May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
When I was in Israel just about a year ago, one of the moments that was most deeply meaningful happened at narrow spot of the Jordan River. This site is known as Qasar El Yahud and it’s a rather still and brown section of the Jordan, but scholars and religious authorities suggest that this is the site where Jesus was baptized. So our group visited that site, after a drive of about an hour through the desert of Israel, and we renewed our baptismal vows there. Behind us was Mount Temptation, the place where today’s reading from Luke took place. The link between baptism and temptation is unmistakable given the geography.
But it was an even more ominous experience. The Jordan is about 20 feet wide at that spot, and on the other side is the country of Jordan. So as I looked across the river, there was a Jordanian soldier with an M16 on patrol. And behind me was an Israeli military installation. As I walked the path down to the river, I passed fencing that had large yellows signs on it, and the signs read “Danger! Mines!”
My experience there isn’t all that different than what Jesus would have experienced after his Baptism. Just before our reading from Luke begins today, Jesus was baptized and then was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and in the wilderness he encountered the danger of the Devil. And the Devil will be the topic for this sermon. We’ll explore several things about the Devil. And for the purposes of this sermon, the words “evil,” “sin,” or “Satan” are roughly synonymous with “Devil.”
The first thing to say about the Devil is that the Devil is real. Now I know that for some of us, that’s a tough pill to swallow. We like to think that the Devil is some part of mythology that we don’t need any more. We say that the Devil was simply a way for the person in olden times to explain bad things. Or sometimes we even frame it in theology and argue that since the Devil is evil, and God created everything, but God wouldn’t create evil, there must not be a Devil. But those thoughts are all wrong.
We all have experiences of the Devil in our lives. How many of us have said “I don’t know what got into me” or “I don’t know why I did that?” We all have moments of weakness, we are all tempted, and the Baptismal vows that we have made will be tested. This is, of course, is God’s world, but the Devil is a player on the field. To think otherwise is to fall prey to the very nature of evil. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis writes of a demon coaching another demon on the ways of leading humans to Hell. At one point the teacher demon says “the fact that devils are predominately comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in their minds, suggest to them a picture of something in red tights and persuade them that since they cannot believe in that they therefore cannot believe in you.”
Although there may not be a being named Satan, the idea of the Devil is real. Perhaps not in an ontological sense, but evil exists. Even if we say that evil is simply the privation of the good or is the effect of the divine “no,” evil is a force in our world. The moment we allow ourselves into thinking otherwise, the Devil achieves the first victory.
The Devil comes to Jesus in personal form because we experience evil in a deeply personal way. Some of the worst evils we know are betrayal and abuse, which happen at the hands of others. Devil is presented as a person because that is real. And by presenting the Devil as a person, Luke makes it clear that though evil can dwell within us, we are not the Devil and the Devil is something much larger than any of us.
The Devil is reasonable. Notice the things that Jesus is tempted with, nothing too outlandish. Perhaps some other time I’ll preach in more detail on the temptations that the Devil offers Jesus, but essentially, the Devil comes and tempts Jesus with being relevant, powerful, and spectacular. And we are tempted by those things as well. The Devil uses logic in tempting Jesus. The Devil even quotes Scripture, which is a good reminder to us that just because you quote the Bible doesn’t mean that the Devil isn’t at work. You likely won’t easily object to the guiles of the Devil, because the arguments will be reasonable.
And in a similar line of thought, the Devil is smart, smarter than you. If you got all A’s on your report card, the Devil got all A+’s. If you have a Ph.D, the Devil has two. You can’t outsmart the Devil, and the moment that you think you can, you’ve already fallen into the trap. We all know that our intellect can justify anything that we want it do. We can justify lying, cheating, and stealing. We see it happen all the time. A lot of people in Washington, regardless of political persuasion, will tell you that Bill Clinton is one of the smartest men to ever sit in the Oval Office. And look what his superior intellect of his was able to justify in the way of giving into temptation. The smarter you are, the harder the temptation because the easier it will be for your intellect to justify sin and evil.
Something that deeply disturbs me is the reprehensible actions started by the Bush administration but made even worse by the Obama administration. I’m referring to the rampant use of assassinations by predator drones. Somehow, we have misused our intellect to justify the indiscriminate killing of enemies, and even worse, American citizens with no due process or judicial review. I am deeply disturbed that the inalienable rights that Americans have are being unilaterally stripped away, that President Obama’s intellect has allowed him to decide that those rights do not apply. We are not a country that kills first and asks questions later, but again, our intellect can justify anything. There’s a reason why God never asks us for our minds, but instead God prefers our hearts.
Next, we can say that the Devil is subtle. The Devil won’t come asking you to sell the farm, but maybe to just plant a few crops. Or as someone recently told me, if you give the Devil a ride, eventually he’ll ask to drive. The Devil is subtle, sometimes by getting us to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the even worse doing of the wrong things for the right reasons. It has been said that it is better to have vices than a surplus of virtue. When we have too much virtue, we lack a sense of conscience because we think we’re safely on the side of morality.
One of the ways this subtlety works is that we don’t really think we’re sinners. We had an outside speaker at clergy conference this past fall, and after worshiping with us, he remarked that during the Prayers of the People, when we prayed for the sick, we all named people out loud, and when we thanked God for the blessings of this life, we all shared joys, but when it came time for the silence after “let us confess our sins to God,” you could have heard a pin drop. How many of us really see ourselves as sinners? Don’t you think the world would be a better place if everyone was more like you?
