In my introductory theology class at Wycliffe College the other day the talk turned to sin, as conversations in theology classes will do. And from talking about sin we got to talking about Adam and Eve’s unhappy encounter with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. And from Adam, Eve, and the serpent we naturally got to talking about the devil, the tempter or adversary who shows up at certain key moments in Scripture. Ah, the devil! Such a fascinating figure. Suddenly the classroom was alive with questions. Is the devil real? Is he—as many theologians have speculated—a fallen angel? If so, when did he fall? If he fell before Adam and Eve did, does that mean the humans were set in a world that was already corrupted long before they arrived on the scene? And what does that say about God’s supposedly good creation? So many questions concerning the devil. I began to realize you could teach entire courses on demonology—lecture courses for the beginning students, and graduate seminars for the PhDs.
But in the midst of our discussion a student raised her hand at the back of the class. “Professor Mangina,” she said, “should we really be devoting this much theological attention to the devil? Maybe that’s exactly what the devil wants us to do—concentrate on him rather than on God? All this talk about the devil seems just a bit unhealthy to me.”
Well, she was exactly right. Too much talk about the devil is unhealthy. If you visit a Christian bookstore or go online you will find book after book on topics like Satan, demons, exorcism, and spiritual warfare. It is all very exciting in a way, but also (to be perfectly honest) just a bit creepy. Evil is interesting … all too interesting. We groove on evil. There is that little part in all of us that finds Voldemort a more intriguing character than Harry Potter. But as my student rightly saw, dwelling on evil for its own sake is neither spiritually healthy nor especially biblical. The Bible is about the good God, not about that shady and unscrupulous character we call the devil.
There is a flip side to all this, though: because the story the Bible tells is about the good God’s victory over sin, death, the devil, and every evil power, it bids us take evil quite seriously. Not too seriously. Not more seriously than God. But seriously enough.
The Bible is a tough-minded book, and it helps prepare us for the hard world we live. If we ignore evil in the world or focus only on the “nice things” it is hard to see why the gospel should be such good news, or why anybody should care.
The trick in dealing with the devil, then, is to give him just the right amount and the right kind of attention. The devil—in so far as he exists—is a character in God’s story, not the other way around.
And this is just what we find in today’s lesson from Luke’s gospel—the famous account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. You will recall that we began the season of Epiphany with the account of Jesus’ baptism, which is the beginning of his manifestation in the world. But he does not go straight from his baptism to his work of preaching and teaching. First must come a time of testing. So following the baptism the Holy Spirit leads him into the desert. In St. Mark’s version of this story we are told that the Spirit actually drove Jesus into the desert. I rather like that; it suggests the urgency of Jesus’s mission—he is headed toward a confrontation with the enemy, and knows it would be best to get it over with. Yet whether driven or led, Jesus goes into the Judean wilderness to fast for forty days—forty days!—and at the end of that time, Luke tells us, he was hungry.
I would guess that he is not only hungry but thirsty, exhausted, and lonely; the desert is a place where you are deprived of basic human needs. And so maybe it was with a sense of relief that Jesus comes across a stranger out in the wilderness—finally, someone to talk to! It is the diabolic adversary. St. Luke offers no description of the devil, nor does he have Jesus and the devil engage in conversation about the weather. No, the devil gets right down to business. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus is God’s Son—the devil gets that exactly right—and so presumably everything in creation lies within his power. And really, why not? It would be such a little thing. Turning the stone into bread would be as easy as picking an apple from a tree. But to do this would mean turning aside from the mission Jesus has been giving from the Father. The famous Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book with the title “Purity of heart is to do one thing.” Well, the one thing Jesus is called to do right now is to fast. That is (for now) his purity of heart. And so he spurns the devil’s offer by declaring: “A human being shall not live by bread alone.” The full quotation from the book of Deuteronomy is: “A human being shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” As humans we need food, and drink, and shelter, and companionship; and our heavenly Father knows that we need all these things. But at a deeper level we need relatedness to the God who made us. Jesus knows that if he turns this one little stone into bread he will destroy the relationship that is at the very heart of his life. And so he will not do it. Food can wait; the LORD cannot wait.
The second temptation is more subtle. This time the devil leads Jesus up to a high place and shows him “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world”—the King James’ version translates this phrase as as, “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” What a magnificent touch. Jesus catches a glimpse of worldly glory in all times and in all places, compressed as it were into a single instant. Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome—remember that Jesus himself was a subject, if not a citizen, of the Roman empire. We could expand this list to include all the nations, empires, and cultures that have existed from the time of Christ down to the present day.
