Tempted in the Wilderness

Cross-posted from the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church

Like many of you, I watched events unfold in Westminster earlier this week with some anxiety. When I lived in London, I would go to Westminster Bridge to think, to look out over the river and to watch people passing. It is a funny thing to see your ‘safe place’ breached. Parliament in the Palaces of Westminster has been for centuries a symbol of democracy, and an act of violence on its doorstep was understandably a frightening thing.

In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted three times. First, to break his fast by turning stones into bread. Then, to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to demonstrate the love of God. Finally, to take possession of the earth’s dominions by worshipping his tempter. These temptations have in common that they are designed to tempt Jesus into demonstrating his power even at the cost of the law of God he holds dear.

Jesus could be tempted because he was fully human as well as fully divine. He could be tempted because he was isolated and hungry. He could be tempted, because we can all be tempted. This week, we are scared. Temptation comes easily when people are scared. It would be easy to be tempted to mistrust, especially as the newspapers and websites we read continue to recycle the same lines about “conversion to Islam”, “radicalism”, and “identity crisis”. It would be easy to succumb to the voice of the tempter that repeats these lines until they apply not only to this one man but to anyone who looks like him, prays like him, or shares his heritage.

It is tempting to prevail on the power we have at our disposal (our elected representatives, for example) to challenge or hurt other people because we have been hurt. It is tempting to turn against refugees, economic migrants, or imprisoned criminals. But Christ who modelled resistance to temptation tells us only to serve the law of God, and the law of God tells us to love our neighbour (from wherever they came) as ourselves, and to forgive those who harm us seventy-times-seven times.

As we approach the time when we are invited to remember the persecution of Christ at the hands of powerful people who accused him of threatening their power, we recall our own temptation to turn from enthusiastic supporters of Christ to the people who condemn him. We have a choice whether to succumb to the temptation to cast our blame far and wide, or to forgive the attacker and care for his victims and their families. Let us pray to follow the path of Christ this Lent.

Stand Alongside Esther

The Jewish festival of Purim begins at sunset tomorrow (Saturday 11th March). Purim commemorates the intervention of Queen Esther to prevent the mass murder of Jewish people under the rule of the Persian king Xerxes. The king’s vizier, Haman, required complete subservience from subjects under Persian rule and objected to Esther’s uncle Mordecai’s refusal to prostrate himself before Haman. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to grant permission for him to exterminate the local Jewish population.

Esther used her role as queen to intervene with Xerxes – she risked her life by approaching the king without his express invitation or permission. She persuaded him to recognise the loyalty of her uncle Mordecai and question his vizier’s motives, and as a result of her intervention the local Jewish population was spared massacre; Haman was hanged from the gallows he constructed in order to execute Mordecai.

The full poetic justice of the story of Esther is contained in the Book of Esther, and is worth reading in full. It is an adventure story, a story of conquest, outrage, and xenophobia. Amongst the Jewish traditions for Purim are hecking over the name of Haman when the scripture is read in the Synagogue, and eating pastries known as Hamantaschen (“Haman’s ears”), to dishonour him for his racism and violence. At the same time, Jewish families send food parcels to friends and increase their charitable giving to remind themselves that their survival is not guaranteed and that it’s vital to stand alongside those who might not. And then, they celebrate with bright costumes (or fancy dress) and rejoice in a time in history when the Jewish people triumphed.  (Want to try your own Hamantaschen? Here’s a recipe.)

The story of Esther reminds me of all the times Christian leaders have stood on the side of Haman throughout our shared history; through expulsionspropaganda, or collaboration. I also know that Jewish communities are not the only ones whom we as a church have demonised and feared. As we travel through Lent it points to a particular form of human frailty; our tendency to fear people who are not like us. In the story of Esther I find a challenge to stand up for oppressed peoples everywhere.

Esther stood alone because the Jewish people were isolated from power; let’s seek out where Esther stands alone today, and seek to amplify her voice and stand alongside her.

The Best You Can Be (through God)

Wednesday 1st March was Ash Wednesday, so this coming Sunday will be the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a traditional season of penitence and abstinence when Christians around the world recall Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11 and Luke 4:1-13) and prepare for Easter. In modern popular culture, this has become simplified into “giving up” something for Lent, but preparation of body and spirit for Easter is much more than feeling virtuous for forgoing a chocolate hob nob with your tea!

Spiritual renewal, penitence, and acts of charity are also important parts of the Lenten journey, and many people will take up disciplines during the season that help to enhance their spiritual lives. For example, adding regular times of prayer or reading Scripture into their routine, or learning a new prayer discipline. You might choose to go without your morning coffee, and donate the cost instead to a charitable cause. If you have the means, you could even take the opportunity to increase your regular giving to church, or join the Moderator’s Circle to support the work of the denomination.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that no one can serve both God and materialism (Matthew 6:24). In order to be fully committed to the love of God, there should be nothing between us and love of God and neighbour. It is unlikely that any of us will be able to truly attain this in our lifetime, but seasons of intentional abstinence from our sources of material comfort help us to recommit to the ideal of being fully dependent on God and so becoming more Christ-like.

The process of Lent is part of the lifelong journey of seeking to become more Christ-like; making sacrifices and resisting temptation in order to focus on God and others. It is a part of the long process of learning to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we come to the end of Lent, we will come face-to-face with the worst of ourselves in the stories of the Passion, so we prepare for that by engaging to our best ability with the law of love in the Gospel.
Whatever your Lent discipline is, commit to it daily as a reminder of the best you can be in the strength of God.