A Cosmic Conflict

Today we find ourselves
in the desert,
as we do every year
on the first Sunday in Lent,
witnessing Jesus alone
in a barren landscape,
a place known then
not as an empty place,
but a place inhabited
by frightening evil.
It is there that Jesus
is tempted for 40 days by the devil.

At the end of those 40 days,
the devil, evil, slithers up
to Jesus, whispering in his ear,
with three final temptations,
temptations to power,
temptations to self-reliance,
temptations to prove himself.
And they start the same way,
questioning his identity:
IF you are the Son of God . . .

And of course, Jesus IS the son of God,
which means that, to us,
it seems obvious
he will prevail,
resisting evil and temptation.

But it wasn’t obvious then.
It wasn’t obvious to the great Tempter.

After all, he’d whispered into
the ears of many Sons of God;
Pharaoh, too, was called a son of God;
many of the caesars—
Julius, Augustus, Tiberius,
were seen as divine,
sons of god.

And those sons of god
eagerly accrued wealth and power,
whether demanding bread
by conscripting citizens’ grain
or building up their wealth
through onerous taxes.

Those sons of gods
were more than happy
to do whatever was necessary
to rule over the kingdoms of the world,
believing they had power
over life and death,
their own, others.

They did whatever
was necessary to protect
their power and authority,
building up their own
mythologies, ruling with iron fists.

The devil is used
to sons of god
acting in their own interest;
why wouldn’t he expect
Jesus to do the same?

There are many examples
throughout history of leaders
buying their own press,
believing they deserved
whatever they could lay their hands on,
heedless of the lives and welfare
of those they led,
of the countries around them.
They took what they wanted
because they could,
because they believed
they deserved it all.

And now we are seeing
how a caesar,
a posturing, deluded son of god
acts in real time
as the imperious Putin
turns to lies and violence
to solidify his power,
taking what he wants,
expanding empire.

Caesar Augustus,
the first Emperor of Rome,
created his own reality
by making sure
him images on coins
remained youthful
even when he was in his 70s,
just as Putin portrays himself
as a macho hero,
sparring at judo,
shirtless astride a horse.
Now he is trying
to control reality at war,
making false claims
about Ukraine;
shutting down independent media;
suppressing protests.
Some Kremlin watchers
have speculated that he might
bring back the mobile crematoriums
he used in other battles,
not to incinerate fallen enemies
but his own troops,
hiding casualties
to “avoid humiliation abroad”
and outcry out home.

Putin has created and now seems
to believe his own press.
It’s hard to know
where he will stop
as we watch a million refugees
fleeing their homeland,
with more to come;
as we see everyday citizens
defending their own homes and cities;
as in Kyiv people huddle underground
in Cold War-era subway stations
built for transportation and
as air-raid shelters.
We see Russians protesting
in the streets amidst
a strong crackdown;
over 7,000 have been arrested.

Putin, in love with,
blinded by, power,
seems undeterred.

What is to stop
a caesar who has
eagerly said “yes”
to the devil’s temptations,
who delights in gobbling up
kingdoms of the world,
worshipping only his own cause,
trusting only in his own vision?

What stops this madness?

I don’t know.
I’m not a statesperson.
I’m no expert
in post-Soviet Union politics.
And I’m no lover of war.
As I said in my “Dear Friends” letter
the Friday before last,
“I am, at heart and by faith, a pacifist, a lover of peace, a hater of all violence . . . . War is madness and sin. We who follow the Prince of Peace must always seek another way . . . .”

I can never glorify war or violence.
Still, we are inspired
by the Ukrainian people right now,
not because of their fighting,
though that they do
out of necessity,
but because they are the opposite
of a Caesar seeking
to expand power,
to control reality,
harm others,
hide the reality of death,
to burnish his image.

Rather, they are choosing
a terribly vulnerable way.
A somewhat inexperienced president,
recently struggling in the polls,
now a hero,
staying in the country,
risking assassination,
making videos of himself
to encourage his people
and continuing to plead for peace.

Average people risking
their lives to protect
the people and home they love.

They are not hiding death,
nor hiding from it.

That can only be admired.

And that is what gets us about Jesus,
son of God,
who chooses not the power
offered him by the King of Lies,
but rather to rely
on the power of God.
He doesn’t choose
his own comfort—bread—
in the moment,
but to put his faith in God.
Nor does he hide from death.

He is so secure in his own identity,
knowing who and whose he is,
that, unlike those others
who grasp at worldly titles,
pretending at divinity,
Jesus humbly falls back
upon God, Abba,
rather than seeking
power for himself,
the power that distorts,
that holds others’ lives cheaply.

That kind of political power
isn’t what the Gospel is about,
after all, although there IS power
in the Gospel,
and Jesus is powerful,
just not in the way
the world usually celebrates.

The power that the Gospel declares
is God’s intention, God’s power,
to free us from sin and death.
God engages in
a “cosmic conflict”
with the powers and principalities
for love of us.

It’s a war waged on the cross.
It’s a war won in an empty tomb.

Like all wars,
it is bloody and violent.
For the devil, evil,
returns at an opportune time,
at the betrayal, the trial,
at Jesus’ crucifixion.

But Jesus meets violence with peace,
choosing the humble way
over the powerful one,
refusing to compromise with evil
or to fight it on its own terms,
making clear that a true Son of God
lays down his life,
vulnerable to death
in order to defeat it.

And that, Beloved,
is why we follow Him.