Jesus, in other words, can have it all—the kingdom and the power and the glory, world without end, amen. And why should he not have them? As God’s Son, are they not his by right? Why should he have to wait to come into his rule? Besides, there is so much good Jesus could do as an earthly, political ruler. Surely he would be doing the peoples of the earth a favour by taking over the reins from their corrupt politicians and inefficient bureaucracies and showing them what real leadership looks like. It would be a glorious thing indeed. Oh, but there is one little catch: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
A devil’s bargain, indeed! Power in exchange for worship. Glory in exchange for the human soul. The devil shows his true cleverness here, because he knows that this temptation comes close to the actual heart of who Jesus is. One of the oldest Christian confessions consists of two simple words: kyrios Iesous, “Jesus is Lord.” What an extraordinary thing to say. The early Christians believed and confessed that Jesus was, in fact, the actual ruler of the nations of the earth—which is why they refused to do homage to the Roman emperor. Jesus is the ruler of an empire far grander than Caesar ever knew. But he will not rule in Caesar’s way. He will not rule by committing blasphemy—by denying that the world belongs to the Lord God of Israel. And so he refuses the devil’s offer, once again quoting the book of Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
And so he makes one last effort, this time the most ingenious temptation of all. He takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and taunts him saying: ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.’” Psalm 91, which we read earlier this morning, promises God’s protection to the faithful Jew: “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you … so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The devil seems to have learned something from temptations 1 and 2. The first two times he invited Jesus to flagrantly disobey God’s command. This time he proposes that Jesus literally throw himself on the LORD, trusting in God’s own promises to his beloved children (cf. 91:14: “those who love me, I will deliver”). Prove that you are the Son, in other words, by daring the Father to intervene and rescue you from destruction.
The first two temptations asked Jesus to exploit God’s good gifts for his own purposes. This third temptation asks Jesus to “leverage” his very relationship with God. Of course, such an abuse of a relationship is the very opposite of love. Jesus once again quotes Scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And so the story ends: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
An opportune time. What time is that? In Luke’s gospel, the devil never appears again in the direct form we see in today’s story. But we can detect his hand at work. My guess is that the “opportune time” is the moment of Jesus’ testing in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death, Jesus is tempted one last time to abandon his mission. You can just imagine the devil whispering in his ear: “if you are the Son of God, save yourself …. Surely there are better ways to save humanity than by dying.” It was a real test: St. Luke tells us that Jesus sweated drops of blood in the course of his prayer. But in the end he proved his faithfulness to the Father, and to us.
Jesus turns the devil’s opportune time into his own opportune moment, giving his life back to God at the cross.
This past Wednesday marked the beginning of the season of Lent. We might think of Lent as our opportune moment—a time given us by God. And the question is, what will we do with that time? By way of concluding this sermon let me just make three little suggestions for ways that Lent can be fruitful for us.
The first is that Lent is a reminder that the Christian life takes the form of a struggle. Being a Christian is not always sweetness, light, and love in the Lord. It is often difficult (as human life generally is difficult). It was difficult for Jesus. You may recall that often in the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, the Christian life is likened to an athletic contest, a race, for which you have to engage in a kind of training. You have to work at it. I somewhat fear that this idea has been lost in Anglicanism, where the subliminal message is that because salvation is by grace we don’t have to do anything; just sit back and enjoy the ride.
The opposite is true: because salvation is by grace, God invites us to live in that grace in a disciplined and intentional way. And part of what that means is to confront our temptations. So: own the struggle.
Now I don’t mean to say that our temptations will be the same as the ones Jesus faced. I doubt very much that any of us are called to turn stones into bread. (Rather the opposite: when I try to make bread, it very often turns out feeling like a stone.) You and I are not the Son of God. But there are all sorts of ways that the world calls us to live as if God did not matter. The form that takes is going to be different for every person. So one thing we may do over the next six weeks is to reflect and pray on the things that separate us from God. The fact is that we don’t always know what our temptations are—we have to burrow down, and pray, and open ourselves to God.
This leads me to my second suggestion, which is that we spend more time in prayer. I will make a confession here: I am not very good at this. I am an impatient person, and like to be up and about doing things. Sitting down and praying is not my idea of a good time. But I also know that this is just an excuse. Recently I was talking to a good friend, and asked him about this, and he told me about some spiritual advice he’d been given: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” If you can’t find an hour to pray, then find half an hour. And if you can’t find half an hour, find fifteen minutes; or pray in the car on the way to work; or pray sitting over your sandwich at lunch. It is much more important that you pray than that you pray in a certain way. Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”
Because the most important thing in prayer is the LORD himself, who wants to spend time with you, and who wants you to spend time with him. That is what Lent is: a gift of forty days for spending time with the LORD.
And the third thing is, spend some time reading your Bible. You will have noticed, I’m sure, that Jesus’ encounter with the devil took the form of a Bible-quoting contest. It is often said that the devil can quote Scripture for his own purposes. But that doesn’t change the fact that Scripture is one of God’s chief gifts for communicating with us and reminding us the character of his love for us. Of course it goes hand in hand with prayer…. I find it especially interesting that in all three temptations Jesus refutes the devil by quoting the book of Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy is that final summary of the law of the LORD, which Moses delivers to the Israelites before they enter the promised land. It is a reminder to the people that the LORD will be with them in their new life, just as he has been with them in their journey through the wilderness.
Christians nowadays are sometimes put off by the Old Testament, but if you give yourself to it I think you’ll be surprised at how powerfully it speaks to our spiritual condition. Israel knew what it was like to be tested—indeed what it was to test God. Indeed they discovered that no matter how often they tested God, God was faithful to them. The Old Testament is literature for a people in their wilderness wanderings, people like ourselves who long for a homeland. It makes for great Lenten reading. But whether you read the Old Testament or the New, the Psalms or the gospels or the letters, my advice is: read. It is a fantastic way of spending time with God.
Own the struggle. Pray as you can. Inhabit the Scriptures. Know that the One who conquered every temptation in the wilderness, will you deliver you safely home to God. And may you have a blessed Lent and a fruitful journey toward Easter. Amen.