It’s Christ the King Sunday, but I find myself stuck in the wilderness. Jesus is there too; this is the moment, after forty days of fasting, that Jesus faces temptation. And although this is an alien looking landscape, and a mysterious, liminal confrontation with powers and principalities, the temptations he faces are very familiar: security, power, fame.
Jesus rejects the temptations, of course, because his path goes through the wilderness rather than avoiding it. He will still become king over all, he’ll still be enthroned, but that throne will be a cross and his coronation has crucifixion as a centrepiece.
It would be a mistake to see this temptation as a unique moment. Because while this is renowned as the moment that launched Jesus’s ministry, it’s also a moment that repeats itself, constantly, throughout the life of the Church.
Temptation is a choice, every time, and often we fail. That’s a fact of life, and praise the Lord for his mercy and grace. Forgiveness is at the heart of faith, and I rely on this far more than I like to admit.
But sometimes temptation leads us into dark places, and sometimes we dance collectively into that darkness because, let’s face it, while the Church will always brand itself as Christ’s, too often we end up rejecting him because we prefer to choose Saul as our actual king.
Saul is, after all, handsome. Saul is powerful. Saul is a warrior. “Give us a king!” we cry, and in doing so we reject the one who already has the job. And when we do this, things change; the Body of Christ mutates into Christendom, and people start getting scared.
This is a blasphemy, of course, and a heresy. We envisage enemies at the gates, we hallucinate a Fifth Column within, taking all we have. The fasting Jesus was challenged to turn rocks to bread, and that’s a temptation born out of scarcity, of security. When we ask for stones to be made into loaves, it’s a lack of faith. After all, where would we stop? Provision becomes prosperity, we think we’re sating our greed but in reality it always becomes more. We make ourselves rich while others starve outside our gates, and we like kings who encourage that prosperity.
Power is another concern. We like power. Someone has to slay our enemies, someone has to weed out the traitors, someone has to bomb the bad guys and make all the thugs and the terrorists get into line. And if you can achieve that, well, you’d be a legend, a star, everyone would look up to you, praise you, kneel before you. Don’t worry about all the menial things, you can always subcontract the foot washing if you want.
It’s easy to give into temptation. It’s easy to ignore that Christ is on the throne. It’s easy to set up our own imperial cults that code our own baser desires. Voices within our congregations will claim that the biggest threat facing our churches is same-sex marriage, or radical Islam, or liberals or conservatives. I suspect the greatest threat is a more insidious thing.
It’s Christendom’s Empire facing down the power of God’s Kingdom.
It’s the structures that have given in to the wilderness temptations beating down those who resisted those same temptations.
It’s triumphalism crushing others underfoot.
It’s praising Christ as King but following someone else because we think they’re going to save us and our faith.
Institutions don’t save. Politicians, priests an emperors don’t save. Jesus saves, and as the Church, we’re just here to provide ground support. And we can’t do that without being rooted in Christ himself, not surrogates or substitutes. Maybe that’s our cue to start refocusing on the one who’s really on the throne rather than building our own empire. It’s far too easy to become the ones doing the crucifying rather than those who look to the King on the Cross; we become radicalised rather than sanctified.
We’re all in the wilderness, every one. The question is, who do we follow out of the desert?