Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

The Devil Went Down to GA: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

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Matthew 4:1-11

Lenten Series: Encountering Jesus

#1: A Wilderness Encounter

             I noticed something really strange when I was in Target a week ago.  Perhaps it is because this is the latest we have begun Lent in almost 20 years, perhaps it is because of what has become known as the “holiday creep”, but there was an aisle that caught my attention as just being really strange.  At one end, there was a sparse display of leftover Valentine’s Day detritus – the unpurchased chocolates and plush toys and cards, bedraggled and tossed on the shelf, with their bright red stickers proclaiming that if you wanted a deal on chocolate samplers, this was it.  At the other end was a display of vibrant, pastel colored Easter candy.  The packages were untouched, fresh and crisp out of the boxes.  The bags depicted chicks and bunnies and eggs and just cried out that spring is here, come and get it!  And in the middle of this aisle, between the endcaps was a long expanse of empty shelves waiting to be filled.  My initial reaction was “Easter candy before Lent even begins?  Really!?” Although, between you and me, I was really more upset that the overlap of the two displays will just make it harder to find my favorite St. Patrick’s Day Hershey Kisses.  But, passing the aisle again, after recovering from my pretend indignation at the pre-Lenten Easter candy (which does strike me as just wrong), I paid attention to the empty space in the middle.  That space that waits for something else to fill it.  And my thought turned towards Lent, and the expanse of the wilderness where we will be for the next 40 days, waiting for something else to fill us as we wait to rejoice in the Resurrection.

             We begin our Lenten reading today with a very familiar passage – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  This encounter is the lectionary reading for the first Sunday in Lent each year, from one of the Synoptic gospels.  This year we hear the story as Matthew tells it.  Much like that wide, empty, barren space of the store shelves, Jesus is in the barren, dry desert.  But this is where the parallels end.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is baptized and immediately fasts for 40 days and 40 nights.  For those hearing Matthew’s gospel, as well as for us today, there is deep meaning in the phrase “40 days and 40 nights”.  In those words we hear the echoes of the Old Testament, the echoes of the scriptures with which Jesus and his followers would have been intimately familiar.  Noah and his family waited in the ark for God to deliver the earth from evil for 40 days and 40 nights.  We most frequently see the numbers used in reference to Moses fasting on Mt. Sinai in the presence of the Lord as he wrote the 10 commandments. Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights as he fled to Mt. Sinai and encountered God.  This number is rooted in Israel’s struggle to practice faithfulness in the wilderness both day and night.[1]   So it should not seem out of place that Jesus enters the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights to fast and pray and draw closer to God.  What is important to note, is that he does this before he is tempted, before he is tested.  The fast is not the test of his faith, the fast is not the bar by which he is measured, and it is not the bar by which we are measured. 

 Lent is 40 days and nights –  a time for us to draw nearer to God. It is a time for us to pray and fast in meaningful ways.  A time for us to be in the wilderness with Jesus.  So often the conversation is “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The answers are often either things we can give up easily in our everyday world– chocolate, soda, candy, alcohol or things that mirror our New Year’s resolutions or will make us better for the sake of making us better – “I’m going to exercise more.  I’m going to give up TV.”  I have heard or done many of these myself, and did not find any of them spiritually fulfilling.  I remember the year I was in college and decided to give up caffeine for Lent.  It was a complete and total disaster.  Not only was I sleepy, but I was cranky too.  That may have been the year I learned in one of my classes that caffeine is more addictive than some illegal drugs, and harder to quit than smoking.  My roommate at the said she was never so glad to see Sunday come as at the end of that first week, and bought us large sodas to celebrate our survival.  There was nothing at all holy about the experience; I did not turn to God in prayer instead of grabbing a Diet Coke, instead I fixated on what I could not have.  At the end of the first 20 days I decided that Jesus would be Ok if I tried something else.  Have any of you had a similar experience with Lent?  We are spending our Lenten season looking at encounters with Jesus in the New Testament.  How are those who encountered Jesus face to face changed by the experience?  How are we changed by their experiences?  How can we encounter Jesus in a different way this Lenten season and be changed ourselves?

