Saturday, 20 July 2024

Choices in the Wilderness

(Please read Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, and Matthew 4:1-11)

79 years ago, on the evening of Shrove Tuesday, 13th February 1945, 773 Royal Air Force Avro Lancasters bombed the city of Dresden. During the next two days the US air force sent over 527 heavy bombers to follow up the RAF attack. Large numbers of refugees fleeing from the advancing Soviet Red Army had massively increased the population of the city above the normal 650,000.

It was regarded as a triumph for Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, and his policy of area or blanket bombing, known in Germany as terror bombing. Dresden was all but totally destroyed.

Not everyone at home rejoiced at this news. Many felt very uneasy about the level of violence being unleashed on innocent civilians. Yes, it could be seen as revenge for the wartime blitz over Britain, but was such revenge a fitting kind of motivation for a country which was taking the moral high ground in this war against evil? (This whole story has echoes in modern day conflict in the middle east.)

Research has suggested that over 35,000 were killed, but some German sources have argued that it was well over 100,000. What is certain is that more people died in those 72 hours in Dresden than were killed in all the attacks on London during the whole of the Second World War.

Despite their unease, few in Britain had the courage to speak out against the bombing. It was a churchman, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who spoke on their behalf. Bell argued that this area bombing was an insult to Christian values, and that celebrating the bombing was immoral. However, his Archbishop would not back him in asking the government to account for their actions. In the House of Lords, Bell argued that the devastation of cities was threatening the very roots of civilisation, that this campaign disregarded the law and in so doing, undermined the Allies' claim to be the liberators of Europe. He was heard in near-silence. The then Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, called him 'this pestilent priest'; and it is now generally accepted that George Bell never went on to be either Archbishop of Canterbury or Bishop of London largely because of his views on the bombing of Dresden. He never regretted the choice he made, but as a consequence he knew afterwards what it felt like to walk in a wilderness.

I tell you this story of George Bell to show how that as Christians we have choices to make, and if we are to be faithful, the right choices may have to be the unlikely, unpopular, or difficult ones; and this is something worth reflecting on as we begin our journey through Lent.

I ask you to read the familiar gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness. This is a story about choices.

It tells us first of all that Jesus chose to be led by the Spirit, into the desert, or wilderness, to be tempted by the devil. He chose to be led by the Spirit ... to open himself completely to the gracious will and mighty power of God. He chose to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness ... to follow God into a place that was not at all like home, an uneasy place, a place of testing. He chose to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil ... to face up to the evil in him and around him; to grapple with the demons, not to ignore them.
And he also chose to fast - something which Christian people have from time to time valued and embraced, but something which isn't much in fashion these days. The idea of fasting is to simplify our lives, to focus down into our inner being, to recognise our dependence on God, to more willingly open ourselves to God. True fasting - it's never an easy choice - but Jesus made it.
We then read of the three temptations which offered Jesus three choices: a choice about food, a choice about status, a choice about power.

'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.'

This was a choice between breaking the fast and keeping it. Jesus could give in to his dependence on food to keep him going, or make the harder choice of holding on to his dependence on God. His response: 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'.

'If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you'.

This was a choice about testing his status. Jesus could choose between doing something dramatic to show how great he was, or simply resting in the grace of God. His response: 'Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'

'All the kingdoms of the world and their splendour I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'

This was a choice between taking up or giving up power. Jesus could choose between accepting all the power which the world can offer, or confirming his devotion to the greater power of God. His response: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'

Now, we might wonder if these temptations of Jesus can really have anything to do with us. If we have choices in life at all, surely they are different to the choices Jesus had to make. After all, he was the Son of God and we are just 'frail children of dust', as a well know hymn puts it.

True, but we still have choices, and the challenge to each of us as Christians is how to make sure that God is involved in our making of those choices.

We all have choices about food. For some people, the hard and very limited choice will be, what can I afford to buy to make sure my family gets fed right through the week? What should I not buy for myself to make sure that happens? For others it might be, can I afford to spend a little bit more on Fair Trade goods, to help people overseas who produce them to receive a fair wage for their efforts? The choice for us as Christians is, do we give in to our dependence on food to keep us going, or do we make the harder choice of holding on to our dependence on God: that's hard when you have very little - can we, will we, trust God to provide?

We all have choices about status, because status isn't just to do with well-to-do people or politicians or celebrities. We all have an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we're judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. The choice for us as Christians is, do we respond to that anxiety by trying to do dramatic or showy things to impress other people, or do we let ourselves simply rest in the grace of God, and get our status from him.
And we all have choices about power. Again, we might not think that we're very powerful, compared to the landlord who can either fix our leaking roof or let us keep on living in the damp, or the council who can decide to dig up the road outside our house, or take off a bus route we depend on, without asking us. Yet we do have power, each of us. Personal power - power which gives us choices either to help someone in need or ignore them, to forgive someone who has hurt us or let them carry on suffering by ignoring or abusing them. We all know about the power games that go on in our society - they can go on in our communities, our homes and our families, too. We each have power in relation to other people. The choice for us as Christians is, do we use that power as the world does, manipulatively, selfishly, greedily, or do we devote ourselves to the greater power of God: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.'

All this about temptations and choices goes back to the Genesis story of the very beginning, to the man and the woman in the garden of Eden, with the tree, the fruit, the serpent, and the choice. The difference between us and Adam and Eve is that we already know that we are naked in the sight of God; we know that we are flawed human beings, we know that we are able to choose good or evil, we even know what the consequences of our choices are likely to be before we choose. The Genesis story tells us that: 'the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked'.

Lent is about asking God to help us keep our eyes open, as Jesus did, and keep our hearts fixed on him.

Br David Newman

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