A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 6 March 2022 by Revd Richard Carter

Reading for address: Luke 4: 1-13

These are the stark words of our baptism. Words you have just heard. Words of conversion, orientation, guidance like a compass in a storm. We need that compass more than ever. These last few years have been turbulent years. Remember the painful struggles and divisions over Brexit still not healed- with its saturation news coverage- and then COVID and then just as finally things seemed to be opening up again and the constant cases, hospital and death count, was receding- the unthinkable begins- an invasion and war in Europe with the horrifying images from the Ukraine filling our homes with the suffering and anguish of a nation. It’s hard to get these images out of your mind day and night. Walk along the south bank from Westminster Bridge in front of St Thomas’ Hospital and see the thousands of fading red hearts on the wall signifying the grief and loss of loved ones from the pandemic. When someone dies- families, communities share the sorrow. But before the world has time to overcome or process the trauma and heart break of this- a new form of fear filling our airwaves 24/7 and this brutal invasion and bombing of an innocent nation threatening the stability of the whole of Europe.

I am reminded of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion praying in anguish and Luke the Gospel writer says his sweat was like drops of blood falling on the ground. ‘Take this cup of Suffering from me.’ Jesus Christ the Son of God – also looked into the face of evil. He did not turn away or try to escape. He knew that his path would cost nothing less than everything.

The truth is that the Christian faith is not conflict averse. Jesus spells it out quite clearly ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ Peter who has seen the transfiguration and witnessed the glory of Jesus standing alongside Moses and Elijah wants something different- not predictions of suffering- but Jesus reprimands him. The path of love cannot avoid pain and loss. We do not follow a prosperity cult. Pray to God and you will get you want- like a cash dispensing machine that never runs out.

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour, Lord and Friend? I turn to Christ. Do you repent of all your sins? I repent of all my sins. Do you renounce evil? I renounce evil.

In our Gospel for today we see Christ involved in that deep struggle of becoming himself. A tearing away from the false. Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit does not bypass or avoid the struggle- it leads Jesus into the testing place. Here is the place where faith will be forged, not in passive acceptance but in adversity.

Jesus is confronted by three temptations. The temptation to turn stone into pieces of bread; the second from the top of the mountain he is promised all the kingdoms of the earth if he falls down and worships Satan and the third to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to prove how the angels will protect him. Wealth, Power, Authority over heaven and earth. Dostoyevsky famously in his novel The Brothers Karamazov uses these temptations in the most extraordinary set piece of religious debate entitled The Grand Inquisitor. In the story Jesus stands before the Grand Inquisitor who accuses him and threatens him with death. ‘Why has Jesus,’ the Inquisitor demands ‘bound the intolerable burden of freedom upon humanity. How dare he and his Father, profess their eternal love for men and women while dangling before their eyes impossible ideals? Far better that Jesus offer the people something real tangible, material and graspable, what they desire and clamour for most- the bread of the earth not the bread of heaven… Look at these stones in the burning hot wilderness. Turn them into loaves of bread and people will go trotting after you like a flock of sheep grateful and obedient.’ What does Jesus offer instead ‘Nothing has ever been more feared and unendurable to men and woman and society than freedom.’ Says the Inquisitor. The truth is, says the inquisitor, human beings cannot bear too much freedom. They cannot live uncertainty much better to surrender their liberty to a ruler who will tell them what to believe and what the truth is. The Inquisitor says the church must abandon the Spirit of Christ, instead the church must console its people with the very temptations that Jesus rejected- with miracle, authority and mystery. The church must promise that somehow the faithful will get what they want, and thus the church will seduce them with authority and power and fill them with superstitions. This is the way of social control and worldly power says the Inquisitor.

In the wilderness Christ shows clearly that he does not want us to put our faith in miracles, angels and magic, nor is the way of God the way intransigent authority and oppressive power. God is no dictator, or a Putin promising only to reward those who tow the party line and punish all adversaries. Our Gospel is the polar opposite- it requires a love and mercy which will involve struggle and suffering. In Dostoyevsky’s novel at the end of his inquisition Christ who has said nothing draws near to the inquisitor and without saying anything quietly kisses him on his bloodless old lips. That is his only response.

