“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Luke 4:1-2
People still have a huge interest in “spiritual” things – if you want to see this borne out, look at the “mind, body and spirit” section in some of the bookshops; look at the interest in things like psychic powers, look at the fascination many people have with their daily horoscopes. Against this background, the churches, the very places that are supposed to respond to people’s spiritual needs, face falling attendances. What is going on? Is the church failing because it is succumbing to temptation?
In Saint Luke’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, the writer tells of Jesus’ confrontation with three temptations. There is the temptation to turn stones into bread in order to satisfy his hunger. There is the temptation to have control of all the nations of the Earth in return for bowing down to Satan. There is the temptation to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple and call the angels to catch him.
How has the church responded when it has faced temptations like those faced by Jesus?
The temptation to turn stones into bread in order to satisfy his hunger is a temptation to Jesus to put himself first, to look after his own needs. Following Jesus, who comes among people as one who serves, the church is meant to go out into the community as a servant. Yet it more often does the opposite. The church is more often concerned with its own needs. The only contact many people may have with the church is when there is an appeal for money, when the church is fund-raising, often for the cost of the restoration of its own building. The message that conveys is that the church does not take its mission sufficiently seriously to pay for the expense involved in carrying out that mission.
If people see the church not taking seriously what it says about giving and self-sacrifice, what motivation is there for them to take the church’s message seriously?
The second temptation in Saint Luke’s account of the time in the wilderness is for Jesus to have control of all the nations of the Earth in return for bowing down to Satan; to be lured by the prospect of power in return for compromising his principles. Jesus withstands the temptation, but the church has never had that sort of strength.
In return for being left alone, the church has stood quietly on the sidelines through the centuries while the most appalling crimes have been committed and the most appalling injustices have been perpetrated. There has been a fear of speaking against what is wrong in case those in power should turn against the church. It has been all too easy to bow down to what was known to be wrong. Churches are called to go against the grain, to speak out with a fearless voice, no matter what the cost. When the church lifts its head and speaks, people will say, “here at last are people who practice what they preach.”
The third temptation Jesus faces, to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple and to call on the angels to catch him, is a strange one. The temptation to Jesus is to use his powers in a way other than that intended.
It would have been easy for Jesus to have been distracted from the job he was sent to do. It’s much nicer to create a good impression and to have lots of admirers than it is to speak the truth. Spectacular stunts would have gained lots of attention; lots of people would have taken notice.
The church faces the temptation not to do the things we are commissioned to do. It’s much easier to be a sort of social organisation, or to be a community with a particular ethos, than it is to get on with the task of preaching and living out the Good News of Jesus. If people today are looking for spirituality, as they seem to be, they will not be interested in churches that exist as members’ clubs or as cultural groups, as many churches seem to do. The church has too easily slipped into the habit of being a circle of friends, forgetting Jesus’ instruction to actually go out into the world and tell people about him. It’s much easier to avoid difficult or awkward things.
The church needs to learn to withstand the three temptations: to exist to serve other people and not itself; to have the courage to speak the truth, even if people do not like to hear it; and to put the living and teaching of the Good News at the heart of the life of the church, instead of doing the things that are easy and popular.
May their be courage to answer as Jesus did when temptation comes.