|6:00pm||La Nativité du Seigneur, Messiaen|
Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent (5 March) by the The Reverend Dr Simon Woodman, Minister, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Simon Woodman considers how different life would be if he ruled the world, and how selfless power, as seen in the life of Jesus, is what makes the real difference.
The fabled Delta-blues guitarist Robert Johnson died in 1938, aged only 27, after a troubled life wandering the Mississippi wilderness eking out a living as an itinerant musician.
Probably his most famous song is the brilliant ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, but more notorious is his song ‘Cross Road Blues’, which came to define his mythology. The song opens with him on his knees at a crossroads, pleading with for salvation; but as the sun sets and no help arrives, he says of himself, I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down’.
And so the myth began, of how ‘poor Bob Johnson’ met the Devil at the crossroads, and sold his soul in exchange for his supposedly supernatural abilities on the guitar. It was a bargain struck in the grand tradition of the Germanic Faust legend, whose own pact with the devil cost him his soul in exchange for unlimited pleasure and power.
And the human story, from Adam and Eve onwards, is littered with examples of those who have exchanged their own integrity for knowledge, power, or success. And so we come to the fateful meeting between Jesus and the Devil at the crossroads of history.
It was, I suppose, the ultimate moment of temptation. The offer of unlimited power and influence, wealth and adoration, to use as Jesus sees fit. Who in their right minds could refuse such a deal? I wonder if you ever have those moments when you think to yourself, If I ruled the world, things would be very different!’ I know I do . . .
In fact, I’ve got a little list of Executive Orders ready to be issued immediately:
Number One: All doors to public rest-rooms must henceforth open outwards; so I don’t have to touch the door handle on my way out.
Number Two: All tables in restaurants must henceforth have only three, evenly spaced, legs; because then, according to the milking stool principle, I will never have to sit at a wobbly table again.
I admit I may not be setting my sights all that high here, but I thought I’d learn a lesson from President Trump, and start with some easy wins. So what would you do, I wonder, if you ruled the world? Would you end war? Abolish poverty? Solve climate change? I’m sure all of us are so very aware that, in so many ways, from the global to the trivial, the world is not the way the world should be. But the question remains of what to do about it? How do we change the world?
I’m not aware that any one of us, any time soon, is going to be granted absolute executive power, so even my daydreams about doors and tables are an irrelevance, let alone our grander hopes for addressing the bigger problems. But the fact remains that I’m still one of those people who wants to leave the world better, or at least not worse, then when I arrived. So how do we change the world for good?
Well, I think that if the story of Jesus and the Devil in the wilderness were to offer us only one insight, it would be that seizing absolute power is not the answer. We may make our Faustian bargains, we may even strike the ultimate deal with the Devil, and rise to a position of supreme power; but the cost to our soul will always rob that power of its capacity to effect lasting change for good, because the power will have come from the wrong place. Power born of ambition will never truly serve the common good. And so Jesus declined Satan’s offer of all the kingdoms of the world for him to rule over, because he knew the terrible price that such power would exact.
But there is more wisdom on offer here than just the rejection of imposed imperial power, because in his rejection of the Devil, Jesus rewrote the script of how power can be used to effect change in the world. Jesus moves the game away from the desire to have power over people, to a new place of seeking to share power with people.
It turns out that the alternative to taking power over others is not them having power over you. Rather, there emerges in the life of Jesus a new way: the way of power shared, the way of power through collaboration, power through community. The empowering of the disempowered, and the raising up of the weak, consistently lie at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. And far from offering an example of unalloyed weakness, his life creates the possibility of a new way of being human, where the rules of using power to effect change are re-written.
Until this moment, power over others often appeared to be the only option. But Jesus calls followers to work with him to expose the lie of the false narratives by which societies construct themselves. You see, power over others is Satan’s great deception. We are deceived, if we come to believe that our desires are God’s desires; and that in doing our will, we are doing God’s will.
Such distortion of desire will always open the door to hell, because it displaces God from the centre of creation, replacing him with an idol made in our own image, through which we exercise our power over others. Jesus knew that it is relational power that will be the game-changer, as well as the world-changer. Because power held in relationship is never about ‘me’, and ‘my desires’; it is always about the other. Selfless power, as seen in the life of Jesus, is what makes the real difference.
Jesus consistently gave away power, seeking to build others up rather than asking them to worship him. And the church that he calls into being is, or at least should be, the supreme example of a collaborative community of shared power, against which not even hell itself can triumph. Jesus does not want to change the world on his own, but in relationship with others; and so, it seems to me, that those who follow Jesus should follow his example.
The church of Christ should never seek power over others, no matter how pure we may think our motives to be; and I would suggest that those times where Christianity has done its deals with power to get its message heard more widely, have resulted in a dilution of the radical message of the one who came to expose the lure of power over others for the insidious lie that it is. So when we find ourselves at our own crossroads of temptation, or abandoned in the wilderness of our deepest need; when we face our own moments of crisis and decision, I wonder what choices will we make?
Can we, I wonder, be so shaped by our engagement with the story of Christ, that our natural inclination will be to follow his path of rejecting power over others. Can we embrace the new way of being human that he opens before us? In the name of Christ, and for his sake, we are called to live and work collaboratively, across all borders and boundaries; we are called to find allies in unexpected places, to treat the other as our brother or sister, and to share together in the mystery that is power held through powerlessness, for the transformation of the world for good.