To download a podcast of my sermon for this week, click here.
I have always loved super-heroes. I still do. I think super-heroes fill the cultural void that used to be filled by stories of Gilgamesh, Prometheus and Hercules. I think they articulate for us an age-old dilemma: what do we do with power?
As Marianne Williamson once wrote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure". Super-heroes embody that fear.
As a child, I used to imagine what it would be like to have a super-power. And I must admit, sometimes I imagined using that power to help other people, and other times I imagined using that power to help myself. And that tension is, of course, where we get super-villains.
The Gospel passage for this Sunday (Matthew 4:1-11) is one of the most vivid in all the Bible. It tells the story of Christ's retreat to wilderness. Having just been baptized by John, he has accepted his call to mission and ministry, but it still remains to him to understand HOW he is to discharge that mission and ministry.
As he ponders this, he is tempted three times, and each temptation is representative of directions he could have taken in order to fulfill his mission. These directions reflect the ways of the world, but fortunately, wisdom prevails and he chooses a different direction, perhaps realizing that the ways of the world would not be sufficient, nor would they be Godly.
First, he is tempted to turn stones into bread. Literally. This would not only fill his own hunger (he had been fasting for 40 days), but this was also the temptation to literally feed people in order to get them to follow him. It is still a basically understood principal that he who can feed a people can lead a people.
But the problem is this: people would be following him for the wrong reasons, and would likely desert once the food ran out.
Second, he is tempted to throw himself of the top of the Temple tower. Ostensibly, angels would save him from death. This is the temptation to dazzle people into following him with amazing and miraculous feats. Admittedly, miraculously surviving a fall into the most crowded square in Jerusalem would convince most of us to follow someone. Of course, the Gospels are replete with miracles, but notice that most of these miracles are performed under much less conspicuous circumstances, and often come with the admonition not to tell anyone about them.
The problem is this: people who are impressed by miracles often keep requiring more and more amazing miracles to sustain their faith. That is not a firm foundation upon which to build a movement.
The third temptation is to bow down before Satan, and Satan will give him all the cities of the world (the rather disturbing implication is that Satan owns all the cities of the world, but that is perhaps for another sermon). This is the temptation to politics. I have heard many people imply or state baldly that Jesus was communist, socialist, etc, etc. My personal feeling is that if he was not anti-political, he was at least apolitical. Time and time again, Jesus eschews politics, and if anything, he was an outspoken critic of the political systems of his time. Those systems did not work for him. But he could have played the political game, and likely could have played it very well, and people would have followed him.
The problem is this: politics are fickle. Most of us have lived through many transitions in government and will likely live through many more. Political philosophies come and go, and partisan politics and bureaucracy often hamstrings the good that politics could do.
None of these ideologies would have sufficed for Christ. None of them would have accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. But he could have done it, and it might have been more successful in the short term.
You and I are often faced with the same dilemma, and it is the dilemma we face poignantly as we embark on our own Lenten journeys. We are meant during this 40 day period to be reflecting on our own lives, and quite possibly making some changes. One of the things we could reflect upon is what our own gifts and talents are, and how we want to exercise them in the world.
Do we want to use our gifts and talents to help ourselves or to help others?