Satan – It’s all about power

Lent 1 2011

Matthew 4:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who alone knows the difference between good and evil. Amen.

Many of you will know the story Lord of the Rings by Tolkein and it is possible that many of you have seen the movies produced in New Zealand by Peter Jackson. The story is, of course, about a ring, a ring which has the power to enslave the world. According to the story, the ring must be destroyed so that the evil it wreaks may be destroyed and that all may be free. An unlikely hero, Froddo and his sidekick Sam, must take the ring to Mount Mordor where Froddo must throw it into the fire. To do this, they must evade the evil powers who seek the ring so that they can use it for their own purposes. Two difficulties face the ring bearers – the ring wants to be found and the second is that the ring wants to bend the bearer to its will and not even Froddo is immune from its power.

It is an awesome task for Froddo who is a hobbit with no knowledge of the world outside his village except what his uncle, the finder of the ring, has told him. What he has in his favour is his basic goodness, his willingness to fulfil the task and the determination and moral fortitude of his friend Sam.

I am not in general a reader of fantasy, but when I do read it, I find a complex study of human nature, in particular the fine line between good and evil. Lord of the Rings is no exception. In this tale, the real hero is Sam, because ultimately Frodo is seduced by the ring and destroys it almost by accident. Sam, who has never had the ring in his possession remains steadfast against its power.

It is not only Frodo who finds the power of the ring difficult to resist. More than once the forces of good are tempted by its power believing that they will be able to control it, not it them. The wise wizard Galdalf cannot trust himself with it. The elf queen Galadriel likewise recognises that she could not resist its power. Brothers Boromir and Faramir go so far as attempt to take the ring from Frodo believing that the ring could give them victory over their enemies.

There is a powerful scene in which Froddo, believing that Galadriel could use it wisely, offers the ring to her. Galadriel suddenly changes, she towers over him dark and threatening saying “I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this. Instead of a Dark Lord, you would have a queen, not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn! Tempestuous as the sea, and stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love me and despair!”

Her intentions might be good, she might believe that power in her hands might be used for the betterment of all, but she knew that over time the ring would turn even her goodness to its evil purposes.

Jesus is the Son of God. Whatever he knew before his baptism, he knows this now.  As the Son of God he has the power of God, the world lies at his feet – he can do anything! With the clap of his hands he could solve the problems of the world, with very little effort he could demonstrate that God was at his command and without any trouble he could compel the world to obey him. For these are the temptations – stones into bread, throwing oneself off a cliff, bowing down to the devil – temptations to do good, to prove that God will protect you and to rule the world.

From the moment of his baptism, Jesus knows that he is the Son of God and he knows with what that status endows him. The knowledge of who he is so great that it drives him into solitude in the wilderness. Here, without distraction, he can reflect on what it all means and ask himself what he will do with this information. Will he claim the power that is at his fingertips in the belief that he could use if for good. Will he take the easy way out and wave a magic wand to make the world right, to compel the nations of the world to submit to him – and in so doing deprive the world of the freedom God has given it?

Jesus knows that the use of power is not the way to victory – it will not achieve God’s purpose. Bending people to his will is not God’s way or God would have given us the freedom to choose. Jesus will not use his power to take the easy way out. He knows that there is only one who cannot be corrupted by power. There is only one who can ensure that power and authority are at his service not vice versa. That one is God. Only God can exercise power without that same power corrupting God. Only God truly knows the difference between good and evil and only God can consistently choose good. Only God has the courage to give people freedom even if it means that they will turn away from God.

In the desert Jesus has to decide whether he will serve God or whether he will compete with God. He chooses service. In this is our redemption for, in making that choice, Jesus, as Paul tells us, reverses the sin of Adam who chose to compete with the one who created him. Instead of seeking power for himself, Jesus leaves that power where it truly belongs – with the God the creator.

From the beginning of time, the problem for humanity has been that it puts itself in competition with God. Instead of working with the Creator and instead of believing that the one who created us, has our best interests at heart, humankind continues to go its own way, to taking for itself the power and authority which truly belongs to God – often with disastrous results.

God created us to live in harmony with God. It is when we take things into our own hands that they go badly wrong. Jesus shows us a different way.  By refusing to exercise the power that was truly his, Jesus  – fully human – restored humanity to its original (intended) relationship with God. The choice is ours – to go our own way and face the consequences, or to give up personal power and glory for the reward of knowing God and a lifetime (eternity even) of living in harmony with the one who gave us life, and who over and over again brings us to new life in him.

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