Fr Peter Beck presided and the Revd Canon Craufurd Murray preached. The Gospel reading was Luke 4:1-13.
Read on for sermon text and the service video.
“You will be the greatest leader your country has ever known. People everywhere will fear and admire you. You can take the first step to reunite the Soviet states. Of course you are justified in what you are doing. In any case, you can spread disinformation through your control of the media and imprison those who challenge you. You can show the world your army is invincible. Instead of sending agents to poison your enemies one by one, now you can use your power to eliminate a whole country. And with threats of unlimited reprisals and even nuclear weapons, you will quickly stop other nations interfering with your plans.”
There are no prizes for guessing to whom the devil is speaking.
Whether you believe in the personification of the devil or not, is not the issue. We all know the reality of evil, and it is vital to take evil seriously. At this time, the world is faced with another example of abhorrent international villainy, which even outstrips the brutality of Assad in Syria and the military leaders of Myanmar. It is a brazen manifestation of EVIL. We are witnessing the unfolding of a despicable crime – a totally unjustified invasion designed to crush a neighbour – which has led to a massive humanitarian catastrophe. Savagery, destruction and suffering will only increase the longer it continues. There is already talk of war crimes. And even the massed voices of the United Nations General Assembly are powerless to stop it. We keep saying to ourselves, ‘Surely something can be done’ to end this dreadful desecration of The Ukraine.
The Christian Church’s reaction worldwide – with one exception – has been to condemn the action of the Russian leadership, and to appeal for peace and the welfare of all who are caught up in the conflict. We hear St Paul’s words reminding us to be “ambassadors of reconciliation”. The Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow is the one dissenting voice. Long-standing tensions exist between the Orthodox Church in Russia and that in the Ukraine, and these may at least partially have coloured the Patriarch’s point-of-view. There may also have been a wish to avoid confrontation with the President. Whatever the motivation, the Patriarch appears to have sided with the Kremlin’s lies and propaganda.
Kyiv (Kiev), historically, is the city from which Christianity spread widely among the Slav peoples from the end of the tenth century, and the Ukraine remains a predominantly Christian country.
Protests denouncing this diabolical war, and expressing disgust at such a blatant disregard of civilised behaviour, continue around the world including in our own city and throughout Russia. We see many Russians totally ashamed of their country’s tyrannical leadership. On the international petition I signed to stop the war, signatures were pouring in from Russians.
Nineteen years ago, I preached strongly against the Gulf War. Now I preach without reserve against this one and its perpetrators. Even though it may make us feel very uncomfortable, we must not be fearful or reticent about engaging in political issues, or holding leaders accountable. Our driving concern has to be the well-being of all people. Disappointingly, our Government is being very slow on economic sanctions on Russia. I remember a Jesuit priest (Gerard Hughes) reminding us that, “a spirituality which insulates and anaesthetizes us against the pain and terror of this world is an idolatrous spirituality, because the God whom we worship is the God of compassion who took our griefs upon himself in Christ”.
The Gospel story of the Temptations is confrontational and its relevance never diminishes. Jesus was being tempted, and his wilderness struggle is a universal human experience. I like the pragmatism of my Patron Saint – who was a Russian – when he said: “where faith and love are not tempted, it is not possible to be sure whether they are really present” (John of Kronstadt). Temptation is not an occasional experience – it is unavoidable and frequent. In one way or another, we are subject to it every day. The tempter comes to us all in different guises at different times. We understand only too well the inner battles of mind and spirit. Our temptations will not be as extreme as those registered at the beginning of this homily, but nonetheless they are significant. When we listen and then give in to them, making the wrong choices and reactions, there are repercussions – we create problems and difficulties for ourselves and often for our relationships with others.
Some words that have resonated with me as I read them at the beginning of this Lenten season:
Lord, since this morning I have been struggling to escape temptation, which, now subtle, now persuasive, now tender, now sensuous, dances before me … It spies on me, follows me, engulfs me … When I pick up a newspaper, there it is, hidden in the words of a harmless story … Unexpectedly it awakens and I discover it is comfortably settled within me … It has seeped into the crevices of my memory and sings into the ear of my imagination … I no longer know whether I pursue it or am pursued … Lord, help me!” (Michel Quoist)
“Jesus … was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days – that is, a lengthy period of time – he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1,2a).
We often hear the expression “a wilderness experience” being used to describe times when people are feeling overwhelmed by negative forces – times when we feel we are living in a harsh and inhospitable environment, and our resistance is low; when we feel disheartened or lost or bewildered. This wilderness condition can be triggered in many ways. It could be the result of tiredness or loneliness or disappointment, or caused by something that has unexpectedly shaken the equilibrium of our lives.
At such times, we may feel God is absent, and wonder whether any previous sense of God’s presence was simply an illusion. We may question whether our prayers have had any value or effect. Also, which may well be true for many today, we can find ourselves overcome by a sense of helplessness and inadequacy in the face of the violence and problems afflicting humanity. On top of this, we may harbour a nagging suspicion - which seems to afflict many who carry unresolved guilt - that Jesus was able to atone for everyone’s sins except ours! Yes, a wilderness experience, when life is confusing, miserable and we feel adrift, can have many causes. One of the Old Testament words for “wilderness” means “desolation”, and this seems to fit well. But in this desolate environment of mind and spirit, there is always a source of great comfort: Jesus has been this way before us.
The Gospel story of the Temptations reminds us of something hugely important: that Jesus also struggled with inner conflicts just as we struggle. He too had to deal with very enticing, appealing, plausible and persuasive whispers which threatened to derail his most dearly held beliefs and undermine his resolve.
In those three specific temptations in the Gospel, we find the attraction being dangled of: fame and popularity, success and status, riches and prestige, power and influence, compromise and self-assertion. All of these have the capacity to by-pass our personal integrity and dissolve our ideals, regardless of whether we are ordinary citizens or the leaders of great nations. But whatever voices of temptation assail us, as they become more strident and persistent the writer to the Hebrews reminds us of our greatest defence: “Because Jesus himself was tested … he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb. 2:18).
This isn’t some piece of pious jargon! In times of temptation, we really do find Jesus to be our Saviour, because alongside the strength of his Spirit within us, on which we can draw, he gives us the best possible example of how to cope with such assaults.
He allows his faith to meet those demanding and enticing voices head on. He consciously brings God into that inner dialogue. And so his response to each temptation is determined by his understanding of what God’s will would be in each situation. He allows God to guide him through his times of temptation, and this removes their threat, and their undermining and damaging capacity.
A great example for us to imitate as we cry, “Lord, help me”.