Fourth Sunday in Epiphany
9am & Choral Eucharist
Preacher: Canon Leanne Roberts, Treasurer
I was fascinated to read in the news last week about a young woman who is suing Camelot, the company that runs the National Lottery. Why? Because when she was 17 she became the youngest Euromillions winner, winning a million pounds and, now 21, she claims that the win has ruined her life. She now believes that under-18s should not be allowed to purchase lottery tickets as winners will be ‘burdened’ with the stress of suddenly becoming extremely wealthy. She said, ‘I thought it would make [my life] ten times better but it’s made it ten times worse… people look at me and think, ‘I wish I had her lifestyle. I wish I had her money.’ But they don’t realize the extent of my stress. I have material things but apart from that my life is empty. What is my purpose in life?’
I wonder how you feel about this? Perhaps you’re envious, and can think of plenty of meaning you could buy with a million pounds. Maybe you’re wondering why she doesn’t just give it away, and find meaning for herself in works of charity. But we don’t know much about this young woman, and it would be wrong of us, I think, to judge her. She just sounds terribly unhappy. It’s clear that she – like many of us – fantasized that wealth would bring happiness, but lives instead with emptiness and anxiety which has made her bewildered and angry.
On this first Sunday of Lent I wonder what your dreams of what would make life better for you are like? They’ll be slightly different for each of us, but we all have them. If only I were wealthy, we think, or more successful in my career, or had the perfect body, then I’d be… what? Happy? Contented? Immune from the pain and disappointment and worry that life throws at us sometimes?
These are fantasies, because evidence suggests that such dreams do not, actually, fulfil and sustain us. People far more powerful than the young woman who won the lottery show us that worldly gain in and of itself, whatever the flavor of that which appeals to us personally, does not make us truly happy.
Jesus understands this and, throughout the gospels, he seeks to show us time and again what really matters, and where true fulfilment is to be found. How we’re worth more than lilies, and sparrows, and how building ever bigger barns in which to store our riches is foolish and how we should store up treasure in heaven instead. But perhaps even more powerful than Jesus’ words are his actions; it’s not just his teaching but his example which shows us the truth of this.
We’ve just heard Matthew’s version of Jesus’ time in the wilderness before he begins his public ministry. Immediately after his baptism, he spends 40 days fasting in the desert and there, we read, he is tempted by the devil.These temptations of Christ are familiar to many of us, but they bear repeated reflection because they speak to the very heart of what it is to be human; how we are often assailed by our own desires despite there being a better option offered to us.
The initial two temptations in this passage are about identity. The first temptation entices Jesus to feed himself after a long period of fasting. It might seem reasonable, and relatively harmless, to think that Jesus might have turned stones into bread, but actually he is being encouraged to flout the laws of nature in order to satisfy himself. In doing this, he would be denying the humanity he shared with us, a fundamental aspect of his identity, for none of us can, I believe, make stones of bread.
In the second temptation, the devil calls on Jesus to assert himself: to prove who he really is by throwing himself off the top of the temple, and for his divinity to ensure he survives unscathed. It’s an appeal to his ego – he’s invited to flaunt his divine identity for his own glory, foreshadowing the ultimate test of obedience and faithfulness.
Neither of these appeals work. So, for the final temptation, the devil throws everything he has at Jesus – all the wealth and power in the world. Which of us could resist that, he thinks; acclaim and splendour beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, with all the riches and glory they contain. And he offers it to him in return for an acknowledgement of his power to know what really matters, what everyone really wants and needs.
I came across a sonnet by Malcolm Guite which describes the devil’s final pitch in language that will be familiar to us all:
‘So here’s the deal and this is what you get:
The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,
The banker’s bonus and the private jet
Control and ownership of all the news
An ‘in’ to that exclusive one percent,
Who know the score, who really run the show
With interest on every penny lent
And sweeteners for cronies in the know.
A straight arrangement between me and you
No hell below or heaven high above
You just admit it, and give me my due
And wake up from this foolish dream of love…’
But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.
Love is the waking life, you are the dream.’
‘Love is the waking life’. Love is what’s real. Everything else is just fantasy, or as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, ‘vanity, and a chasing after wind’.1 Our temptation to do the things that damage and diminish us under the pretense of satisfaction is merely an illusion. Jesus shows us this; he realizes that these promises are empty, that we are nothing at all without love, nothing without God.
It is ironic that the devil’s final temptation is that Jesus become, in effect, ruler of all the kingdoms of the world. This is a hollow offer to the one who, as the divine Word of God, brought all creation into being. Jesus is the one who already has more than can possibly be offered, and yet he lays it all down in love. It is this sacrifice which is the supreme act of power.
Because love is where real life is to be found. The season of Lent is one of the sanctuaries of the Christian year, when we are invited to reflect seriously on love, and the part it plays – and perhaps doesn’t play – in our lives. How might we have failed to be the people that God made us to be? In what ways are we sometimes tempted to deny our identity – and that of others – as those created in the image of God? How might we change so that we enter more fully into God’s life of love? This is why we traditionally try to put more material things at a distance for this season, to enable us to focus more keenly on deepening our relationship with God.
It’s worth remembering that this is the purpose of fasting, or abstaining; giving things up for Lent can be important, but it can also be something of a carapace, hiding the things that really need our attention, those habits and patterns of behaviour that are damaging us and our ability to put God at the centre of things. After all, there’s little point making a virtue of giving up chocolate for Lent when it’s, say, our internet habits that are the real cause for concern.
We may not believe we need to win the lottery to be happy. But perhaps during these next few weeks we can go further and deeper into realizing that our greatest desires can be fulfilled, and our true purpose can be found if we only ask to possess and be possessed by Christ. Then we, like St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, can truly describe ourselves as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.2
Let us pray this morning that, this Lent, we may be given the grace to recognize and relinquish those fantasies that prevent us from living the real life that God offers us in the love of Jesus Christ.