Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
In the months leading up to last October 27th, my spiritual director and I spent a lot of time talking about the devil.
That conversation about the devil began as I was wrestling with the question of how a team I was leading as co-chair of Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry, should evaluate the misconduct of one of our fellow Ministers of Word and Sacrament.
As I was talking about my colleague, whom I had known for years to be a talented and compassionate pastor, and wondering how he could have fallen so short in fulfilling the moral requirements of his call, my spiritual director asked me an unexpected question.
He asked me what I believe about the Devil. Satan. Luther. Beelzebub. The Tempter. The Accuser. The Evil One.
Immediately, I began to search the theological fact bank in my brain to come up with what would be a reasonable answer for a progressive, mainline, educated Presbyterian pastor.
What do I believe about the devil? I can hear the gears grinding out there right now as all of you are trying to figure out what you think about the devil.
The devil doesn’t come up in conversation very much here at Sixth.
My spiritual director was content to sit in the long silence that followed his question. I realized I had never been asked to articulate anything about my personal thoughts about the devil.
So I gave him my opinion about what other people think about the devil.
I had spent enough time with what I, in my hubris, consider to be theologically unsophisticated people, to know that I don’t believe in the devil THEY believe in.
I don’t believe in a literal figure that fell from grace and has been wandering around the world for thousands of years trying to lure good people into bad behavior.
I don’t believe in the devil as portrayed in Paradise Lost or Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist or in The Charlie Daniels Bandhttps://youtu.be/Fi13NxmjqLI or even the Broadway show, Damn Yankees.
I went on at some length about what I don’t believe about the devil. Probably many of you could do exactly the same.
We’ve been trained as good Presbyterians to not give too much credence to a supernatural power that isn’t God. As good Presbyterians, we are suspicious of anything that puts evil anywhere except the human heart.
But my spiritual director wasn’t interested in my long diatribe about the foolishness of looking for the mark of 666 in my 412 world. He wasn’t going to let me off the hook.
He wanted to know what I thought about the devil. The devil we see in Genesis. The devil we see in Job. The devil in Revelation. The devil that pops up all over Scripture. The devil we see Jesus going toe to toe with today in our text from Luke.
It wasn’t until October 27ththat I realized what is at stake in thinking about the devil, particularly when evil hits close to home. About ½ block from my home, in the holy space of Tree of Life Synagogue.
It wasn’t until October 27ththat I understood how the evil can lay dormant for weeks, months, years in a human heart until one day it lashes out and starts breaking things and setting fires and destroying everything good in its path.
It was on October 27ththat I finally understood what evil, real evil, feels like. Smells like. Looks like. Sounds like.
And in days after October 27th, I learned evil will often disguise itself as something that seems good. Evil can cloak itself in righteous outrage, or angry justice, or even compassionate charity. Evil is clever enough that we may not even notice its power over us.
I understood that once its power is released, evil affects everything around it. And evil continues to reverberate even when the shooting stops and the bodies have been retrieved.
Today’s text from Luke takes place after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, when Jesus comes face to face with evil in the form of the devil.
Jesus enters into the wilderness with his hair still wet, and with God’s voice telling him he is God’s beloved son still ringing in his ears.
And I wonder if Jesus knew exactly what it meant to be the Son of God. To be Jesus?
That journey for Jesus begins in the middle of nowhere and, what’s worse, it is God who put him there. 40 days in the desert. As the days dragged on and his belly began to growl and loneliness set in, Jesus might have wondered whether being the son of God was such a good thing to be.
And in the midst of his hunger and loneliness, Jesus hears a voice that probably didn’t sound all that evil. Perhaps the voice sounded entirely kind. Sympathetic. Persuasive. Maybe the voice belonged to an entity clever enough to even sound a lot like God.
Do you think the devil would sound like….
I think it would be more the voice of reason. Of kindness. Of concern.
“Are you hungry, Jesus? Go ahead…turn the stone into bread and you’ll never be hungry again. I know you can do it, Jesus.”
“Do you see injustice and suffering in the world, Jesus? Just stick with me. I’ll give you authority over all the kingdoms and powers in the world and you can fix everything. I know you can do it, after all, you are the Son of God.”
“Go ahead. Throw yourself off a tower. If you are the Son of God, Jesus, the angels will rescue you. Then everyone who sees your miraculous rescue will know you are the almighty Son of God, and they’ll do whatever you say.”
My best guess is that the voice Jesus hears in the wilderness sounded entirely reasonable.
After all – the voice is offering Jesus good things, right?
What’s so bad about turning stones into bread? – there are so many hungry people.
What’s so bad about Jesus running things? – there are so many terrible governments hurting so many people.
Rescue – what’s wrong with trusting angels to protect him? After all, Jesus will go on to walk on water which is only a little less difficult than floating on air. At the end of Luke, Jesus will indeed ascend into heaven. Into the sky.
None of this seems so awful, right? In fact, the devil is offering Jesus exactly the kind of power you and I would love to have.
The power to eliminate hunger?
The power to eliminate unjust powers and principalities?
The power that will allow us to escape death itself?
Sounds pretty good to me.
To me, this story shows us Jesus at his most human, because this offer from the devil probably sounded pretty good to Jesus too.
Because after 40 days in the desert, Jesus is hungry to the point of near starvation.
Because all his life, Jesus has seen the Roman government abusing and exploiting innocent people.
Because Jesus does have the power to pull off a stunt that would give him the power to influence a great many people.
And if you or I were offered the power to completely eliminate hunger and establish real justice
We might be willing to sell our souls.
The ends would completely justify the means.
All of us would be tempted to abandon our principles in an extremely dire situation like that facing Jesus in the wilderness.
And friends, it does feel most days as if we are living in a dire situation.
When we are frightened, hungry, sick and hurting, we just want the pain to go away.