I was deeply moved to attend the Memorial at St Martin’s of Desmond Tutu two weeks ago. We often think of Tutu’ smile and impish humour and joy, see him as a symbol of hope- but Sam Wells in his sermon also reminded us of his courage in adversity- the struggle that made him who he was. Remember Jesus’ advice to his disciples: “Behold I am sending you out like sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and as without falsity as doves. Sam said this of Tutu:

Desmond’s life was a bobbing buoy in a sea of controversy. He was the first to say apartheid disfigured the perpetrator more than the victim, but many doubted his conviction that there was a place for all races in the struggle for freedom. He was surrounded by people who argued he was naïve, preferring peaceful protest to armed resistance, who suggested he was too political, demanding apartheid be dismantled rather than simply asking people to abide together in peace, who argued he was too merciful, seeking reconciliation rather than judgement and punishment. One of his tactics was example. When in 1981, 15,000 mourners showed up for the funeral of Griffiths Mxenge, and one was identified as an informer, a necklace killing looked certain. But Desmond threw himself over the accused man and, with his cassock blood-stained, took him to his car and drove him away. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour, Lord and Friend? I turn to Christ. Do you repent of all your sins? I repent of all my sins. Do you renounce evil? I renounce evil.

As we watch, most of us fortunately from the safety of our television screens, we too are called to bear witness. Last night on the news we saw a mother weeping inconsolably over the body of her very young son wrapped in a blood-stained sheet killed by the savagery of this war on Ukraine. It was heart-breaking We cannot avoid the suffering of our world, or turn away, any more than Jesus or his disciples could. Evil has a destructive power and momentum of its own. But it also reminds us of the choices we make in our own lives and where we stand. Our faith in Jesus Christ is not just a Sunday activity but the orientation of our whole lives he is the heart of our humanity- compassion, mercy, our peace, humility, purity, our longing for justice, our persecution for the sake of right. He is the one who shows us the way from death to life: that is our baptismal journey:

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour, Lord and Friend? I turn to Christ. Do you repent of all your sins? I repent of all my sins. Do you renounce evil? I renounce evil.

How does our God deal with the scandal of injustice, poverty, violence and evil? If we want to follow Jesus Christ we must go beyond words, we must go beyond charity in our search for a just society. We need human justice but Christ calls us even beyond that too- its difficult to find the right word. What we are being called to do is to live Jesus. We are called to live the love we see made flesh in him. To let go of our pride and fear and to be with, whatever that with will involve. I wonder what it is that has given you hope in humanity in the last week. Perhaps the women standing at coach depots or train stations with placards saying ‘I have room in my home for a family, their children and their pets’, as traumatised refugees arrive from Ukraine; or for me hearing the story of a man who has spent his life caring for homeless people in Ukraine who when encouraged by his charity to evacuate responded to my brother that there was no way he could leave Ukraine despite the bombing: ‘I must be with my elderly relatives, my new grandson, my people, my country, the homeless project I work for. How can could I ever leave them?” But hope is also here in London- a group from our own congregation worrying and caring for a much-loved member of St Martin’s congregation who has fractured their hip; or one of our International Group describing yesterday that the fighting in the country he fled which led him to the brink of suicide but then his discovery of the love of Christ and this community when totally alone which for the first time showed him a way forward, showed him a way home.

Today we heard how each one of us are asked three times if you are resolved to turn from despair to hope, from death to life. ‘Do you turn to Christ as Saviour, Lord and Friend?’ ‘I turn to Christ.’ ‘Do you repent of all your sins?’ ‘I repent of all my sins.’ ‘Do you renounce evil?’ ‘I renounce evil.’ It’s a promise to believe in God the father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Receive the sign of the cross. Christ’s love for you. God with us- no matter what. A promise to live Jesus.

Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death. Victory is ours through Him who loved us. (Desmond Tutu)