice taverna for lunch.
Jesus certainly did not make it easy for himself. Before he started his ministry he laid his soul bare, stripped away all familiar comforts and faced the devil head on in that desert- and he came out the victor. The devil gave it his all. He threw everything he had at Jesus. He tempted him with the things so many of us spend our lives striving for- comfort, power, popularity and certainty. The comfort of sustenance for our bodies. Soft fresh baked bread warm from the oven-how could a starving man resist. Or a sign – something clear and emphatic, leaving no space for human doubt. Throw yourself off and angels will rush in and catch you – what a relief from the ineffectual muddle of people and endless demands and mess. How many of us have cried out to God-just catch me, fix me. Do something big and supernatural. One clear message to prove your power, then things can change and move, the walls and doubts will vanish- just give me a blinking sign! I even know of people who have had this prayer answered. Jesus refused to pray it.
And the Devil’s final onslaught – power. So many desire this: power to reach millions via the media, the power of celebrity, the power to bring about change in politics. Dazzling dreams, ambition the lure of possibilities- so many set out desiring power to bring about change to make the world a better place and then get hooked on it. Just take a look at the world leaders who refuse to relinquish their grip on it. Again Jesus, even in his weakened physical state, said no. His body was weak his spirit was strong. So he left the desert and went and changed the history of humankind one broken person at a time.
Roll on two thousand odd years and some theologians do not like talking about the devil as an entity, but look to the darkness in the human soul that tempts people to evil. Temptation has been glamorised in adverts for chocolate, perfume or wine-and self indulgence is sold in pretty packaging. Much is harmless and can in moderation be fun. But evil is very real. And every evil action must have started life as a thought, a temptation in someone’s head. The gas chambers started as someone’s idea, chemical weapons, cohesive control, rape, drug addiction began with someone somewhere, brooding and thinking. One evil seed can turn from annoyance to bad feeling, to anger and hatred. We can mull over a careless word which hurt us, a long past action which we wish we had faced head on. The devil might be out of fashion, explained away by every rational excuse under the sun but his work is explicit everywhere you look. Temptation often starts with small things; one more drink, a wounding word spoken in anger, chucking your used can out of the car window, eating a whole packet of doughnuts, switching on the porn channel. With each little step control weakens, self esteem weakens, the soul begins to shrivel. C.S. Lewis put it beautifully as usual! “Like motoring don’t wait until the last moment to put on the brakes, but put them on gently and quietly while the danger is a good way off.”