  Today’s encounter is between Jesus and someone the text calls “the Tempter”.  You may know him by other names – the Devil.  Satan.  The Evil One.  We don’t talk a lot about him in the Reformed tradition.  Some have even said that Presbyterians don’t believe in the devil, and yet, there he is, right in front of us in scripture.  Who or what exactly was Jesus about to encounter in the wilderness?  Shirley Guthrie, Jr. was one of my theology professors when I was in seminary, and I was blessed to be in the last class that he taught before his death.  He had this way of making theology equally accessible to those who liked the nuances and deep thoughts, and to those who liked the broad strokes.  He wrote one of his best known books for Sunday School classes and church groups to use to study Reformed Theology together, and it was to that book I turned to figure out what to tell all of you today about the devil and evil.  I gave deep consideration to singing the song “The Devil went down to GA,” but decided to spare us all that bit of fun.  Instead, I refer to Christian Doctrine and what Dr. Guthrie says about the devil and evil in the world. 

There are 2 ways we as reformed Christians can think about the devil and interpret what we read about him in scripture.  The first, a literal interpretation, will actually offer some comfort to those of you who say Presbyterians do not believe in the devil.  We know that the devil is present in scripture – we read about him in our Old Testament reading this morning, and again in the New Testament.  But, as Christians, we do not believe in the devil.  We believe in Jesus.  In the entirety of Christianity, there is not a single Christian Creed that states that we place our faith in Satan.  Worship of evil is idolatry. We have faith in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  We believe against evil, and against the power of darkness.  As Christians, if we take a literal interpretation, we must insure that our interest in the devil does not overtake our interest in God.  That the realities of darkness and evil do not become more powerful to us than the reality and power of God to overcome them.  This is one of the reasons why it just does not come up that much – kind of like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books – we don’t give the devil power by talking about him.  Instead we acknowledge the power that God has over our lives, and our faith in the God that overcomes evil.

We can also look at the devil symbolically if you are not one who is comfortable with the literal interpretation.  In speaking symbolically we acknowledge that there is evil and chaos in this world that is not of God, nor was it created by God.  One advantage to looking at evil not personified as “the devil” is that we can see it in a more broad light.  Rather than thinking about someone “possessed” by a demon, which though we read about it in the New Testament, few of us will say we have seen for ourselves, we talk about other kinds of possession.  We know what it means for someone to be possessed by power, greed, lust, prejudice or hatred.  Those are all evil, and of the Evil One.  And again, what we must remember is that we proclaim the power of God over these forces – the power of God is stronger than any force that attempts to corrupt God’s good creation.

The bottom line, whether you see evil as the Devil personified or as more general forces at work in the world is this, straight from Dr. Guthrie’s pen, “Evil is the lie that leads us to the futile, self-destructive attempt to live without and against God, when the truth is that we can be truly human only as we trust and obey God…Evil is the Big Lie that is so destructive that and terrible just because it convinces us that the truth about God, God’s world, and life is not the truth.”[2]

So…Jesus goes into the wilderness to face the devil.  He goes to face the one who is going to try to tempt him into believing the Big Lie that Jesus was more powerful than God, that Jesus could be God, all by himself, and that when God said we were to place our faith in God alone, God was lying.  Jesus was going to go face the one who was going to try to tempt him to throw off what he knew to be true and encourage him to grasp onto the power offered by this world.  To grab to the sustenance offered by physical comforts, false hope, and political gain.  Matthew hints that Jesus knew this was coming, and I wonder why Jesus thought this was a good idea.  Would you be willing to sign up for this trip – go and fast for 40 days and nights, become your most vulnerable, and then face the toughest challenge of your life thus far?  Maybe we’ll offer that as a Lenten opportunity next year and see who signs up – I’m not sure how many takers we will have…especially if one of the side trips is a conversation with the Devil. 

