Truth in Dark Places
SETTING THE SCENE: a two-voice arrangement of Matthew 4, verses 1-11; the story of Jesus being tempted by the Devil.
My father once said that, if he and my mother were going to have a row, then the devil would make sure that this row would take place just as they were about to go to church on a Sunday morning. They would then be angry, upset and unable to receive much blessing from their worship.
Personally, I was of the opinion that my parents hardly needed the devil to start a row. With both of them being strong-willed and highly “vocal” people they were quite capable of having a row about anything, anytime, anywhere. It was almost a form of recreation for them…. But I can see what Dad was getting at. Life has a way of upsetting you just when you think you are doing OK.
I can also remember more than one Christian person telling me of troubles going on in their lives or in their church and of their belief that they were under “spiritual attack.” Something somewhere was trying to sabotage their faith and their Christian life. And again, I know what they mean. No matter how great your faith and your commitment to Jesus Christ, it feels at times as though there is a force working against you.
The society in which Jesus lived, believed in gods, angels and demons: divine powers, out to create good or evil. In 21st century UK, most of this language and belief system has disappeared but there is still incredible goodness to be found and there is still diabolical evil. And despite huge advances in scientific and psychological knowledge, we find this hard to understand, much less cope with.
My guess is that we have all heard those malignant little voices whispering in our ears that we should do something we know to be wrong and giving us perfectly acceptable reasons for doing so. Whether we believe in the Devil or inner demons or not, we have been where Jesus was and we know that there is nothing like a dark, desolate, desert place in your life to make you an open target for temptation.
St Paul wrote more than once of the great cosmic battle going on between the forces of goodness and the powers of evil. He warned his fellow Christians that they were caught up in this battle. It was not just about their own ability or inability to deal with life. It was not just about other people making things hard for them. There were forces of evil “out to get them.” This concept is frightening but there is also a certain comfort in it. Whatever goes wrong is not totally down to us; to our mistakes, our failures, our inadequacy. Of course we have to accept responsibility for what we do wrong and hold others to account for their badness. But we do not have to beat ourselves up. Nor do we have to beat other people up. Because life itself is harsh and unfair and everybody at some stage feels that they are under attack.
So let us now have a few moments of quiet prayer…..
TIME OF PRAYER
HYMN 518 Father, I place into your hands the things that I can’t do
During Lent this year, we are going to think about protection. How can we protect ourselves from destructive forces that can ruin our lives, our faith and our church?
St Paul wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus whilst he was in prison, guarded day and night by Roman soldiers. It was there that he was inspired to write about the “armour of God,” taking each piece of the armour worn by his guards as a symbol of the protection offered by God to his people.
READING: Ephesians 6, verses 10-18
Nowadays, a belt is regarded more or less as a fashion accessory. It is the last thing you put on, along with a scarf and your jewellery. But in the time of Paul, when both men and women wore loose, flowing clothes with little more than a soft girdle around the waist, putting on a belt showed that you were ready for action. The expression “gird your loins” was all about hitching up the skirts of your robe and fastening its folds with a strong belt around your waist. Then you were ready to tackle strenuous tasks or, in the case of a soldier, start to prepare for battle.
So, for St Paul, the belt is the first essential of Christian armour. It is about starting each day accepting that there will be challenges to face and preparing yourself to face them. It is about standing upright, looking the world in the eye and saying “here I come. I have my belt on. I am ready for anything. Get used to it.”
And this belt is made of “truth.”
Truth, after all, is the basis on which we live our lives. The truth by which we live is the motivation to get us out of bed in the mornings. It is the stamina which keeps us going in difficult times. Truth is what we believe about life and about ourselves.
But “what is truth?” (Can anyone remember who asked that famous question?)
It was Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Israel, before whom Jesus stood, on trial for his life. Jesus was accused of setting himself up as a rival King and Pilate demands to know if this is his intention. Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this world…I came into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth,” asks Pilate?
And I don’t think that anyone has ever been able to give him a one-line answer.
For Pilate, truth was all about the Roman Emperor. The Emperor had placed Pilate in this position of power; the Emperor paid him his high wages; the Emperor told him how he should govern and what he should he do with rebels.
But was this truth on which to base your life? A truth which said that “might was right?” A truth which said that one man knew what was best for the whole world? A truth which told you that compassion was bad, and that justice was only for Romans? That is not what we would call “truth” and history has shown that this is not a truth on which secure lives and civilisations can be founded.
It is frighteningly easy to base our lives on false truths. For some, the truth of their life can be summed up in their job description; for others in their bank account; for some it is their looks; for many it is their relationships. And none of these are bad things in themselves. It is just that if these things become the truth and the whole truth about who we are and what our life is about then, if they are taken from us, we believe that we are nothing; that we have nothing. And it is then that the “devil” starts to suggest that we should cheat or subtly steal what is someone else’s; or resort to emotional blackmail or give in to emotional blackmail; or embark on a course of self-destruction. We are often surprised to discover that the huge levels of self-confidence we see and envy in others turn out to be nothing more than bravado; presenting an image; and not in fact based on truth.
