(The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Narrative Lectionary)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I have been thinking a lot about arrogance this week. The arrogance of believing that we are right, and that others are wrong. The arrogance which uses power to belittle or harm others.
Often people of faith are accused of arrogance. The Psalmist sounds almost arrogant, as he claims the Lord God has his protector: ‘God says, “I will save those who love me and protect those who acknowledge me as God. When they call to me, I will answer them”‘. But faith should not be arrogant- we should not use our faith to pretend we are superior to others. For arrogance is opposed to humility, and humility is a Christian virtue- grounded in the example of Christ who, in coming into the world and living and dying alongside us, showed what humility is.
Faith should not be arrogant, but should be confident. When we call to God, God will answer us. So faith is succour to those who are so powerless they feel they have no other place for their hope, that no-one else who will protect them. That’s why faith so often thrives in hospital wards, and in shanty towns- places where people have nothing left to cling to.
But the ever-presents danger is that we slip from confidence to arrogance. And it is this danger which Jesus faces up to in the story of his temptations.
After his baptism, Jesus does not plunge straight into preaching and healing. He takes time- time for himself, time for God. He follows ancient practices, and heads for the loneliness of the desert, and he fasts (something which you and I usually only do if we are faced with an operation!)- but which in this context is a way of cleansing the soul and becoming closer to God.
Yet even as Jesus seeks God, Jesus finds himself meeting the Devil.
The Devil offers bread to the hungry Jesus, but Jesus points out that humankind cannot live on bread alone- we need the words of God to make sense of life. The Devil suggests a spectacular miracle- jump off the Temple, and God will surely save you. But Jesus won’t put God to the test. The Devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world- if Jesus will only worship him. But Jesus will worship only God.
It might seem strange to talk about the wisdom of the Devil. But each time the Devil tempts Jesus, he does so in clever ways, ways that will often seem wise to many people. So, fror example, when the Devil argues with Jesus, he even quotes Scripture- tempting Jesus to jump off the Temple, he quotes from Psalm 91:
God will put his angels in charge of you
to protect you wherever you go.
They will hold you up with their hands
to keep you from hurting your feet on the stones.
Which just goes to show that anyone can quote the Bible, and come to false conclusions. The Devil twists this passage about confidence, and tries to make Jesus become arrogant.
Of course Jesus was confident. At his baptism, Jesus came to know that he was God’s beloved son, with whom God is pleased (Matthew 3.16). But it is one thing to know that God cares for you- that’s healthy confidence. But it is another to put God to the test- that’s unhealthy, sinful arrogance. The first is humble, confident trust, faith that whatever happens, God will go with you and ultimately save you. The other is arrogance- the belief that God is on your side, that whatever you do, God will go along with it, and it is a false kind of faith.
A dreadful kind of arrogance is where religious people believe that their god is calling them to kill and cause destruction for their cause. We’ve seem that in France and Belgium in the last few weeks. We’ve seen it on the streets of our own country. And it’s happening across the Middle East at the moment.
It’s tempting to think that religious problems are the only cause to the chaos in places like Syria, Iraq, Libya or Nigeria. Certainly religion plays a part. And religious minorities suffer when one group grows arrogant in its beliefs.
In Iraqi and Syria there is an incredible tragedy unfolding of minority faiths being drive from homes they have occupied for centuries by the so-called Islamic State. Back in July, Canon Andrew White, a Church of England priest who runs an incredible international relief effort in the region, was warning that we could be seeing the end of Christianity in Iraq. His organisation is helping to care for thousands of Iraqi Christians in places such as Jordan. They face an uncertain future, to say the least. They cannot go home, for they face persecution just because they belong to a minority community in a land where minorities are no longer welcome.
There are many Christians- and members of other minority faith groups- in the mountains of Lebanon and Turkey this year, driven out by the violence in Syria. Religion is part of the Syrian conflict, but it is only part of it. The Syrian conflict seems to have turned into a three way war between the Assad regime, a more moderate opposition, and religious extremists such as the Islamic State. and there are international diplomatic factors which we can easily lose sight of. For example, Russia and China have, for their own reasons, prevented the United Nations doing much about the Assad regime in Syria. They have their own power-politics motives, creating a policy which has arguably prolonged the suffering of the Syrian people.
And this is true of most of the conflicts we hear about across the globe. The charge that religion is the cause of most wars is just too simple. In fact, economics is at the heart of much of it- you tend not to get wars where people are prosperous. Nor do you get wars where people’s rights are respected, where they are free to live according to their faith and their conscience.
And it is certainly not as simple as the West being at war against a nasty form of Islam. Saudi Arabia, supposedly an ally of the west, is accused of providing many of the extremist fighters in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia also practice a harsh form is Islam, which recently has seen government critic Raif Badawi flogged in a public square and a Burmese woman publicly beheaded– something overlooked in the panic over westerners being executed in Iraq recently.
Some from the West have got involved in these battles, gone to the conflict zones, and have returned with a view to bringing the battles to our streets. It must have been truly frightening living in France in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders- there seemed to be one awful crime happening after another. But it must also be scary being a Muslim in France at the moment. However offended any ordinary Muslim might have been by the images of the Prophet, few of them, I’m sure, would feel that murder was any kind of an answer.
