The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s012g14   Lent 1  9/3/2014   North New Brighton

'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'   Matthew 4.9

It is the devil who offers us rewards for our devotion.   It is the devil who offers us prestige, wealth and security, in exchange for our worship.   So I personally am extremely wary of those who promise health, wealth and happiness in this life, or some eternal life in the next, as a reward for our devotion.   We need to see the generous dollop of self interest in religion such as this.  The proponents of any sort of ‘prosperity gospel’ are both deluded and manipulative. (1)   But before we get too critical we need to recognise that the concept of heaven as a reward for our worship has been central to mainstream christian theology for centuries and this cannot escape the charge of being laced with a good deal of self-interest.   I have heard otherwise good and faithful pastors using the threat that they wouldn’t see loved ones again, failing to see the manipulation involved.

God does not need our worship.   God does not have an enormous inferiority complex that requires eternal assuaging by people required to not think and reason and make mistakes.   ‘God’s’ inferiority complex is not so huge that anyone not prepared to join in this eternal assuaging is condemned to damnation.   If heaven is an exercise in eternally placating an emotionally infantile ‘god’ then I want nothing of it!   And if ‘god' prefers the worship of compliant children believing in a minuscule universe rather than the worship of thinking and reasoning adults marvelling in the beauties of the atomic and the cosmic worlds, then that seems a very strange ‘god’ to me.

God didn’t send Jesus to die in order that people might worship the real God.   God isn’t that desperate!   Or manipulative!   God isn’t dying for us to worship, to get his or her name right, to worship in the correct manner, or to genuflect in all the right places!

Our gospel reading for today tells us that the devil is quite able to quote scripture for his purpose, which again should alert us to the fact that we should not instinctively trust everyone who quotes scripture to us.   Sometimes it seems the televangelists quote scripture that others might worship them.   But just how much of christian education is all about the learned teaching the uninitiated?   Be it the mysteries of the liturgy to the philosophy of the ancients - all reflect an undeniable affection for the status of teacher.   The place of the preacher in the congregation similarly reflects a power imbalance.   One of the favourite topics of the preacher during this time of Lent is to suggest what others might give up, or take on, during Lent.   Turning this around, I wonder if the real Lenten message is to the church, to give up her penchant for telling others what to do, how to live their lives, how to become more religious.   I wonder if the real Lenten message is to the church - to love others as equals, not to treat others as if they need to measure up.

In my reading of the gospels somehow Jesus never seems to come across as superior to others.  Indeed he seems to always challenge the presumed superiority of the orthodox and the devout.

The devil quotes psalm 91 but misses verse 7: 'A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.’   Again it is the devil who entices us to think we will be protected while others perish.   The God I worship is actually concerned about the thousand and the ten thousand too, be they unbelievers, sceptics, irreligious, poor, the outcast, the different, even the animals of the Ninevites. (2)   All human beings are precious.   Indeed the gospel is all about the preciousness of all others as well as ourselves.

Twice the devil tries to tempt Jesus to demonstrate how special he is: 'If you are the Son of God ..’ the devil says.   Yet down throughout the centuries the Church has wanted to demonstrate how special she is.   Jesus has died and risen for us alone - that is how special we are - and therefore others can become special like us only by becoming one of us???   Otherwise others are damned!!!   But Jesus resists the temptation.   He is incarnate into the world, not into a holy huddle of privileged, entitled, and separated ones.   And we are bidden to follow Jesus, to not proclaim or pretend to be better, more holy or more loving - but to be one with others.  

Again, twice the devil tries to get Jesus to prove, to himself or to others, how special he is.   Because Jesus also resists this temptation, neither do we have to prove, to ourselves or to others, that we are anything other than who we are.  

For me this shows up the gulf between status and love.   Love is always between equals, and the incarnation is God becoming equal to us, enabling us to actually love God rather than just fearing God, as well as enabling us to love others as equals.

So worship which entails falling down before the Almighty is based on fear whereas true worship is an expression of love - necessarily between equals.   The primal dignity of humanity - to stand on our own two feet before the Almighty - and therefore to think and reason and choose - is fundamental to true worship.   And thinking, reasoning and choosing implies that people will not all think, reason and choose identically - the frustration for liberal theologians.   The conservatives and the evangelicals delude themselves, and if they can others, pretending that they all believe the same thing.

And I reflect how little our services of worship incorporate thinking, reasoning and choosing.   Most often they are about proclaiming the truth rather than inviting questions.   We are told we are sinners, the scripture readings are proclaimed, the creeds define the true faith, we greet people whose names we do not know, and we have communion with the divine.   We are lumped together, defined en masse, and talked at.   Any individuality is submerged.   Parishioners are to be seen and not heard.   (Actually, to be fair, last Sunday I enjoyed celebrating and preaching at St John’s Hororata, and they have a space for discussion following the sermon each Sunday).  (3)

We live in a society defined by communication.   Much of it, of course, is virtual, yet I suspect that this reality is an inditement on the church where ‘ ommunion' is so often one-way.   And the communication revolution means that we are thrust into the midst of an enormous potpourri of beliefs - from which the church has tried to shield us.   We have begun to realise that there are millions of others, individuals just as sincere in their belief as ourselves, as well as those who sincerely cannot believe, all of whom seek the betterment of their brothers and sisters, as well as society as a whole.   If all these others have to bow down and worship ‘our’ god, I strongly suspect that this is not God speaking at all.

Of course, health becomes much more possible when we are in communion with others, the likelihood of war is much lessened when we are in communion with others, and so happiness is far more likely when we are in communion with others.   But implicitly all of these benefits extend to others too.   It needs to be stated that communion with others is actually likely to be far more beneficial to society than the number of people in church worshipping ‘god’, when that ‘god’ might actually be the devil in disguise.

(2) Jonah 4.11