As many of you know, I’m a fan of science fiction and fantasy fiction of all kinds of stripes. What I love about the genre is how these types of stories, under the guise of escapism, use some very creative ways to draw us to learn something about ourselves. Ideally, our engagement with the Biblical stories should also do the same. It’s more than entertainment, it’s about connecting what it is to be human.
In the mid 90’s, there was a Science Fiction television series called “Babylon 5.” It had a depth of plot and story arc that is far too much to get into here. Rather, there was a rather striking scene when a character is going around to the different ambassadors on the space station. It becomes clear that he is an agent of a cosmic evil, and has a Faustian bargain in his back pocket for anyone who gives him the right answer to his question.
The question is “what do you want?”
Ultimately, the person that gives the “right” answer is the ambassador of an empire that has been in slow decline for many years. He laments the loss of the glory days, when his people dominated the stars. To make a long story short, the person who will be offered this terrible bargain is the person who says that he “wants it all back.”
The temptation, and the willingness to give into that temptation, is rooted in wanting it all back.
This story came to mind when I read the story of the Transfiguration for last week, and then the contrast of the Temptation that Jesus faces in today’s story. The news has been full of Faustian bargains come home to roost, this past week, and we are still living with the consequences of choices that have been made because of dreams of past glory restored.
The story of Jesus being tempted in the desert is a complex one, and is worth re-visiting every year… but I wanted to focus on that conversation that is had when in the middle of this scene and Jesus is whisked away to a high mountaintop… and this isn’t lost on me… a high mountain, a vantage point where he is shown all the kingdoms and realms of the earth. But the temptation is more than just a promise of power, but there is also something else at play. In the story of the Transfiguration, Peter asks, and dare I say, even tempts Jesus to remain on the mountain… to create monuments to try to preserve the moment… and yet the essence of this encounter is intended as a glimpse of glory, intended to move them forward into a new and difficult stage of Christ’s ministry, rather than building a monument to a fleeting past glory. In that story Jesus does move down the mountain, and begins his journey to Jerusalem… but one week later, if only for an instant, is Jesus brought back up, and this time his dark companion essentially echoes what we heard from Peter last week. It may be phrased differently, but the preservation of a past glory is one that is also tied up with the need to gather political power.
The greatest threat to our faith throughout the existence of Christianity has not been any outside force, whether the Roman Empire, external invasions, or in more recent years the spectre of secularism. The greatest threat has always been internal, the temptation to acquire power. It has morphed and changed over the years, but in recent times it has been the fear of losing power and privilege in society that has driven many segments of the church into some dark places in order to try and keep it. There is something intoxicating about the taste of political power, and worse yet, when threatened with losing it, it is much easier to fall into temptation… and to make that proclamation that we want it all back.
But that’s never what Jesus was about. Our faith has never been about the acquisition of political power. Our faith has been about seeing the world in a different way, seeing it the way that God sees it. It is not about social control, and imposing our will on someone else, it has been rather about including those who everyone else ignores. It is to say to those whom society says “you don’t belong” and begging to differ… Remember the people that Jesus spent time with. The only time he spent a significant amount of time inside the halls of power, he was either chasing out the merchants with a whip, or he was physically restrained.
On the mountain, Jesus resisted that temptation. As his followers, we, frankly, haven’t done as well.
But mercifully, thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.
The season of Lent is a time in the desert. A time in the wilderness, a where we can take some long walks in the snow and really reflect on what God is calling us to and what God is calling us to be. What are the temptations that not only you and I face in life, but also what are the Temptations that we face as a church community. What are we losing with the temptation with a magic bullet that promises to restore the greatness of a remembered past? When we lose the sense of mission and purpose of what God is calling us to be, it is very easy to sell our soul.
Some of you may remember the story I told last fall about the first church that I served at after I was ordained… about how they unwittingly fell into this very temptation with the promise of a Sunday School program that would magically restore the massive Sunday school that everyone talked about as having been “just yesterday.” Ironically, instead of restoring the glory days of yesteryear, it accelerated the decline of the Sunday School. As the brand new Associate Minister, it became my role, and a very difficult one, to help them see that.
More than 20 years later I have a better understanding now that is was the temptation of wanting it all back, of having that power to impose a social order. Maybe it’s something we can’t see when we are caught up in the midst of it. Looking back and trying to recapture those glory days ignore the central truth of our faith: resurrection.
But the good news is that our faith is hard-wired to shake us out of that. We believe in resurrection. We believe that no matter where our path may take us, God is not only there with us, but has walked this road before. As we affirm every week, we are not alone. Our journey through Lent helps us to consider those things that tempt us, and to recognize it for what it is. In so doing, we then reclaim our sense of mission and purpose, and set out on that path to bring a sense of life and hope to the world around us.
May we all have a blessed Lenten journey.