But what is truth? St John’s Gospel, in which Pilate’s question is written, has a lot to say about truth- what it is and what it is not. It is quite clearly not a set of statements written down, signed off and kept as a code of belief which can never be challenged. Truth is not like that because life is not like that. Truth is not something which can be handed to you complete and intact. Truth is something which gradually unfolds as you live and learn and experience.
Jesus speaks of the power of the Holy Spirit guiding us into truth. He also speaks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. They are all linked together. As we walk with Jesus, so we are guided into truth. And as we discover truth, so we learn how to live life to the full.
It is a bold statement for Jesus to make: I am the Truth. Is he?
Let’s look back at the story of him in the desert.
Physically, he was in a dark and desolate place- the wilderness, where nothing grew and where there was no food or shelter. Spiritually? Well, just imagine if you had been Jesus, preparing for a ministry to people who could not trust each other, much less God; in a country characterised by poverty, oppression and injustice; with a religion that permitted no questions or changes- would you have been dancing for joy?
Jesus was in a very dark place, physically and spiritually and was an open target for self- doubt and a sense of alienation from God. Why should he not prove himself and taunt God into action? Why should he not seize control? Here are his answers:
Truth number one: we do not live by bread alone. Physical comforts, although important, do not provide total satisfaction. Ask any millionaire.
Truth number two: it is a mistake to set “tests” to prove that God exists. For if God is God then he cannot play to our rules or He will become less than God. We only discover the truth of God through trust in God.
Truth number three: power demonstrating itself in control achieves little that is good. Because most human beings do not wish to be controlled and will not be controlled. If truth is something that we discover every day of our lives, then other people will have truths to show us. By seeking to control them, we are shutting ourselves off from the truths they might teach us.
If we believe that Jesus really is who he says he is- the Son God; God himself living out a human life; then we have to credit him with knowing the truth; with knowing what is real in life and what is not; what will create goodness and satisfaction and what will create evil and misery. And, as each of us needs our own “life-plan;” our own set of directions for Walking the Way through the places where we are, we are only going to find the truth through our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The Way, the Truth and the Life.
There is a Hindu legend of a man who asked his local Rajah how he could resist the temptation to do wrong. The Rajah gave him a large pitcher filled to the brim with water and told him to carry it through the busiest streets of the city without spilling one drop. Two soldiers would walk behind him with their swords drawn and if he spilled any water, they would kill him (no pressure….). The man did as he was told and walked very slowly through the city, carrying the pitcher very carefully, always aware of those soldiers behind him. Finally, he returned to the Rajah with his pitcher still filled to the brim.
“Now tell me,” said the Rajah, did you see anything on the market stalls that you wished to buy? “ No.
“Did you see any gambling dens?” No.
” Did you see any dancing girls?” No.
“Did you see drugs or alcohol for sale?” “No. I could not see any of this, for every step of the way I was watching the pitcher of water.”
“There is your answer,” said the Rajah. “As on your journey through the city you kept your eyes fastened upon the pitcher, so every day of your life keep your eyes upon the truth, and you will resist all temptation.”
The belt of truth, the starting point in our protection against temptation is to walk each day with Jesus; to focus on him as the motivating force and the supporting power in our lives; to set ourselves each day to learn the truths he will show us.
You may think that this is far easier for me than for you because my whole job is about Jesus; prayer, reflection, worship are built into my schedule and this may not be possible for you.
Well, to a certain extent that is true but I do not mind admitting that although, yes, I am able to create time for focussed prayer, I am not good at fixing my eyes, my thoughts, my sense of direction upon Jesus when I most need him. When things go wrong, when something upsets my plans, when I feel let down by people, when I feel exhausted and unable to cope, do I turn to Jesus in prayer? Or do I panic, stress out, blame everybody else, feel sorry for myself, eat too much chocolate… ?
My Lenten challenge is to keep my eyes upon Jesus, not just when I am having specific prayer times but when I encounter dark and difficult places; when things are not going according to my plans.
A psychiatrist recently wrote that it takes fifteen seconds of concentrated focus on a positive thought for it to become embedded in your consciousness (as opposed to negative thoughts which take all of two seconds to destroy our peace of mind). Fifteen seconds can feel like a long time when you stop and try to focus but it is actually a minimal amount of time for even the busiest of people.
Sometimes it only takes a few moments (like 15 seconds), when you are in a difficult place, to stop, focus on Jesus, ask for help and move forward in faith, even if you are not entirely sure where you are going.
I would suggest that it is worth keeping this very simple strategy in mind through the weeks of Lent: that no matter how busy we are, fifteen seconds of focussing on the presence and power of Jesus when you need it could make all the difference in the world.
May God give each of us the belt of truth to protect us on our journey through the coming weeks.