One of my favourite personal memories comes from a childhood Christmas. It relates to the Thunderbirds action-adventure series which was then screening on TV. Some of you may remember it. For me, as a little boy, it was a great thrill that Christmas morning to receive the gift of a Thunderbirds ‘International Rescue’ costume, complete with Thunderbirds hat, belt and sash. I recall putting the costume on in the early morning and wearing it all day, including walking in it the mile or so through our little town, all the way to church and back that morning. Such are the simple unembarrassed pleasures of childhood! Looking back however, what I most remember is the sense of freedom I felt: the freedom of being a really grown-up special agent, ready for anything. Which, in a way, is quite interesting, because, if anyone recalls much about Thunderbirds today, it is usually the astonishing woodenness of the production. How amateur it seems now, with all our modern TV and film production values. For all the Thunderbirds characters were marionettes, puppets, with very fixed expressions, and you could always see their strings. They weren’t at all free, in that sense. They were very one dimensional, and highly manipulated.
What is all that to do with the story of the temptations of Jesus in our Gospel reading, you may wonder? Well, exactly this: the story of the temptations of Jesus challenge us to freedom, the freedom of the children of God. It calls on us to be more than one dimensional people, who are highly manipulated. It requires of us to cut the strings from the things which are operating us. It asks us to become more than mere lifelike puppets, and more like the special agent of freedom I felt like as a little child: God’s special, free, agents...
Everyone has something which most manipulates and pulls their strings. The three temptations of Jesus remind us of three of these things. The first is the desire for material satisfactions: be they about food, possessions, or what used to be called ‘sins of the flesh’, which include not just sex, but other desires for earthly saitsfactions. It is not that these things are in themselves bad things. They may actually be very good for us. Note well that Jesus, quoting the Bible, says ‘you shall not live by bread alone’. He does not say bread, or any other material things are, in themselves, bad. It is only when they get in the way of our relationship with God that they are problems. For then they for can turn us into puppets, pulled about desire for them. Similarly, in the second and third of Jesus’ temptations, the desire for success, and the desire for power and control, can become powerful forces turning us into their puppets. Instead of sharing the freedom of the love of God, we are then pulled by strings: manipulated by the things which really rule our lives.
Another way of thinking about this is to think of a jack-in-box. What happens with a jack-in-a-box? It is like another kind of puppet existence, isn’t it? If you press a button, up pops the jack-in-a-box. Whenever the button is pressed, up pops the puppet. It can’t do anything about it. It has no freedom. So it is with us, in whatever we are addicted to. It might be drugs, or alcohol, or gambling, or sex. They are the obvious and simple addictions. Press one of those buttons and some human beings are just like jack-in-boxes. They are puppets who are tied to their impulses. But everyone is like that. Everyone has something which presses our buttons and turns us into puppets. These may be less public vices and addictions but they are just as real, and perhaps even more difficult to overcome. For we might be addicted to power or control, weath or success, to anger, envy, disappointment, suffering, gosspi or mischief-making. A whole host of things may press our buttons and make us powerless to resist. Up we fly, like a jack-in-a-box once more, prisoners to our desires and emotions, dancing on a set of strings.
What Jesus did in the wilderness was to resist being a jack-in-a-box. He failed to respond to the buttons the devil pressed: those, oh so tempting buttons, of material satisfaction, success and power. He chose not to be a puppet, to anyone or anything. He chose to be free: a free child of God, sharing the love of God which is true freedom. For God pulls no strings and there are no strings on Jesus.
I guess that is what I felt as a little boy that Christmas. Sure, the Thunderbirds puppets had strings but there were no strings on me. I was free to be the little boy, the person that God wanted me to be. I wasn’t a puppet, I was a child of God, clothed in a uniform of love. Isn’t that what we all really want to be? Like Pinocchio, we don’t really want to be puppets. We want to be real boys and girls.
Not being a puppet, not being a jack-in-a box, takes time and the grace of God. Why, even when we start to feel like a real child of God, we can start to go backwards. Like Pinocchio, our lies, evasions and regressions catch us out. If our nose doesn’t grow longer, then our soul feels heavier. Sometimes it can seem as if we will never lose the strings that bind us, or that pressing our buttons will always make us jump. But we should never lose heart. Lent is the time for getting out of the boxes which entrap us. It is the time for cutting our strings and asking God to help us be real children once more: real boys and girls capable of being free and living by love alone. Thunderbirds Are Go!
How do we do this? The story of the temptations of Jesus gives a clue. We need to take time apart so that we can identify, and face up to. the strings which bind us and the buttons which make us jump. This requires us to let go of some things so that we can spend time with God. It doesn’t necessarily mean literally going out into the widlerness and fasting for 40 days. We may even find it very helpful to walk with others, to study the scriptures together, and to support one another in prayer and conversation. Yet at some stage we also need to find time and space to be with God alone.
I don’t know about you, but I find it quite hard to be alone with God. Even when I am praying or meditating, all kinds of other things start filling my mind and consciousness. Some of these things may even be very good things, but they are still distractions: strings pulling my attention away from what really matters. We have to learn to be still, to know God. For in stillness of mind, and heart, and body, all the strings fall away and we begin to know the love of God and the true freedom it brings. That is why, for me, Christian meditation has become increasingly important. For it gradually helps us come to our true centre: not pulled around by a myriad of desires and needs, but able to be fully alive in the peace and love of God.
I think that, in the wilderness, Jesus grew in that aliveness, in that centredness. He became more deeply aware that God’s love as the only thing which truly matters. When he knew that, every other thought or desire feel away. They could not press his buttons. So it is for us. Unlike Jesus, we may still have some strings, but, by God’s grace, we can learn to treat them lightly. We may still have buttons but we will not jump so high or so often. We will acknowledge our temptations and not run away from them. We will face them in the power of the love of God. They will then be our friends and not our masters. Such is the challenge but also the promise of Lent. For we may face the cross but we are children of Resurrection. We are born to be free. In the name of the One who had no strings, and who is no puppet master either: our true centre, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.