I’ve noticed that Episcopalians, who are by-and-large, educated and at least middle class, tend to shy away from saying words like Jesus, sin, or cross in public. Talk to a Baptist and they’ll tell you all about how they were a wretched soul until Jesus saved them. I don’t think I’ve ever had that conversation with an Episcopalian. And I think that is, in part, because we’re not so convinced that we’re actually sinners. Sure, we’ll acknowledge that we’re not perfect, but it’s far too easy to fall for the subtle argument that we’re part of the solution, not the problem.
The truth of the matter is that we’re all sinners, Jesus did die for you in some sense, and apart from God’s grace, you’re doomed to Hell. But the Devil comes to us with the subtlety of thinking that the Confession that we say must be about other people, not us.
Another way that the Devil uses subtlety is in redefining what is normal. One of the translations of the word “Devil” is “slanderer;” the Devil distorts reality and slanders what God would have as normal. When we start to accept as normal things that are very wrong, the Devil starts to win. Think about driving around Greensboro, on most corners you can find a homeless person. And how many times do we give it a second thought? It has become normal to see a person standing on a corner with a cardboard sign begging for money. There is nothing normal about that. The norm should not be that we have people living in our community that don’t have a roof over their head.
Did you know that in the entire country, the Greensboro/High Point region ranks 4th worst in people who report that they don’t have enough money for food? Backpack Beginnings reports that North Carolina is the second worst state in terms of childhood hunger and over half of children enrolled in Guilford Country schools are on free or reduced lunch. If you hear nothing in this sermon, hear this- childhood hunger is not normal and it is not acceptable.
But the Devil comes and does the work of evil, not always through genocides or mass killings, but in far more devious ways by redefining what is normal for us. By redefining the normal, we accept things that if you asked us about, we’d say we’d never allow to happen. But they happen all around us.
This is part of what is going on in our reading from Deuteronomy this morning. God is instructing the people what to do when they come out of the wilderness and enter the Promised Land. They are to recount their history, give the first fruits to God, share their food with the hungry and the foreigners, and show gratitude. Gratitude though is not the norm. Theologian Karl Barth once remarked that all sin is basically ingratitude. How often do we take a moment out of the busyness of life to take stock of our blessings and respond with gratitude? Great evil is done by the Devil when we accept an attitude of ingratitude as normal.
And moving into our next point, that the Devil challenges our identity, it is vital to be thankful. Remember what happened at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens opened up and the voice of God was heard saying “You are my son, the beloved.” And immediately, the Devil challenges Jesus’ identity. Jesus was just called the Son of God, and the Devil comes and says “IF you are the Son of God,” asking him to prove his identity. Part of the reason why Jesus was able to resist the Devil is that Jesus knew who he was and was confident in his identity, and he had gratitude for being the beloved of God.
It is fitting that the wilderness is the setting for this passage. Alfred North Whitehead said that “religion is what we do with our solitude.” In those moments when we are alone in the wilderness the voices of self-doubt will creep in. But if we can remember, as Jesus did, that we are the beloved of God, we stand a better chance at resisting temptation.
In the Bible, the wilderness is a special place, it is where God ministers to Hagar in her grief, where God meets Moses and baptizes Jesus, and where the wandering Hebrews become the nation of Israel. And wilderness is not a bad place to be, remember, the Spirit, not the Devil, led Jesus into the wilderness. One desert theologian wrote that “The wilderness, in short, is a place of threat, vulnerability, and danger. Yet it is also a place where we encounter a love we never could have imagined.” The wildernesses of our lives are the times and places where we will find our true identity.
Our identity is one of the things we hold most dear in our hearts, and rightfully so, so it is no surprise that the Devil comes to attack us there. Using a term from the work of Edwin Friedman, Jesus was self-differentiated. Self-differentiation happens when we are able to define our goals and values apart from surrounding pressures, when you are able to say “I” instead of “we,” when we are able to take responsibility for our own destiny and emotional being while still remaining connected to others. Jesus was able to do this. He didn’t need the approval of the Devil, or the glory of others, to be confident and happy. He wasn’t going to live on someone else’s terms. Jesus knew that his identity was the beloved of God, and so when the Devil came to challenge his identity, he was ready for it. Never forget, you are the beloved of God, and so is everyone you meet. Keep those things in mind and the Devil will have a much harder time testing you.
And the last thing to say about the Devil is that the he or she is persistent. At the end of the reading, the text says that “the Devil departed from him until a more opportune time.” The Devil doesn’t give up and will come back when your defenses are down and your emotional vulnerability is high. Even if you resist a temptation today, you can be assured that another temptation will be around the corner. There is a reason why Jesus says “for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.” Perhaps the persistence of the Devil is why when Jesus teaches us to pray, he includes the line “and lead us not into temptation.”
So the things to say about the Devil this morning are that the Devil is real, personal, reasonable, smart, subtle, challenging our identity, and persistent. As we embark on our Lenten journey, we will be tested. Perhaps you’ve given something up for Lent, chocolate or meat, and that’s good. But it’s fairly easy to give up luxuries, but far worse to give up our soul to the Devil. I don’t know how the Devil will come to you. I don’t know what your wilderness exam will be. Only you know what devils have your number and what bribes they can use to get you. But I know that they’ll be calling you.
As we enter the wilderness, may it be a holy time, a time of finding our true identity. Come Easter morning, may we be found to have the strength to resist temptation and confidence in our being the beloved of God. And dear Lord, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Amen.