“The Temptation of Power”
Scripture – Luke 4:1-13
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, March 6, 2022

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set the world on edge. Horrifying images of indiscriminate bombings of densely populated civilian areas, drone video of apartment buildings demolished, and frightening footage of a nuclear power plant recklessly set ablaze have displayed the face of evil. The brutal killing of innocent civilians has reminded us that ruthless leaders driven by a might-makes-right mentality can unleash widespread human suffering – suffering that is vicious and cruel and wicked.

What is happening to the people of Ukraine is unconscionable. However, this is not only about a bully nation invading and attempting to control its neighbor. It represents a much broader struggle between those whose highest value is the power to dominate and those who stand for basic human rights. It is a battle between those who see human beings as subjects to be manipulated and those who see others as persons created in the image of God.

Today’s scripture reading is aimed at the values we hold and the temptations we face that can veer us off the path of what is right and true and good.

Jesus was about 30 when he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The Gospel of Luke informs us that after the baptism, God’s Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of spiritual boot camp.

God had an unparalleled mission for Jesus, but since God has given freedom to humanity, Jesus had to decide whether he would embrace or reject God’s intent for him. Our passage is clear that this was no simple matter. Jesus was tempted to reject the way of God in favor of a less demanding path. A path that would require less discipline, less courage, and less fortitude. Who has not known the temptation of taking the easy way out of a challenging situation?

Our passage says that after 40 days in this harsh environment, Jesus was famished. And at this moment when he was running on empty, the Prince of Darkness appeared with a tempting proposition. Why not turn one of these stones into bread?

Of course, this is not really about performing a supernatural miracle. It is about something deeper. We cannot fill the emptiness within simply with food. Beyond our physical needs there are deeper hungers in our souls – the spiritual food that makes life rich. With this first temptation is the subtle suggestion that we can satisfy our hungers on our own and have no need for God.

Jesus deflected the first temptation, but the tempter rushed in with a second. Jesus found himself in a location where he could see the kingdoms of the world. A voice whispered, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

It is this second temptation that speaks loudly to us today. It targets Jesus’ ego and desire for power. It is the desire to be at the top of the heap where you can command and control, and answer to no one.

The desire for power tempts any person who is in leadership. It has enticed many a ruler to believe he knows what is best and is therefore justified in whatever it takes to solidify his grip.

Seminary professor, Leah Schade, writes, “The ones who originally heard this story knew what it was like to see empires try to bring down the nations that resisted their iron fist. The cult of Caesar, like every dictator before and every dictator after, thinks itself to be God. Or at least so closely aligned with the gods, that they are completely subsumed by their own sense of self-importance…We are watching a version of this malignant power invade a peaceful country. This malignant power that has designs to expand its reach even further.”1

What makes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine especially dangerous is it appears that Russian President Putin will stop at nothing to conquer Ukraine. Issuing an ominous warning, he said, “To anyone who would consider interfering from outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any of you have faced in history.” Chilling words from a man who appears he will stop at nothing to achieve the conquest he desires.

How do people of faith respond to war? Some may say that followers of Jesus cannot be involved in or support armed conflict. There is no doubt that the central thrust of Jesus’ ministry was love, compassion, and forgiveness. We should resist acting out of revenge and we should work for peace. However, Jesus never counseled that we should allow murderers to run free. Jesus was appalled at human suffering and like the Jewish prophets before him, he decried injustice and oppression.

If you read a mere five verses beyond today’s passage, you will find the first sermon of Jesus. In it he said that “He was sent to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free.”

Christian love does not entail going soft on injustice. Christian love recognizes the reality of evil and staunchly opposes it. Love affirms life and resists those who kill and destroy. In our world today, freeing the oppressed will, at times, require the use of force.

Two days ago, a well-known columnist wrote: “The events in Ukraine have been a moral atrocity and a political tragedy, but for people around the world, a cultural revelation. It’s not that people around the world believe new things, but many of us have been reminded what we believe, and we believe them with more fervor, with more conviction.”2

Indeed, many of us have been stirred from our slumber. The Russian invasion of a sovereign nation has reminded us of what is worth fighting for. It matters to support fundamental human rights. It matters to uphold freedom. It matters to demand justice for all. It matters to be relentless in opposing oppression and dedicated to working for the common good.

