A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
‘Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world,’ … [saying] ‘it has been given over to me, and I will give it to anyone that I please. If you then, will worship me …’ Vladimir, then the Ukraine will be all yours. There is a school of thought, one that pops up quite frequently in Western reporting of events in the Ukraine, that suggests that Vladimir Putin is deranged. I don’t buy it. For me, he’s no more deranged than the rest of us. Well, ok, maybe a little more deranged than some of us, but it’s only a matter of degree. I have a couple of reasons for saying that – one historical, one biblical.
Historically, many of us in the West have short memories. For example, few of know or remember that when the Soviet Union was coming to its end, Michael Gorbachev received verbal assurances from Western leaders that NATO would not expand its membership into Eastern Europe. Russians do remember this and regard subsequent history as a betrayal. Now, Ukraine, with a large border with Russia, is touted as a new member for NATO. Likewise, when we in the UK rush to moral condemnation of one country for invading another, with accompanying loss of life, I imagine people in Iraq and Afghanistan raise an eyebrow or two.
But that’s just the history. What about the Bible? Today, Jesus is confronted with temptations that go to the very core of being human in today’s world: politics, economics, and individual immortality; temptations to which Mr Putin is prey, as are we. So let’s start with politics. ‘The devil led him up [that is, Jesus, not Vladimir Putin] to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendour; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”’ (4:5-7) Jesus was presented with the opportunity to seize political power.
The desire for political power is limited neither to Jesus then, nor to Vladimir Putin now. To take an example that’s closer to home, many members of parliament could earn more money for less effort elsewhere. They work very long hours, often dealing with stressful situations, often receiving abuse and worse. Who would want a job like that? Well, it seems, lots of people do, because every time there’s an election there are way more people applying for these jobs than there are vacancies!
I’m not suggesting that everyone goes into politics simply for what they can get out of it. I’m observing that the prospect of wielding political power contains something attractive within it, which though it can be used for good, has great capacity to corrupt those who acquire it and wield it: all power corrupts, as the saying goes, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. And Jesus, being human, is tempted by political power, perhaps with the thought of doing good, but at the cost of giving his ultimate allegiance to that which is evil; the devil says, ‘if you, then will worship me, it will all be yours.’ And if your practice of political power tempts and then leads you into bullying and invading another country, then your ultimate allegiance is in the wrong place.
But let’s not just talk about politics, let’s talk about something controversial instead. Let’s talk about economics. After a significant period of fasting Jesus was famished. (4:2), and the devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ (4:3) On one level this is a harmless suggestion: “You’re hungry? Get yourself something to eat”. On another level, though, being the one who controls bread production has huge significance for economy and society. It’s about deciding who gets to eat and how much; about who gets access to resources that enable them to live and flourish.
Vladimir Putin has the political power to order troops into the Ukraine. Our government and others, not fancying direct military confrontation with Russia, takes the economic route: sanctions. Russia has the big battalions, but the West has the bigger banks, so sanctions are the way to go. It’s what comes naturally to a society where significance is so often measured in terms of economic or financial value.
Our MPs could make more money elsewhere … in the City of London. Governments rise and fall according to their capacity to deliver on the economy. Education is evaluated in terms of how it prepares our children for ‘the world of work.’ Our National Health Service is an ideological battleground over the extent to which it should be opened to business interests.
As with politics, so with economics, we should not assume all this is bad. There’s no reason to believe that God’s against people being prosperous. Jesus, though he had things to say about clergy and lawyers, never condemned bankers. But we know that the temptation is there to be the one who has economic control; the one upon whom others are dependant for life and living. And that can be true, whether in an international level, or in national, local, family, or personal settings.
But let’s put politics and economics aside, and ponder our immortality instead. In Luke’s Gospel the devil suggests that Jesus throw himself off the highest, most important building in the city. Back then, that was a religious building – the temple. Today, it would be the Houses of Parliament, or one of the finance headquarters in Canary Wharf, I suppose. The devil’s suggestion was that Jesus should force God’s hand: ‘he will command his angels … to protect you.’ (4:10) In other words, Jesus should demonstrate he was indispensable to God; too important to die; that he should live for ever.
People try all sorts of things to try to live for ever, demonstrating that they are not dependent on God for life. Billionaires invest in medical research to extend their life. Other look to cryogenics – having their bodies frozen at death, with the intention of being thawed out when medical advances make life possible. That’s a minority pastime, most of us being short of the necessary billions. All the same, though, many of us want to live on in whatever way is available to us.
The main way people try to “live on” is through remaining in the memories of others. I wonder if Vladimir Putin is currently being tempted to give that a go. He’s about to hit his seventies, so he must think a little bit about what comes next. Like others, he may be driven by the need to have people continue to pay him attention; to make his mark upon the world. Perhaps God can’t be forced to remember him, as the devil suggested to Jesus, but generations of Mr Putin’s fellow human beings will be forced to do so, whether we like it or not.
Vladimir is not alone in this attitude. If others don’t want it for themselves, they might want it for someone else. Consider memorial benches. All along the river and the coast here there are lots of lots of benches, which have been donated or sponsored in memory of someone who has died. I have sat upon several and read the memorial plaques on a lot more as I have walked by them. Some of these benches, though, do not function as places where you can take you can sit and admire the view. Family and friends of the deceased cover them in flowers, wreathes, additional plaques and other memorabilia, to the point where there is nowhere to sit. They become a visible declaration that someone is still with us, and they achieve this by taking over a piece of ground that really belongs to others.
Now there’s considerable distance between decorating a bench in North Shields and launching a military invasion of the Ukraine. But I suspect that both share an element of the desire to make a lasting mark upon the world; to deny our mortality; to force others, to force God, to keep us alive. The temptations that faced Jesus are temptations at the core of what it means to function as individuals and society; control of political and economic systems; control over limitations of mortal human life.
To be realistic, there’s not a lot that you and I can do about Vladimir Putin, though we can be supportive of our political leaders as they attempt to do what they can. What we can do is acknowledge that areas where he faces temptation are areas where we face temptation; that these are areas where Jesus faced temptation. That’s because Jesus was fully human, like me, you, and Vladimir Putin. And Jesus’s response to temptations was to look at them in the light of knowing God.
Jesus said that divine value trumps economic value; ‘one does not live by bread alone.’ (4:4) Jesus said that we bow at the altar of God before we bow at the altar of politics: ‘worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ (4:8) Jesus’s good news is that we can depend on God, but we can’t make God depend on us, so, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (4:12) So, as followers of Jesus, trying to negotiate life in this world, with all its temptations, let’s make him the first and foremost source for our attitudes and actions. As the Apostle Paul once put it, ‘if you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved … [for] the same Lord is Lord of all,’ – be it in economics, politics, or future life – ‘and [that Lord] richly blesses all who call on him.’ (10:9, 13)