There have been, of late, a number of disturbing examples in the press, of abuses of power. It was perhaps not too surprising to find a culture of abuse within the movie industry or within football coaching, maybe not even such a surprise to discover it within Parliament, but when it affects Oxfam, an institution we have loved and trusted, it becomes really quite shocking. And just last week, General Synod, listened to harrowing stories of abuse from Church of England priests. For such abuse to have happened, in the very place that should have been safe, is deeply offensive to everything we believe. And it challenges us to consider afresh how we can be a safe community for one another, and offer hope to the world around us.
The standard response to scandal is just to treat the perpetrators as bad apples. Chuck them out of the barrel and all will be well. But what happens if, after Oxfam has imploded, other charities are found to have the same problem? What these revelations are actually showing us is not just a few bad apples, but something more fundamentally rotten. When the problem is found in every level of society, it is telling us that there is a problem with all of us, and the problem is the use of power. Power itself is not evil, but when we’re needy, it can become dangerous in our hands.
And we are all needy and we do all have power. The trouble is that we don’t recognise it. And when we don’t recognise it, we fall prey to power’s temptations. It controls us, rather than us controlling it. And the more power we have, the more outlandish the temptation to abuse it. We cannot hide behind pointing the finger at others, because the root of the problem is not with the rich and famous, but with each and every human being.
Think of the power you have in your own lives. If you have children or even pets, you have power over them. If you are educated, you have power. If you have money, you have power. If you have words in your tongue, you have power – power to build up or destroy, power to protect the reputation of your neighbours, or to destroy it. And the trouble is that human beings are not very good with power.
And yet power is something we all want, one way or another. It may be in order to draw attention to ourselves. Social climbers are drawn to people of power, because they hope some of that power will rub off on themselves. People want money because money has power. As Billie Holliday acutely observed: “money, you’ve got lots of friends.” We all want lots of friends, so having power is a good way of getting them.
Or we may want power simply to get what we want. We’d rather not be dependent on others, because others let us down. But if we have power, we won’t be dependent on them any more. We can be free. There may be an ethical problem that not everyone can get what they want. Perhaps I can only get what I want at the expense of making others dependent on me, but that probably won’t bother me. Not because I’m uncaring, but because I probably won’t even notice I’ve done it. I was never aware of the power I had in the first place, so I was never conscious of the ways I used it. I was just following my instincts and that always feels right.
And we don’t have to go very far with power, before we start enjoying wielding it over others. When you discover you have power over another, the temptation to use it suddenly wells up within us. Whether it’s a child or an animal who learns to trust us, or a lover who takes the risk of putting themselves in our care, or even just a neighbour we can gossip about, the temptation to hurt someone just because we can, rises within us. We all have to learn to control it. But sometimes we don’t and we can’t always explain why. And then there is the temptation to use money as power. I’ve lost count of the number of times money has been used to manipulate me – people withdraw giving from the Church because they don’t get what they want, or people offer big donations, but with very big strings attached – the effect is the same, to wield power to get what we want.
These temptations, the abuse of power, are not the province of the rich and powerful. They do not belong exclusively to Harvey Weinstein or Oxfam, or our politicians. They range right across society. They range right through each of us. And each of these temptations was faced by Jesus too. “Throw yourself off the Temple: draw attention to yourself. If you are the Son of God, don’t just sit on all that power, allowing people to think you’re weak, allowing yourself to be misunderstood. Show them your power, draw attention to yourself. Then they’ll respect you as they should.”
“Turn these stones into bread: if you are the Son of God, you don’t have to be dependent on others. You can get what you want any time. Use your power and you’ll never have to run the risk of being let down again.”
“Take all the kingdoms on earth: make them do what you want. If you are the Son of God, use your power for good. Why take nonsense from puny little human beings? You can humiliate them. It might even be quite fun. You can rule them and make them do good!”
All the same temptations that we face. But at the root of them, is a problem of identity. Each time the devil tempts Jesus, he opens the temptation with “if you are the Son of God…”. He’s putting his finger on Jesus’ vulnerability. We all need to be someone. We all need to be cared about, to matter in some way. And how do we know if we matter? How do we know if we’re loved? When someone first falls in love with us, it’s very easy. They tell us all the time. They do things to show their love. But after a while that stops. You can only tell they love you because they stay with you, they put up with you and they care when things go wrong. But most of the time, things don’t go wrong, so you just don’t know.