Ordinary Ukrainian citizens have been so inspiring as they have lined up to serve in the military. Ukrainians living safely in western Europe and even here in the United States have returned to Ukraine to resist the violent aggression and to defend their homeland.

Vasyk Didyk, a 26-year-old carpenter who lives in New York was originally from Ukraine. After seeing the Russian invasion, he and his Ukrainian friend decided they had to act. He said, “We cannot stay in our comfortable lives in America and watch what is happening. I haven’t been back to Ukraine for four years – but it wasn’t even a choice. I had to go and help my country.”3 The two flew to Poland and crossed the border into Ukraine to do whatever they are called to do. Such courage.

And it is not only Ukrainians who have been inspiring. Did you see the diminutive 90-something Russian woman who stood in a public place and held signs opposing the war? Half a dozen Russian police arrested her and took her away. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens have protested the invasion of Ukraine and thousands have been arrested. Such bravery.

And what about Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine? The former comedian turned political leader has refused to flee his country, saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Such fearlessness.

Heroes of all stripes are reminding us what it means to believe in fundamental human rights and to be willing to put your well-being in jeopardy to stand up for them.

While we lament the suffering of the Ukrainian people, we also cheer their grit and their early success in slowing the Russian army. However, I fear this war will not end well.

Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he intends to rebuild the Russian empire by conquering land and people. As one foreign policy expert put it: “He will not accept his place in history as just another Russian leader who lost to the West.”4 What keeps us anxious is wondering to what lengths he will go to insure victory in Ukraine?

I am far from being a military strategist, but what I know about human psychology prompts me to worry about what Putin might do if it appears he will lose. He has already commanded his nuclear weapons forces to be on high alert. I pray that it is only bluster and he will not try to go out in an apocalyptic blaze of glory.

Of course, this is what prevents our country from entering the war and calling for a “no fly” zone. As you are aware, if we shoot down a Russian jet, the world’s two nuclear superpowers will be at war. It would be the world’s worst nightmare.

Countless people around the planet share the concern that Putin will go to any lengths not to lose. A couple of days ago I typed into the Google search engine: “Does Vladimir” just those two words. And before I hit another key, the question I was going to ask popped up as the number one search. What do millions around the world want to know? “Does Vladimir Putin have children?” People hope that the chief deterrence to a nuclear holocaust might be family. It is at least mildly comforting to know that he has two daughters. But would even that stop him?

It has been inspiring to see the overwhelming majority of nations denounce the Russian invasion and to find ways to support the people of Ukraine. It has been reassuring to see the long list of businesses – including mammoth oil companies – pulling out of Russia. I applaud the sports organizations that are banning Russian teams from participating. It has been inspiring to see European nations take economic moves to pressure Russia despite the heavy cost to themselves. It has been hopeful to witness the nonviolent strategies designed to impose severe economic consequences on Putin, powerful Russian oligarchs, Russian businesses, and the Russian economy. Hopefully such actions will break through the propaganda the Russian people are being fed and prompt increasing internal pressure that demands for Putin to either stop his war or be removed from power.

However, while hopeful, I’m not naïve. Many more lives will be lost and there is no guarantee that Ukraine will not fall. I pray that the opposition to Russia’s invasion will remain steadfast and that this will be a lesson to the people of the world that it matters that we resist the misuse of power. And finally, I pray that we never tire – NEVER TIRE – from striving for justice and working for peace.


  1. Leah D. Schade, “Resisting Malignant Power: What the Temptation of Jesus Teaches Us,” Patheos.com, February 28, 2022.
  2. David Brooks, “The Week That Awoke the World,” The New York Times, March 4, 2022.
  3. Tara John, Anne Claire Stapleton and Joseph Ataman, “It is not just Ukraine we are protecting,” CNN, March 4, 2022.
  4. Clint Watts, “The West doesn’t want to push Putin toward using nuclear weapons. It might not matter,” The Washington Post, March 3, 2022.