john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Matt 4 - Choices in the Wilderness

    Christ Church Norris Green 13/2/2005 (Communion Service)

    Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7, Matthew 4.1-11

    On the evening of Pancake Day, 13th February 1945, 773 Royal Air Force Avro Lancasters bombed Dresden. During the next two days the US air force sent over 527 heavy bombers to follow up the RAF attack. Large numbers of refugees fleeing from the advancing Red Army had massively increased the population of the city above the normal 650,000.

    It was a triumph for Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command and his policy of area bombing, known in Germany as terror bombing. Dresden was nearly totally destroyed.

    Not everyone at home rejoiced at this news. Many felt very uneasy about the level of violence being unleashed on innocent civilians. Sure, it could be seen as revenge for the wartime blitz over Britain, but was revenge a fitting kind of motivation for a country which was taking the moral high ground in this war against evil?

    As a result of the Dresden firestorm it was afterwards impossible to count the number of victims. Recent research suggests that 35,000 were killed but some German sources have argued that it was over 100,000. What is certain is that more died in 24 hours in Dresden than were killed in all the attacks on London during the whole of the Second World War.

    Despite their unease, few in Britain had the nerve to speak out against the bombing. It was a churchman, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who spoke on their behalf. [1]

    Bishop Bell argued that area bombing was an insult to Christian values, that celebrating the bombing was immoral. But his Archbishop would not back him in asking the government to account for their actions. In the House of Lords on the 9th February, he argued that the devastation of cities was threatening the very roots of civilisation, that this campaign disregarded the law and in so doing, undermined the Allies' claim to be the liberators of Europe. He was heard in near-silence.

    In choosing to take this stand George Bell waved his career goodbye. The then-Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden called him "this pestilent priest." The Church Times this week said, "That he became neither Archbishop of Canterbury nor Bishop of London was perhaps in part because of his views on bombing." George Bell did not regret the choice he made, but as a consequence he knew afterwards what it felt like to walk in a wilderness.

    Bell's story shows us that as Christians we have choices to make, and if we are to be faithful the right choices may have to be the unlikely, unpopular, or difficult ones. It is something worth reflecting on as we begin our journey through Lent.

    The familiar gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness is a story about choices.

    It tells us first of all that Jesus chose to be led up by the Spirit, into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil:

    He chose to be led by the Spirit... to open himself completely to the gracious will and mighty power of God;

    He chose to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness... to follow God into a place that was not at all like home, an uneasy place, a place of testing;

    He chose to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil... to face up to the evil in him and around him, to grapple with the demons, not ignore them.

    And he also chose to fast - something which Christian people have from time to time valued and embraced, but which doesn't seem too much in fashion at the moment. The idea of fasting is to simplify our lives, to focus down in ourselves, to recognise our dependence on God, to more readily open ourselves to God. It's not an easy choice, to fast. But Jesus made it.

    And then came the three temptations which offered Jesus three choices:

    - a choice about food.
    - a choice about status.
    - a choice about power.

    'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.'

    This is a choice between breaking the fast and keeping it. Jesus could give in to his dependence on food to keep him going, or make the harder choice of holding on to his dependence on God:

    "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

    'If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you"'

    This is a choice about testing his status: between doing something dramatic to show how great he was, or simply resting in the grace of God.

    'Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."'

    'All all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'

    This is a choice between taking up or giving up power: between accepting all the power which the world can offer, or confirming his devotion to the greater power of God:

    "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."'

    Now, we might wonder if these temptations of Jesus have anything to do with us. If we have choices in life at all, surely they are different than the choices Jesus had. After all, he was the Son of God and we are just children of dust. I think we do each have choices, and that the challenge for each of us is how to make sure God is involved in them.

    We have choices about food - well, if we are on a low income our choices about food are limited. But we still do face them. For some people the hard and very limited choice will be, what can I afford to buy to make sure my kids get fed right through the week? What should I not buy for myself to make sure that happens? For others it might be, can I afford to spend a little bit more on Fair Trade tea-bags, to help the poor people overseas who produce them?

    The choice for us Christians is, do we give in to our dependence on food to keep him going, or make the harder choice of holding on to our dependence on God: that's hard when you have very little - can we, will we, trust God to provide?

    We have choices about status. Because status isn't just to do with well-to-do people or politicians or celebrities. As the excellent writer and broadcaster Alain De Botton points out in his book Status Anxiety [2], we rarely mention this directly: but we all have an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we're judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.

    The choice for us Christians is, do we respond to that anxiety by trying to do dramatic or showy things to impress other people, or let ourselves simply rest in the grace of God, get our status from him.

    And we have choices about power. Again, we might not think we're very powerful, compared to the landlord who can fix our leaking roof or let us keep on living in the damp, or the council who can decide to dig up the road outside our house, or take off a bus route we depend on, without asking us.

    But we do have power, each of us. Personal power - power which gives us choices either to help someone in need or ignore them, to forgive someone who has hurt us or let them carry on suffering by ignoring or abusing them. We all know about the power games that go on in our churches - sadly, every church suffers these. They go on in our homes too.

    We each of us have power in relation to other people. The choice for us Christians is, do we use that power as the world does, manipulatively, selfishly, greedily, or devote ourselves to the greater power of God:

    "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him."'

    All this about temptations and choices goes back to the very beginning, to the man and the woman in the garden of Eden, the tree, the apple, the serpent, the choice.

    The difference between us, and Adam and Eve is that we already know that we are naked; we know that we are flawed human beings, we know that we are able to choose good or evil, we even know what the consequences of our choices are likely to be before we choose.

    Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked.

    Lent is about asking God to help us keep our eyes open, as Jesus did, and keep the eyes of our hearts fixed on him.

    [1] Dresden and George Bell material from Spartacus - Schoolnet website and article by Peter Street in Church Times, 11 Feb 2005, unfortunately only available online to subscribers.
    [2] Alain De Botton: Status Anxiety