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Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent 2023

Sunday 26th February 2023 Matthew 4 1-11

There's a knock at the door. It's your friend from church. Oh, good you think. You don't know them that well but they give off a very strong impression that they want to help. They come in and they bustle about your home. They do the cleaning. They polish and scrub. They smile, they really appear to want to do what they are doing. A little later they sit down with you and look deeply into your eyes and they listen to what's been going on and, let's face it what's been going has been complex, when isn't it?, and they actually give some pretty good advice. This happens over the next few months. Your friend from church gives you the full force of their concern and regard and it must be admitted, in the secrecy of your heart, that you are really starting to dislike your friend from church. There is something about the quality of the bright, harsh light they cast. There is something about the way they bustle and bristle at you and bring you special treats. You begin to notice that your friend from church has a seething inner life all their own, of course who doesn't, but this power that seethes in the background of who they are seems to cast a shadow.

Indeed, when your friend from church starts to quote the Bible, and talk about Jesus, there is this strange sense that everything they say is actually an opposite. 'God is there for you,' they say, and you've never felt more existentially alone. 'Jesus loves you, very much,' and you feel that Jesus actually might not care about you at all. They talk of love and light and service and crumpets and tea and flowers and the beauty of nature and you cannot escape the sense that they are dominating you and bringing you into a special form of captivity. A few days ago your friend from church was there again, knocking at the door and you found yourself climbing out of the back window as if they were a knife wielding monster. You fear them. You fear your friend from church.

But they are so full of love, you think to yourself later, late at night, with the gin out, they mean so well, they leave your home positively shinning after they have been cleaning. It must be me, I must be an awful person to fear my friend from church. And you begin to spend some time praying about this friend from church, delving into the mystery of your friend from church. There is no doubt about it, your friend from church casts a shadow, a long shadow is cast by all the good that your friend from church does. And then you start to think about the Church around the world and in history. You can think of all the good that the Church has done but, it must be admitted, that the Church can cast its own particular shadow, particularly when it is possessed of a burning sense of its own goodness. Sometimes the Church has spoken of its love for all but you think, as you pour out more gin, that that love has sometimes seemed a bit more like hate, like prejudice, those moral principles have looked a bit more like an overweening thirst for control.

You get your Bible down, or perhaps you have it on your special Bible app, and you find that you are reading about Jesus in the wilderness. The devil turns up. You read about the last temptation that the devil offers to Jesus. 'He took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, and he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.' Jesus said to him, 'Away with you, Satan!'

You close the book or put down your mobile. You think about your feelings for Jesus. Somewhere, deep down, you trust Jesus. But why? That's the question. Your friend from church talks about Jesus all the time but whenever they do you feel like Jesus has become a salesperson, eager to earn their commission and coming to sell you his whiter than white goodness that is going to make everything OK. But perhaps you trust Jesus because Jesus went into the wilderness to know himself, he went to meet the shadow that his goodness cast in the form of the devil and the shadow, the devil, turned up, of course he did. The shadow or devil turned up and said to him I can give you such power over people, they will serve you and love you and I only ask that you worship me in all of my desire for power and control.

And here is the thing, Jesus, the devil said, no one will ever know if you worship me. You can go about and heal and love and mend and transform and no one will ever know that you are doing it from a secret desire for power and control. But Jesus looked into this longing for power, he felt this desire for power in his innermost self, and he said no. And because Jesus said no he became an expert in diagnosing other people's secret devils, other people's secret desire for control. Jesus could particularly sense the desire for control in those who seemed to be conventionally good.

You stand up. The gin makes the room tilt a little, like a ship at sea. You think about the sea and its freedom. No one can control the sea and no one can control Christ, although they may try to. You think about your friend, your friend from church. You feel, for a moment, such tenderness for your friend from church for they are very much like you. They don't know themselves. Their shadow, their devil, is playing them and they are playing their power games, playing their all too human power games in the name of Christ. They need to meet with their devil, meet with their desire for power, and to gently and firmly say no, not this, not this again. It must be said, the Church has also not looked into its own heart sometimes, not looked into its secret side where behind the words of love, behind the words of healing, a desire for the controlling of hearts and minds can be there, pulling the strings like all that is most dangerous and unacknowledged in us. You realise that the Church, just like you, just like your friend, needs to turn to Christ because Christ is powerless in human terms, that's how powerful Christ really is.

Later on you meet your friend from church. They ask if they can pop round. You feel a twinge of fear. But you say yes. You can feel that tenderness towards them, even though their eyes are gleaming, gleaming with secret power. You hope that when they come round you can both go out into the wilderness and know the secret devils in the heart and give up your games of power together. Ben


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