So the temptation is to use our power to prove it. “I’ll make something go wrong and see if they react.” “I’ll upset them and see if they still care.” “I’ll find someone else who’ll tell me how wonderful I am.” “I’ll spend more time at work – at least they appreciate me there.” Or the temptation is to put down our friends and neighbours in order to build ourselves up.
In each case, the temptation rises within us to use our power to make ourselves matter. But each of these things only destroys love and therefore destroys our sense of identity. It makes us even more uncertain of ourselves and therefore even more susceptible to the abuse of power. And because we have more power than we realise, we do more damage than we realise. We shouldn’t really be surprised at the scandals we read in the press. We shouldn’t be surprised that it infects even good institutions like the Church or the Charity sector, because the Bible repeatedly tells us that these temptations are common to every human being, that we need to be alert to them and that we need to do something about it, or our instincts will take over. And while they will always feel right, they won’t always be right.
Now, if the Gospel sheds a light on this problem, our Gospel today also offers hope. Because in Mark’s Gospel, the focus isn’t on the temptations themselves – they aren’t even mentioned. Mark sets the temptations in context. And the context is Jesus’ baptism. Specifically, the context is the words he hears his father speak to him: “you are my child, I love you and I’m pleased with you.” Those are the words that speak deep into his soul, the words that drove him out into the desert. He hears these words ‘and immediately, the spirit drove him out into the desert.’
The forty days Jesus spends in the desert are not an endurance test, they are days in which he plumbs the depths of what it means to be loved by his Father, to be his Father’s son, to be who he truly is. The temptations all go to the root of that: he can choose to abuse his power to reassure himself, by getting attention, being independent, wielding power over others. Or he can allow his soul to be loved just for who he is, to recognise that his father is pleased with him. Why is his father pleased with him? This is still chapter 1, the very start of the story. He has done nothing. No miracles, no teaching, no redeeming death, no resurrection. Why is his father pleased with him? Because he is his son. His true identity is found not in what he achieves, but in who it is who loves him. Not in what he does, but in how he does it, by the fact that he is rooted and established in love and everything he will do, flows from that.
And the forty days in the wilderness are the days when he really thinks that through, faces all his temptations, and chooses a different path: the path of love. He is willing to be misunderstood and overlooked. He is willing to risk being vulnerable and abused, killed even, because there is no other way to invite love. He is willing to be hungry, rather than become independent, because ultimately we can only be loved if we are vulnerable to one another. And ultimately he can only take that risk because he is deeply assured of his father’s love for him.
So in these days of Lent, I invite you into the desert to meditate deeply on the love your father God has for you. To wrestle with the choice of paths: to use your power to get what you want, or to use it to serve the weak and vulnerable; to use your power to satisfy your deep cravings, or to care for those in need; to make yourself invulnerable or to take the risk of accepting you need of others, inviting love – from God and from each other.
The reality is that we are all dependent on one another, because the deepest need of our lives is love. And true love is incompatible with abuse of power, with manipulation or self-absorption. There is no room within love for using our authority, our learning, our money, or our responsibilities to put ourselves above others. True love is only possible when we resist that temptation and take the risk of being vulnerable to one another, to risk not being noticed, not being understood, not getting what we want. And we can only do that if we’re deeply rooted in the love of our father. If we understand deeply that we are his children, that what matters is not what we achieve, but who it is who loves us, if we are rooted and established in His love, then we will be who we truly are and then we will have the solid foundation from which to resist the temptation use our power for ourselves. Instead, we can use it for the sake of others, to protect the weak, to safeguard the vulnerable and to show God’s love in a world that is starved of it.
So come with me into the desert these 40 days. Allow God’s love to nourish your soul deeply, through our Lent Course, through your private prayer, through self-examination, through fasting and giving. Allow God to show up the cravings in your soul and to feed them with the true bread of life. And then go out into the desert and share the love of God with those who are starved of love, welcoming others into the radiant splendour of his love. Amen.
Preached: Morland, 18 February 2018