Then the Devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in all their greatness. “All this I will give you,” the Devil said, “if you kneel down and worship me.”
Then Jesus answered, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!’”
Then the Devil left Jesus; and angels came and helped him. Matthew 4 v 8-10
Yesterday in our Thought for the Day, we looked at testing times; when the Devil tested Jesus’s knowledge of scripture by telling him to throw himself down from the highest point of the temple because the scriptures said that God would protect and save him. Of course Jesus’s reply was to quote the scriptures that say not to put God to the test and he chose to step back from the edge of the highest point of the temple. In our verses from both yesterday and today, Jesus is up high, looking down and considering what lies before him. Our first reading of this part of the temptation story usually makes us think of power, in fact, we have coined the phrase “having the world at your feet” from this verse. I am struck by the fact that Jesus never chooses “power over”, in this instance and throughout his life; Christ always chooses to serve as is seen in his reply “worship the Lord your God and serve only Him”.
Imagine that high up feeling, looking down at your prospects. Think about similar times you have experienced heights: perhaps on a mountain top with feelings of accomplishment and awe at the view or alternatively having a sense of your own insignificance when taking in the vast horizon. Reaching a peak in your career or relationships or fitness having climbed to the top and then thinking “what now?”. Staring into a valley or chasm, especially for those with a fear of heights, can be a very unsettling and alarming feeling and if we think of that physical experience metaphorically, being faced with an overwhelming landscape, a huge void to cross, a map, a journey stretched out before us that we have no idea how to start navigating…..that view can be totally overwhelming. It seems to me that this is a characteristic of liminal space; if we focus too much on all that is stretched out before us instead of staying in the moment, in the present, it gets too much. We often speak of “fear of the unknown”. The fear comes from trying to understand and control the unknown when actually, what we are being invited to do, is to stop looking at the view, to come back down to ground level and start taking small steps, enough for today.
In the liminal space, such as Jesus 40 days or our own lockdown time, the old touchstones, habits, and comforts are now past, the future unknown. We don’t like it, we wish such a time to be over. We are impatient to pass through it quickly, with as little distress as possible, even though that is not likely. The Devil tempted Jesus to think that to have “power over” things was the answer but Christ, as ever, showed a new way – to worship and serve God in all times – Christ, the Servant King.
We heard a little about Sheryl Fullerton yesterday, Christian editor and author. When faced with the scary horizon of a cancer diagnosis, Sheryl did not look too far ahead but focussed on entering fully into the experience – yes, the experience of cancer, accepting that this was part of her life and opening herself to what the experience could teach and offer her. She writes: “One transformation in this liminal time of cancer treatment and recovery was my recognition that the staggering vulnerability I was experiencing was not weakness, not shameful, but the source of what would allow me to survive and, eventually, to thrive. I allowed others to see me—not just my broken, lopsided face, but also my pain, sorrow, disappointment, and discouragement, as well as my gratitude, resilience, joy, and recovery. ”
Vulnerability is powerful; it opens us to the unknown, unlived parts of life that contain untapped riches. I wonder whether it is, then, also the realm of the Holy Spirit, our comforter, who does not take away the vastness and possibility of this opened-up threshold time, but invites us to lay down our fears and discomfort to see what else is there, hard as that may be.