Preparation is everything. Olympic athletes prepare for the previous four years for their big chance. Four years of early mornings, strict diets, punishing exercise routines. I guess all that is why I will never be an Olympic athlete!
Jesus believed in preparation. In fact our best estimates are that he took over 30 years to prepare for his ministry. When he was ready - he set out to be baptised. But even then, there was still preparation to do. Jesus needed to complete his preparation by opening himself to the temptations that he knew might plague him as he began his ministry. So, after being baptised, he went off for 40 days, into the desert, to be, in Luke's words, 'tempted by the devil'.
Now, first of all we need to deal with this devil, character. Personally, I'm not too fond of the idea of God, all-powerful, loving God, allowing a demonic being to run around trying to tempt us away from God's love. For me, the devil is a metaphor, for all the evil human beings are perfectly capable of doing to each other, and even to themselves.
But whether the actual devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, or whether 'the devil' was Jesus' own human instincts playing themselves out...the effect was the same.
So - what happens next?
The devil - real or imagined - begins to make some suggestions for how his ministry might play out.
"Why don’t you turn those stones into bread?"
Remember that Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire. The Emperors were clever politicians. They understood that simple people needed just two basic things to keep them happy...food, and entertainment. Or, as the Roman expression went, “Bread and Circuses”. Places like the Coliseum in Rome put on great circuses of entertainment, and fed the crowds with free food. But Jesus had come to proclaim another kind of Kingdom….
When Jesus was challenged to turn stones into bread, we could say he was being tempted to follow the Roman way…"provide food for people, and they will follow you”.
But Jesus said no. "It is written: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."
We too provide 'bread' - here in church. We do it to open the doors of our hearts, to welcome our community into this building. But ultimately, we hope and pray that they will join us on the path to Life.
Jesus knew that food alone is not enough. If you feed someone, you only put off the time when they will ultimately die. But if you can change their heart, then you open up the opportunity of eternal life with God. Jesus wanted his ministry to count FOR EVER, not just until the next meal.
So, the devil tried a new tack. Effectively: "Why don’t you throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you?"
Bread...and Circuses. The old Roman trick. The devil was tempting Jesus to use his power to do amazing miracles that would wow the crowd. I mean - I’m pretty sure that if I threw myself off the top of the tower after this service, and had some angels rescue me...you’d all think I was pretty fantastic. Word would soon spread around the City, and then around the country, of the amazing flying Rector!
But again, Jesus knew that amazing miracles would not turn people towards God. He knew that the changes we need to make take place on the inside, not on the outside. Faith is not about asking God to do amazing feats of supernatural wonder...it’s about trusting that God is in control, and is with us through every circumstance of life...the mountain-top experiences that we thought about last week, for example...but also when the chips are down, and the going gets tough.
So Jesus rebuked his 'devil' - the darker potentials of his human nature: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."
So the devil tried for the last time. He took Jesus to the top of a very high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world laid out before him.
"Why don’t you worship me...then I will give you all this!"
Bread, circuses...and political power. The devil was tempting Jesus to establish a kingdom of political power. To raise up an army which would conquer the world. Many people expected that this was exactly what the Messiah would do.
I don't know about you, but after a life-time of interest in politics, even working for five years in the corridors of Westminster, I find myself pretty disillusioned with the world of politics right now. It's hard to put your trust in something which can be so easily usurped by powerful people, with deep pockets, who can influence an entire nation through lies and half-truths.
Jesus wasn’t interested either. He knew that all the political power in the world would not create the circumstances that he wanted. God's way is not the way of political and military power. God’s way is the way of turning the other cheek, of forgiveness to your brother, and of carrying your brother's burden. Jesus could have taken political power. He could have raised an army to smite the Romans. But unless the hearts of the people were changed, any political solution would only be temporary.
So what was Jesus’ response? "Away from me Satan! For it is written 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only!'”
In other words...what we need to do is put God first. Not bread, not circuses, not earthly power systems...God. God who made us. God who sustains us. God who has saved us through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So in this period of Lent, let me invite you to take some time to ask yourself what you are putting first in your life. What is it that you trust, and base your life on? What is the most important thing in your life?
A question that Scripture constantly throws at us is...'how are you going to spend your days?'. Are you going to spend them accumulating wealth that you can't take with you, or soaking up the modern day circus of TV?
Or are you going to spend your days building community, creating relationships - caring about others, and worshipping God for whose pleasure you were made. Will it be bread and circuses and the empty promises of political power...or will it be life, to the full, through a total dedication to loving God and loving our neighbour.
The choice is ours to make.