On the Temptation of Power
February 26, 2023
Psalm 32: 2, 10-11
What joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’“ Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’“ Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’“ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’“ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Temptation of Power. This a sermon I offered previously.
I heard a story this week about a young boy who grew up in another country on the other side of the world in the aftermath of the second world war. I will warn you that it is a sad story, but we do not yet know how the story will end, so perhaps there is still hope. He has a slovic name that means “ruler of the world” or “ruler of peace.” Before the war, and before he was born, his parents had a nice home and enjoyed many comforts. His family had connections. But the war changed everything. The father went into the army and the mother, who already had one young child, had a very difficult time. Their home was lost in the war. At one point, the mother fainted from lack of food and was assumed dead; she was even laid out with the corpses before she regained consciousness and called out for help. After that, her child, a son not yet 2, was sent to live in a Children’s home. It was not long before he caught diphtheria and died. Meanwhile, the father was on the front lines in war where he was severely injured by shrapnel from a grenade tossed into his trench. It took him most of a year to recover, but he eventually reunited with his wife and within a year, they had two sons; one survived and the other did not.
The little boy grew, but post-war conditions were appalling. His mother found work in a factory and his father built train cars even though he was severely challenged in his mobility from his war wounds. They lived in a tenement building with several other families where there was only a shared kitchen with one gas burner, no hot water, no tub for bathing, and an abundance of rats that the young boy would chase with sticks.*
That young boy grew up to become a lawyer and now, although no one knows for sure, he is thought to perhaps be the wealthiest man in the world. His name is Vladimir Putin.
According to Dr. Jeremy Nicholson, there are two main reasons that people develop an insatiable appetite for power. One reason is that in their own personal lives, they have experienced a lack of control during trying, sometimes traumatic, circumstances. The leadership style that arises from such circumstances is what psychologists refer to as “soft power” where the leader develops “mutually-supportive relationships with others based on cooperation. That strategy reduces stress and increases overall well-being (in both leader and followers). Essentially, this is the effect of a power-with-others strategy, which ultimately creates a win-win situation.”
The other reason that some people are driven to obtain positions of power is based on a fundamental lack of trust in others. Again, trauma (especially childhood trauma) is often a factor. This lack of trust is the main motivating force behind those seeking to create what psychologists call “hard power.” “These individuals tend to be more aggressive, sensitive to threats, and self-focused. They are also inclined to intimidate, threaten, and bully others to get their way. Unfortunately, that strategy results in stress and anxiety for the leader and followers, reducing motivation and well-being for everyone. This is the impact of relying solely on a power-over-others strategy, which ultimately results in a lose-lose situation for all involved.”**
Two days ago we marked the one year anniversary of Putin’s most recent offensive against the people of Ukraine. Serendipitously, our lectionary offers us the story of Jesus in the wilderness. He is not alone. Whether the result of extreme hunger or thirst, or the result of some spiritual shift in his consciousness, he is besieged by what our translation identifies as “the devil.” The word for devil that would have been used in the earliest telling of this story is ha-satan ( שטן) which is an Aramaic and Hebrew word meaning “adversary,” or “opponent.”
Whether literal or figurative, this opposing force challenges Jesus in three ways. First, to use his power to turn the stone to bread and feed himself. Jesus does not use his power to benefit himself, not now and not in any other story we have about his life and ministry. His power is always and exclusively used to the benefit of others. Secondly, this opposing force challenges Jesus to denounce God in exchange for power over “all the kingdoms of the world.” Jesus does not take the bait. He quotes the ancient Hebrew scriptures and affirms that his allegiance belongs to God and to God alone. Thirdly, Jesus is challenged to test God’s promise of protection by throwing himself off of the temple heights. Again he refuses. He will not use his power for personal gain. He will not use his power to make unholy alliances with the force of darkness and destruction, and he will not put his power on display to prove his worth.
What a lesson for modern times, my Friends. In our own country we have politicians who seem to have completely forgotten that their job is to use their power to serve the people they represent; instead there are those using their power and influence to spread untruths that in no way serve the people they represent, untruths about the last election being so rife with fraud that it was invalid, untruths about the insurgency we witnessed on 1-6, in real time and with our own eyes, was not what it appeared to be. Jesus did not use his power for his own gain; he used it to serve others.
Across the sea, the leader of the largest country on earth with one of the smallest GNP per capita of any developed nation, is using his power to annihilate a neighboring sovereign nation. I find it nearly impossible to imagine the magnitude of the disconnect that could lead someone to make such a choice. He is clearly operating under the influence of terrible trauma from his past and, like the psychologists identified, an underlying and severe lack of trust. Vladimir Putin’s worldly power is like a house of cards. When offered authority over “all the kingdoms of the world” Jesus declined. “Worship God; serve only God,” he said.
In closing, I lift up Jesus’s final response, “Do not put God to the test.” In this I hear a message to each and every one of us. In our relationships with family and friends, in our workplace, in our church, and in our community, we must exercise a responsible use of whatever measure of power and influence we have to serve the greater good. Too many Christians, all around the world, are quick to throw up their hands in the face of big problems. Some may even say, “What can one person do? It’s up to God.” I disagree. Do not put God to the test. Do something. Prayer is something. Mending relationships is something. Smiling at strangers is something. Voting is something. We can all do something, Friends. Let’s use our power to keep faith and hope and democracy alive, together. So be it. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer: God of morning and God of night, draw us closer to the place within us where Your love is all there is. Remove the illusion that we are separate from one another and remind us that as we nurture and heal ourselves, we, in some small and magnificent way, are serving the greater whole of humanity. As we remember our brothers and sisters in despair, help us to bear the weight of empathy and compassion as we share their burdens. Strengthen us to live in this world we love and to remain centered within you, where all goodness, compassion and love find their source. And in Jesus’s name, let us pray the prayer He gifted us… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Dearest Beloved, we come again to this quiet place, where the concerns that press most heavily upon us can rise to the very surface of our awareness. With the illumination of Your Holy Light, help us to see more clearly what we need to hold onto, what we need to work through, and what we need to let go of. Remind us, when we question, that Your presence is alive within us, preceding before us, inspiring us in the moment, and supporting us when we falter. We ask blessings on those who are without, those who are in pain, and those who are frightened. May we be receptive to Your Holy Spirit working through us to nurture them and nurture ourselves, in ways unexpected and profound. This I ask in Christ’s name. Amen.