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6th March 2022

Feeling Stuck

Passage: Matthew 4;1-11


I don’t normally go in for alliteration but today I shall. It struck me that there are four basic messages in this story, each beginning with the letter D: DESERT. DEVIL. DEFIANCE. DIVINE

Let’s begin with the desert. Deserts in the Bible are treacherous places: nothing grows there; you are in danger of starvation, thirst, or attack by wild animals. You are totally isolated, and seriously at risk of losing your way. The desert is a place where people get stuck.
So, what has this got to do with me/ with us? We may not all have travelled through actual deserts but, looking back over the past two years, we have been in places where we are isolated, frightened, losing all sense of direction, spiritually and emotionally starved, and yes, feeling “stuck.”

And it only occurred to me this week that Jesus Christ himself must have told this story of his desert place. The story is included in two out of the four Gospels and is referred to in the letter to the Hebrews, so we can assume it happened. And, as only Jesus was there, he must have told people about it because he wanted us to know that he did not float through life untroubled. He got into a desert place. He got stuck. Brought up in a traditional religion and an occupied nation’s politics, he knew he was filled with God. But what was he to do about it? This is his story of the desert.

What has this got to do with St John’s Church right now? Well, as a church we were in a desert place during the pandemic: isolated, scared, no sense of direction. Maybe we were in this place even before the pandemic? And quite possibly after? We may well think ourselves a bit “stuck” right now and there is no point in pretending we are not. The good news is that Jesus was in that desert place and so, as the letter to Hebrews says, he is able to help us.

The Devil: who is he? In the Old Testament, his name-Satan- means “accuser.” It is he who causes people to doubt themselves and to doubt God and from there to hate themselves and to hate God. His is the voice speaking when you are feeling stuck; the voice suggesting that you have failed; that it is entirely your own fault that you are where you are. This makes you even more vulnerable and despairing, so open to his suggestions that what you need in order to feel better are first, wealth and financial security; second, popular credibility-everyone telling you how great you are; and third the power to make the world revolve around you.
We know that voice, don’t we? Either saying directly, “this is what you should be doing” or “if you cannot achieve this, you are a loser.“ Sometimes it is other people saying these things to us, sometimes social media, sometimes the voice inside our own head. Or maybe it really is the devil having a go. Whatever, that voice torments the life out of us?

Jesus heard that voice and more than just the once. Many times, in his ministry he was tempted by the popular conceptions of success: wealth, showmanship, power. “Be what people think a god should be or you will lose credibility and you will have failed.” And no doubt that voice tormented him, too, which was why he shared the story.

In this church, we are called to provide an authentic voice of faith, and that is not always what we think people want to hear. Maybe our temptations right now are more about “vision?” Wanting to get back to how things were here fifty years ago? Wanting to be like other churches who have far more people? Wanting to give up because we think no-one wants us or needs us anymore? Whenever we are feeling stuck, there will be voices telling us what to do. They may sound perfectly plausible but sometimes turn out to be leading us down the wrong paths.
You may believe in the devil, or you may not. But certainly, the accusing voice telling us that we are not worth saving unless we do this or that, is all too real and Jesus heard it too. &&&&&&&&&

But the next key word in the story is “Defiance.”
We do not have to accept what these malicious voices are telling us. We can defy them and fight back. Right through the Bible you hear of people caught in difficult, destructive places who refuse to give in to them. They believe that there is another way, a God-given way.

Human beings are generally resilient. We get close to being sucked under by evil and despair but something in us fights back. Even the horrific situation in Ukraine right now demonstrates huge numbers of people taking a stand against tyranny. And I reflected on how we have come a long way since the rise of Nazism in Germany, when Adolf Hitler succeeded in persuading huge numbers of people that he was right. We do get to a point when we say “enough. I don’t want to be this victim or this power-maniac or this self-absorbed person any longer.” We are shown just how much damage material greed or celebrity status, or supreme power can do to us and to the world as a whole and we say “No.” It’s just not that easy, is it?

Which brings me back to Jesus. Yes, he was defiant in the sound of the devil’s voice, but he did not fight back alone. He used the backing of the holy scriptures with which he had been brought up. To him, they were not simply old words from a bygone age but living words with a power and a presence for every generation. He had not just learned them off by heart; he had lived by them and proved their truth for himself. His faith community had given him words of inspiration for his time of trial.

And this brings me back to the church. We still need our church. We need our Bible. We need our songs, our prayers, our tried and tested traditions. No, our challenges do not just come from a secular culture; they also come from our own reluctance to engage with challenge and change. But that is no reason to give in. Jesus teaches us to fight back because the world still needs God and the people of God, perhaps more than ever right now.

So, to the last key word in the story: Divine. Eventually, the voice of the devil gives in, for now. It will come back. It always does. But in his defiance, Jesus has found his divinity. The Holy Spirit of God which had descended upon him at his baptism has now proved its presence and its power. I cannot imagine that Jesus was dancing for joy. I should think he was weak with exhaustion. But, we are told, angels came to take care of him. And, throughout his life, the voice of the devil may have kept returning but so did the angels, the messengers of God.

When we stand up and defy evil, despair, destruction, it is then that we learn what it really means to be a child of God. The letter to Christians written by James who was said to be a brother of Jesus, advises us to, “resist the devil and he will flee from you.” The power will be given to us, just as it was to Jesus Christ. And yes, the angels of God will be there to help us pick up the pieces of our lives. They will probably not be wearing long white robes; more likely jeans these days. But we know who they are: the people who remind us that God is always there, as the angels going up and down the stairway to heaven did to Jacob when he was alone in the desert; the people who offer us food or a cup of tea, like the angel who brought food to Elijah in his desert; the people who warn us that we are heading into danger, like the angels who sent Mary, Joseph and Jesus into safety; the people who protect us from harm, like the angels camped outside the besieged city where Elisha believed himself trapped; the people who simply light up our lives with God’s glory, as the angels did to the shepherds of Bethlehem. When we stand up and defy evil, despair, destruction, it is then that we learn what it really means to be a child of God.

And, as a church, it is our calling to be God’s people for the world. It is our calling to stand in defiance against evil and destruction; to pray defiantly; worship defiantly; share our faith defiantly; encourage one another in working for peace and justice defiantly; resist the devil, not in our own strength but in the power of God.
So, if you are feeling stuck right now: in your life, in your faith, as a church, let me leave you with these four final thoughts:
1.There is no shame in feeling stuck. The desert is a territory in everyone’s life, including that of Jesus Christ.
2.There is no shame in hearing malicious voices or becoming the victim of destructive influences. We all make mistakes.
3.The shame lies in believing that you are stuck for ever; that there is no way through.
4.The glory lies in discovering your own divinity through defiance; learning that as you resist “the devil” he will flee because you have the power of God in you.

That is what this story has said to me this year and, in the name of Jesus Christ, I offer it to you. Amen.

SLIDE: If you were starting a whole new church, what would it be like?
Asked to think about this every Sunday through Lent and in discussion groups. Interesting to see if your ideas change……