Thinking that you are allowed to kill on behalf of any god is the ultimate blasphemy. For most people, faith is there to give them guidance and support in their lives- and most of the time that makes for peace and wisdom. But if confidence in your faith becomes arrogance towards others, then disaster can happen.
We would need to stretch our imaginations to understand why someone would shoot up a magazine office or take hostages in a supermarket. And none of us would agree that what they did was justified- whatever the grievance which drove it. Yet the fact is that it is grievances which cause such horrors. Where people are taken seriously, are not in poverty, feel part of society, there is, usually, very little violence. For violence is an expression of frustration. It is the weapon of people who feel powerless, downtrodden, ignored- who are given a sort of power if they can get their hands on weapons.
And that’s why I found I could not entirely agree with all those who said that the main problem we were facing last week was something to do with free speech. Of course, people should not be killed for expressing their views. Journalists and cartoonist and other should not live in fear. Yet there is a strong case to be made that if we are going to have freedom of speech, we should exercise it responsibly. I wonder how much of the hatred and violence directed at ‘the West’ is a reaction to our what is seen as our arrogance?
Now, I don’t think that religion should be free of criticism. I am, after all, a child of the Reformation- Protestantism was born out of criticism of the religious beliefs and practices of the medieval church. Martin Luther was a brave man to take on the Pope and all the vested interests of the 16th century church, which was, at the time, the most powerful and wealthiest institution in Europe. And I think we should still criticize and question religious beliefs which do not seem to be helpful- even, and perhaps especially, the beliefs and practices of our own faith community. We have to be free to do so.
Islam today is a wealthy religion in many parts of the world. Yet many Muslims, and especially in the West, do not feel that they are at all part of the wider culture. This is entirely typical of immigrant communities. In the first few generations, immigrants are often met with hostility, and they live in relative poverty- it takes a while before immigrants feel they have really arrived. I can’t understand a mindset that feels insulted by a cartoon. But some people are insulted- although very, very few of them will ever resort to violence because of it. And I think it is simply good manners to behave yourself it there is a chance you can cause widespread offence. Simply saying, ‘I’ll say and do what I want, and never mind the consequences’ can sound arrogant.
In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, and old Hebrew philosopher tells us that there is a time for everything- even ‘a time for silence and a time for talk’. It needs wisdom, even humility, to know the difference. For there is no such things as complete freedom of speech. Even France does not have total freedom of speech- no country does. It is, for example, a criminal offence in France to deny that the Holocaust took place. Just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks a French comedian was arrested for making a sick remark about the terrorists- he’s already been convicted for anti-Semitic hate speech. And France has very tough privacy laws, which means their tabloid newspapers are much more cautious than ours.
We all of us, at some level, have power- the power to do good, or the power to cause harm. And while we may value our freedoms, we have to use like freedom of speech responsibly. It has been said this week that journalists and others have perhaps begun to self-censor what they say. But we all self-censor, and we ought to. Jokes in late night clubs are often not suitable for a Saturday night 8pm TV audience. Television news editors often choose not to transmit particularly harrowing images from war zones. A journalist may, in all conscience, decide not to publish something which could harm the safety of his country. We rightly arrest people for possession of pornography which exploits children. People are learning that it is not a good idea to say all that they think on social media.
Like all freedoms, freedom of speech does, in fact, have its limits. And those limits are mostly not in reaction to Islamist terrorists, but are about taste, decency, morality, a concern to keep the peace in society. The line may vary, and might be blurred- but a line there is. It is just possible that sometimes the media misuse their power, and cause harm to society in doing so. And they can be terribly arrogant if you point it out.
The story of Jesus and the Devil is all about the use of power- the arrogance which causes people to misuse their power- and how, even if we have got power, we ought not to always use it. Just because you have freedom of speech, the wise thing is to not always use it. I think Jesus understood that what the Devil was offering him- as he showed him the kingdoms of the world in all their greatness- was coercive power. The Devil seems to have been offering to force the world on Jesus. But Jesus would not bow the knee. Faith in Christ is something which we cannot force on people (as the parents of any teenager will tell you!). And nor should it be. For Christians, faith should always be a free choice. We choose Christ, not because he is powerful and makes us choose him, but precisely because he is weak, in many ways.
The cross is the symbol of Christianity- but it’s where we see the founder of our faith at his most helpless. But it is the story of what led to that which is the power of the cross. Last week, we said that Jesus did not need to be baptised by John the Baptist for the forgiveness of sins- but Jesus chose to identify himself with us, come down to our level. Today we see him avoiding easy ways of getting people to believe in him.
He won’t jump off the Temple, though that would have been a great trick. He won’t accept the kingdoms and their greatness if the price is worshipping someone other than God. His is a life of not taking the easy path, a life of identifying with those he has come to save, a life of giving up all his is and all he has, a life which will lead to the cross. For only of he goes to the cross can resurrection happen. Only if he goes the hard way- God’s way- can Jesus redeem the world. That is the power of the cross, the power of a symbol of powerlessness- or better, a humility we can all learn from.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo