February 11, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for this coming Sunday, February 14, 2016. First Sunday of Lent, Year C.
Scriptures for this week:
The soundtrack for my sermon this week included Billy Joe Shaver, “The Devil Made Me Do It The First Time“; Tom Waits, “Temptation” and “Way Down in the Hole“; “Red Right Hand,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; and Kris Kristofferson, “To Beat the Devil.“
As always, for those who’d rather listen, or who wish to follow along, an audio link is embedded below.
Our Gospel lesson today began, Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.
He was coming back from his baptism. You may recall that the Spirit fell on Jesus at his baptism, and God’s voice affirmed him: You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness (Luke 3.22).
And now the beloved Son is being led by the Spirit into the wilderness.
The wilderness? Why is the Spirit leading Jesus there? Doesn’t he have parables to preach and disciples to disciple? Why isn’t he on the way to the temple to turn over some tables? Shouldn’t he be out healing the blind and casting out demons? Or at least inviting some tax collectors to dinner?
Of all the places for the Spirit to be leading Jesus, why the wilderness?
There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving.
And just like that, we’re hearing all sorts of Old Testament echoes. Moses fasted forty days and nights while he was up on Mount Sinai writing out the Ten Words on the stone tablets. Elijah had fasted forty days on his way to Mount Horeb to meet with God.
Probably the loudest echo we hear, though, is Israel’s time in the wilderness. Near the end of that journey, Moses told them: Remember the long road on which the Lord your God led you during these forty years in the desert so he could humble you, testing you to find out what was in your heart: whether you would keep his commandments or not. He humbled you by making you hungry (Deut. 8.2-3a).
Jesus would later teach his disciples a prayer that ends, don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one (Matt. 6.13). And yet, here’s a story where the Holy Spirit has led Jesus to be tempted by the devil. Perhaps Jesus told his disciples to pray that from personal experience. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody!
Jesus’ baptism had been an Exodus of sorts. All baptisms are. And on the other side of his Exodus, he found himself in the wilderness. Like his ancestors. Hungry. And being tested.
For forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil. In the older testament, the devil was called ha satan. Satan, the devil—those are titles, not proper names. The devil—or the satan—was sort of like God’s prosecuting attorney in the Hebrew scriptures. In the book of Job, for instance, he asks: Does Job revere God for nothing? Haven’t you fenced him in—his house and all he has—and blessed the work of his hands (Job 1.9-10)?
In the third chapter of Zechariah, the prophet sees the Adversary—the devil, the satan—standing by God’s right side to accuse the high priest Joshua.
The Holy Spirit has just led Jesus—still wet behind the ears from his baptism Exodus—into the wilderness to come face to face with the devil. His accuser. His adversary. His opposition. The nagging voice that insists it’s impossible for him to live in God’s world God’s way.
And dropping hints that there is, perhaps, an easier, softer way for him to go instead.
TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL
The devil comes to tempt Jesus after has not eaten for forty days, and he is starving. That’s when the old snake in the grass strikes: Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.
The devil proposed this to Jesus, who taught us to pray: Give us this day our daily bread. Jesus, who fed 5,000 with sardines and crackers borrowed from a kid’s lunch pail. Those would come later. But that day in the wilderness, the devil’s crowbar to pry Jesus off his way was his own empty belly.
You know, a dude that can turn stone into bread could feed a lot of hungry people. Why, it’d be sinful for him not to turn stones into bread!
The devil put this idea in Jesus’ head while Jesus was starving. But Jesus had more or less chosen this fast. What about all the hungry people who have not chosen their fast? Who have a fast imposed on them by poverty? Don’t you care about the hungry, Jesus? Turn those stones into bread!
Jesus looks right at the devil and quotes scripture at him: It’s written, People won’t live only by bread. That’s Deuteronomy 8.3. More or less what Jesus is saying is: It’s better to starve to death than to sell out. If I have to sell out to save a life—even my own—will that life even be worth living?
Next, Luke tells us, the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me—bow to me, acknowledge my authority, pledge your allegiance—it will all be yours.”
If Jesus has control of all the kingdoms of the world, he can put an end to war and poverty and corruption and sex trafficking. Wouldn’t it be a sin not to bow to Satan? He wouldn’t even have to mean it! Jesus, you’re telling us you’d rather have the Crusades and the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Holocaust than violate your principles? How self-righteous!
But Jesus just quoted Deuteronomy at the devil again: It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him. That’s Deuteronomy 6.13. Jesus came to unleash the kingdom of God on earth. Not to annex the kingdoms of the world. The devil is a judgmental, slanderous, backbiting, bloodthirsty, wheeling-dealing-and-show-stealing creep. Jesus knew that if he took over the devil’s way, he’d just be a puppet king—like Herod was for the Romans.
The devil had to try a new tactic. Jesus likes quoting Scripture. So the devil decided to quote Scripture back at him. The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because it was also our Psalm reading today.
The devil essentially suggested that Jesus could use the angels as his personal security force. That temptation came up again later. Remember what Jesus told Peter when he tried to fight off the men who came to arrest Jesus? Do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? (Matt. 26.53).
The devil was really tempting Jesus to rule the world with shock and awe. To ride in with a battalion of angels and take over. To impose the kingdom of heaven by force.
The reason I think this temptation is such a low-blow on the devil’s part is he’s basically saying to Jesus: You know, you don’t have to die. You don’t have to suffer. Forget about getting your feet nailed to a cross. You call down that angel army, you won’t even stub your toe on a rock!
Jesus, again, quotes Deuteronomy at the devil. Deuteronomy 6.16: It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God. That’s Jesus’ way of affirming that he chooses the foolishness and powerlessness of the cross—the way God has set for him. He did not go to the cross as a reckless daredevil. He moved toward the cross, as the old song puts it, With fears within and foes without. Remember—Jesus was fully human. He felt fear and loneliness and pain as deeply—if not more—than any of us. But he also went trusting that his powerlessness would mean God’s victory. Trusting that God would defeat the demonic forces that conspired not only to kill him, but that keep God’s world in bondage. He went to the cross trusting that death will not have the final word.
Luke tells us that, After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. I suspect that next opportunity is Luke 22.3, when Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot; and Judas betrayed Jesus; and Jesus was arrested; and the disciples were scattered. Would Jesus still cling to his virtues—would he still trust God all the way to the cross—when he was sold out and abandoned? But that’s a story for another day.
DELIVER US FROM SHORTCUTS
This encounter between Jesus and the devil really speaks to the nature of temptation itself. It’s not just a story of Jesus being tempted. It’s the story of all temptation. Mine and yours, too.
First, let’s talk about the cosmic boogeyman who haunts the pages of the Bible. The Satan. The devil. Whatever else the devil may be, he is not some gremlin with a forked tail, horns, and a trident running around in a red unitard causing chaos just because he can. He probably did not give you a flat tire or cancer. Most likely he is not unleashing rockslides and tsunamis and giggling about it. If we see the devil’s role develop in Scripture—from Job to Zechariah to here—we’ll see that the devil has a deeply-ingrained, exacting sense of justice. He seems bent—for whatever reason—on showing God that humans are worthless. That he’s wasting his time and his love on us. That even the ones he has named his children—like Jesus—are just too weak to bring God any satisfaction. The devil failed miserably with Jesus, but this seems to have been his game.
I want to suggest that we often hear a voice, deep in us, that tells us we are no good. That we are unlovable. That we’re never going to measure up. That we deserve nothing but wrath and punishment. I’m also going to suggest that we project that onto others. We become deeply suspicious of our neighbors. After all—we’re all rotten. We may even take delight in seeing the weaknesses and shortcomings of others exposed. In seeing “bad guys” get their comeuppance. We might even call that justice. Well, the Bible has another word for all that. It’s the devil. It’s Satan.
Here’s something else to notice. And this is absolutely crucial. Every temptation the devil offered was a shortcut. A way for Jesus to avoid the hard and humiliating work of the cross, for sure. But also a way for Jesus to bypass the challenging, painful, messy work of loving challenging, hurting, messy people. Why be vulnerable to these messed-up people who will crucify your heart before they ever crucify your body? Why, when you can fill them with bread, dazzle them with spectacles, and put down any opposition with a band of angel soldiers?
Also, did you notice that every temptation the devil threw Jesus’ way was a simple matter of, the ends justify the means? Is it really so bad to do a little bowing before the the devil if it means the hungry are fed and wars are abolished and proper order is established? This story puts us on guard for that oh-so-human tendency to do evil that good may come.
Finally, did you notice that the devil sort of upped the stakes every time he confronted Jesus? It started with a question of his own hunger. His own survival. It then moved into areas of power and security. Feed yourself. Grab power. Secure your life and your safety and your comfort with the shock and awe of superior might. This raises a question we all must wrestle with: What are we—what am I—willing to do, or to justify, for my own comfort? My own security? To get and maintain power—even if it’s just a little bit of control over someone else?
Maybe we need to pray, Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from shortcuts.
God, give us eyes to see and hearts to discern that shortcuts and gimmicks and ends-justify-the-means thinking are from the devil, not from you.