When we are angry about the injustice we see in the world, we want to hit back.
When we are in the wilderness, not knowing how long it’s going to last or how we’re ever going to get out of this nightmare, we’ll take help from whatever source promises us rescue. We won’t even ask who is handing us that Get of Jail Free card.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, everyone around him panicked and lost their minds and threw out their principles in what looked like for all the world a genuinely dire situation.
And, of course, the devil shows up again. Having left Jesus out in the wilderness, the devil comes back at an opportune time when he finds Jesus in Gethsemane. You can almost hear the devil whispering in Jesus’ ear:
“You know, Jesus, you don’t have to do this. You’ll be forgotten immediately if you allow yourself to be crucified. You’ll be just another dead Jewish rebel. God’s playing you for a chump, my friend.”
Jesus chooses a different path. Again. Not my will. But thy will.
Jesus resisted the easy answers and the short cuts. Jesus went all in on God’s plan to not give in to fear and death, but to eliminate death and fear and all that prevents us from remembering who we are and whose we are.
And Lent is a time for you and I to get stuck out in the wilderness, to walk through the dire situations of our lives, and decide which voice we’ll follow.
Which was no easier for the fully human Jesus who was hungry and poor and frightened and lonely, than it is for fully human people who are hungry and poor and frightened and lonely.
Can I be honest with you, dearest friends?
From the time the first shots rang out from Tree of Life Synagogue to the moment the presidential motorcade rolled down Shady Avenue, right in front of my house 3 days later, I was filled with an anger and fear like I had never known in my life.
It was not just borne of the trauma of hearing gunshots on an ordinary Saturday morning.
It was not just about the horror of learning that eleven people had been gunned down within a few dozen yards from my home that once felt so safe to us that we often forgot to lock our doors, let alone set the security alarm.
The anger and fear did not come out of the experience of seeing armed SWAT teams in my backyard, or an FBI crime lab where David’s bus stop used to be.
The anger and fear came from the utter terror of knowing that my Jewish husband, my Jewish children were targets for a deranged person, egged on by politicians who would sacrifice my family’s safety for the sake of a bigoted policy against people trying to make their way to a better life in the United States.
The presidential motorcade coming down my street was a dire situation.
I was ready to turn as many stones as I could find into bread.
I was ready take down as many powers and principalities as I could lay my hands on.
I was ready to throw myself into the street. To leap off the roof of my house.
I was ready to do anything to put myself between my family and those that would harm them.
It was a wilderness test and by every measure, I failed.
Because I let the devil get to me.
Because I took the devil’s word, instead of relying on the power of God.
Not because I was wrong to be angry.
Not because it was wrong to speak truth to power.
Not because the politicians paying respects to Tree of Life Synagogue were without guilt or blame.
I failed in that moment because I forgot who I am.
I forgot the promises of God, not only for me, but for my children, and my husband, and even my Jewish neighbors.
I failed in the wilderness, setting loose an evil that spread like wildfire in the hours and days and weeks following. The evil poured out in waves, affecting my family, my colleagues. The PCUSA. The presbytery. And the evil even visited churches I love, like you, dear friends. Just ask Amy or Vincent what that evil looked like and felt like and sounded like as it came over the telephone and email and snail mail. It was as if I had personally unleashed the hounds of hell.
In the time that has passed since October 27th, I’ve realized that anyone can slay a dragon.
The real challenge of our lives as followers of Jesus is to wake up every morning and love the world all over again, even a world as dire and frightening and screwed up as the one in which we are living. In which babies are kept in cages, and oceans are rising, and elderly Jewish people are gunned down while they’re praying.
That is the world God still so loves and we are called to participate in God’s divine purpose.
I tell you this not looking for forgiveness or support or to make me feel better.
I tell you this because you may also have moments when hunger and fear and loneliness and anger wash over you like a tidal wave and you’ll feel like you’re drowning.
And you will be tempted and torn.
And you will forget who you are.
And you won’t know which voice to trust.
And you will grab any life preserver that happens to float near you.
Jesus has been in that space where I was, where you’ve been, and where we all will find ourselves again because life is like that. We can’t escape the wilderness, but we can learn how to live in it.
Jesus was led out into the wilderness by God so Jesus could find out what it meant to be Jesus. And what happened in those 40 days freed him from everything that would attempt to distract him from his true purpose. And Jesus learned to trust the Spirit that led him there.
And, if you think about it, Jesus will accomplish what was offered to him by evil’s comforting, tempting voice, but by taking a different course.
Jesus will change stones into bread: a few loaves of bread and five fish will feed five thousand.
Jesus will “hurl himself from a tower” and be “caught by angels,” by giving up his life on the cross.
Jesus will be worshipped not by becoming a new Caesar, but by being willing to humble himself as a servant.
Lent isn’t strength-training for the soul. It’s not about exercising our spiritual muscles. It is about obedience. Reliance. Dependence. It’s about learning to be led–or if necessary, driven–out to the desolate place within ourselves where our hungers and our dreams and our fears all take turns trying to shut out the voice of God.
It’s about building our understanding that every good door that opens is not necessarily good for us.
It’s about learning to trust God’s love for us even in the most dire situation.
I am still not sure what I think about the devil. And it probably doesn’t matter very much, so I am not going to spend much time in Lent thinking about the devil.
I will be thinking about God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s promises, against which evil does not stand a chance.
This week, I read a quote that I realize is truth for me.
In my imagination the wilderness is always somewhere else; a foreign landscape I actively have to enter in the act of being faithful.
Truthfully, the wilderness is always where I am and faith is the courage to stay with it when I’d rather pretend I am anywhere else.
Bonus track totally inappropriate for worship, but maybe greatest Rolling Stones song ever: https://youtu.be/Jke7e8C2XfA