How to Change the World: Sermon for Lent 1. The Temptations

Published by Giles Goddard on Sun, 10 Mar 2019 12:54

I invite you to think a moment about yourselves. Think of what delights you, what makes you happy: the sun on your face, the offer of a square of chocolate, one of your children or grandchildren coming home proud from school with a sticker or a certificate, a flower blooming.

Now think about what makes you cross, what makes you angry. Seeing someone treated unjustly, perhaps. Hearing a story of cruelty and deceit. Some politician doing something more than usually ridiculous.

 Now think what makes you really angry. Somebody cutting you up when you’re driving. Somebody pushing in front of you in a queue. Somebody claiming the limelight when you thought you should have it. Somebody stealing your thunder. We’ve been there, haven’t we. And although the sort of anger at injustice or betrayal is important and real, the anger which comes from humiliation or being ignored or not getting the attention you deserve…  that’s far worse, isn’t it.

That’s why the story of the Temptations is so brilliant. Oh yes, we think when we hear it - bread, kingdoms, the Temple, all very interesting and Jesus did exactly the right thing. But unpack them a bit more and you realise how well constructed the story is.

It’s all about dealing with pride, or dealing with idols. Dealing with the things which come between us and God, the things which get in the way. It’s about the different kinds of power we want – the different kinds of power we are tempted by. They’re rolled out one after another…

The power of possessions

The power of politics

The power of holiness.

Stones into pread – that’s possessions, isn’t it.

Kingdoms -  politics, local, national, having influence

The pinnacle of the temple – spiritual pride. Look at me! I can summon angels!

Jesus is offered all of them, and all of them he turns down: as an example, to you and to me.

Remember, Jesus is in the wilderness. He has nothing else. He is all alone. He has no props, he is cast back on his own resources – that’s the most difficult time, really, the time when you most want people around you, the time when you are perhaps most vulnerable. Lent. The time of fasting.

What does that mean for us?  On the surface, it seems quite straightforward. Ties in with the idea of giving things up for Lent…  – it ties in with the idea of living simply …

But if you turn down all these things, aren’t you turning down the possibility of changing the world? Surely, you might say, if Jesus had accepted the promises of the devil he could have done all sorts of good things! He could have solved world hunger and poverty and climate change and people trafficking…  Surely we should use our skills and our talents to change the world?

Think back to where I started. The dangers of pride, the anger which arises as a result of pride , the desire for profit, power and status… the temptations in the wilderness, the bursts of wrath which erupt when we feel we have been mistreated or undermined… and also, the even more dangerous because more subtle blandishments of pride because we receive honour, perhaps because of the extent of our possessions, the size of our house, or the list of our achievements, the certificates and appointments, or the holiness of our lives, such an example we are to everyone around us…. So easy, it is, so easy to be caught in the pit of pride, sucked in like a brick into mud. 

As you know, our theme for Lent is, How to Change the World. It’s a big theme, it’s an important theme: it’s a theme about action. But it is more than that: for I think that one of the most important things about trying to change the world is that we can only do it, we can only achieve meaningful and lasting change, if we are willing to take the message of the story of the Temptations in the wilderness seriously: to draw out its meanings: to listen, to learn.

I was in Rome last week, for a conference at the Vatican. (That's a sentence which could easily lead to pride!) We were gathered from all over the world; from different faiths – Buddhist, Muslim, Bahai, Hindu, Jewish, Christian – all invited because of our different kinds of expertise in development, in climate change, in peace studies. The conference was called by the Vatican to look at how people might be able to enact the sustainable development goals. It’s a big task: there are seventeen sdg’s:  no poverty, health and wellbeing for all, zero hunger, affordable and clean energy, climate action… they cover everything, so that by 2030, the vision is that no one will be left behind.

We were given an audience with the Pope. We were guided through the Vatican city, round St Peter’s, into a courtyard and up a long staircase, decorated with frescos, in the Hall of the Kings – the Sala Di Regia. A huge hall, high and wide, with a golden coffered ceiling, and every wall covered in richly coloured frescoes telling stories of the triumph of Catholicism, and the sun streaming through the high windows: this is the hall the Pope has used to receive kings and emperors since 1558.

The Pope arrived, dressed in white: we stood and applauded. He greeted some of those at the front, and then he began to speak.  Listen, he said, to the cry of the earth. And listen to the cry of the poor. He spoke powerfully and urgently. He spoke of the need for action and he spoke of the need for change

'Any fruitful discussion of development should offer viable models of social integration and ecological conversion because we cannot develop ourselves as human beings by fomenting increased inequality and degradation of the environment.'


'Religious narratives ... contain a conviction that everything is connected, and that care for our own lives and our relationships with nature ... is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.'

At the end he left, to greet the young members of a Venezuelan orchestra. And we went back to our conference, touched and inspired, and in the afternoon we were addressed by a fourteen year old girl, who said to us: There is going to be change, and we are the change, and you have to work with us.

So grand, so impressive: and yet, the Pope spoke without pomp: he spoke calmly and passionately. How, I wondered, can a man in such a position retain anything like a sense of holiness, of humility, of honour?

Well, of course, many Popes haven’t, and we have heard much recently of the way in which power and influence have corrupted the church in terrible ways.

But some have, and I suspect those who have, those who have listened to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, have held contemplation and prayer right at the core of their being. They have gone into the wilderness and they have been thrown back on their own devices, and they have had no other option but to trust God and trust in the love of God.

And so, my friends, that is the theme for Lent: Action and Contemplation. Because you can’t have one without the other. If you want to change the world, you don’t do it with fireworks and earthworks and grand projects with great lists of outcomes and outputs and targets of thousands of people affected – although, of course, these great projects are important and they matter- but they matter, they can only be meaningful, if they are grounded, rooted, planted firmly in the reality that the only real way to change the world is through love: and through relationships. And real love is grounded in humility and honesty and trust, and humility and honesty and trust are grounded in prayer and contemplation.

Go into the wilderness, this Lent. Go there. Leave behind the things which trap you, the ropes which hold you earthbound. Leave behind the stones you think might become bread, the kingdoms of your desire, the spiritual pride which buoys you up. Take courage; go into the wilderness without a map, with staff or cloak, without iphones and facebook and emails. Listen to the cry of the earth, listen to the cry of the poor: listen to the voice of God, which is not in the earthquake, which is not in the whirlwind, which is not in the storm: the still, small voice which says,

My child, I love you.

The conference in Rome was a conference of hope: a group of pilgrim people combining their wisdom and their hopes, in the hope that something may change, that these sustainable development goals may truly change the world.

I have hope, too, for this pilgrim community here, trying to change the world, millimetre by millimetre, step by step. Come with me on the journey into the wilderness of Lent. Let’s face down the devil; let’s listen to the voice of God. Let’s see where we are led, and let’s walk there: with faith, and hope, and love.



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