But Jesus does it.  He resists the temptation of the devil.  The word “devil” is drawn from the greek words “dia” and “ballo” which together mean “to throw over or across.” Used more broadly, the word means, “one who attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, or slanders.”  The devil is here to mislead Jesus about what it means to be the son of God.  His hope is that in his encounter with Jesus, he will change Jesus for the worse and throw him across to the side of evil.[3]  Jesus is famished, the text says.  Hungrier than we can imagine.  He has not eaten for 40 days, and the Devil whispers to him – “since you are who you say you are  turn these stones into bread”.  The devil wants Jesus to use his powers for himself to satisfy his own physical needs, and not rely on God to care for him.  Jesus does not fall for it, instead quoting the scripture that he knows so well – “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  He knows that God will satisfy his needs, and that he was not sent to earth to put himself first.  And thus, he thwarts temptation the first time.

The second time, the devil takes him to the pinnacle of the temple – -the highest point in the city and says to Jesus, “jump”.  Since you are the son of God, make yourself secure from injury and death.  Save yourself.  Since Jesus used scripture last time to thwart the devil, the devil uses it this time.  However, he takes it out of context, and Jesus again rebukes him.  He will not misuse his power for his own safety and security.

For the third temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the mountain.  The modern day comparison would be taking Jesus to the top of the Empire State building or Rockefeller Center in New York.  All that you can see – -all the buildings, all the businesses, all the people, all the money and trade, and power – it will all be yours (even the UN, which you can see) if you worship me and not God.  I’ve been to the top of both of those buildings.  At Rockefeller center, you can stand on the roof with the TV antennas and see for miles.  It is a dizzying and dazzling experience.  To be told that you would be given power over all of what is below, well, I can’t even imagine.  And yet, Jesus does not even hesitate – “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”  Jesus will not misuse his power to gain fortune and political rule.  He has come to bring in a different kind of kingdom.

And then just like that, the devil is gone.  Jesus has relied on God to see him through these temptations and has overcome them.  The angels have come to attend him – I hope they brought a good meal and a change of clothes – and the encounter is over.  The story moves forward and Jesus begins his ministry.

This Lenten season we are exploring the theme of “encounters with Jesus.”  Through the rest of Lent, Ted is preaching about individuals from the Gospel of John who encountered Jesus and were forever changed by those experiences. I’m not sure we can say the same was true for either of the characters in our story today.  However, today we can imagine how the encounter between Jesus and the devil may change us instead.

The Greek philosopher Hereclitus said “you could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”  That same phrase has also been translated as, “No person ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and they are not the same person.”  Lent is like that.  It happens every year.  Every year there is Ash Wednesday and the reading of the temptation of Jesus and Holy Week and Easter.  We know the stories.  We know them well.  Sometimes we think it is all the same.  We give up the same things and have the same results.  Yet, Lent is always different.  For we are not the same people we were last year.  We have had experiences with Jesus that have changed us.  They have changed how our faith is shaped, and how we practice it.  We may have been tempted by the devil and succumbed, or resisted.  Where Jesus was close last year, he may feel distant now.  Our lives are not exactly the same now as they were then.  The river is in the same place, but the water, and those who enter it are different.  Jesus may have been different after his encounter with the devil.  He had been tested, he had been tempted, and he had drawn on his faith and knowledge that God is more powerful than anything else that the devil could offer to him.  I wonder if when Jesus was living out the events of Holy Week he remembered this encounter and drew strength from it?  If he recalled that God is stronger than the worst evil present in the whole world?

During Lent we again enter the river and face death.  We face the darkness of our sins, and how we have wronged one another.  We examine what separates us from God and try to find ways to draw nearer.  Through Lent we affirm the power of God over evil.  That affirmation, that belief is one of the hopes that carries us through the wilderness to the cross and through to Easter Sunday.  The year I failed to give up caffeine I did not draw any more closer to God than if I gave up anything else superfluous in my life.  I felt more pious, but I had, in fact, given into the temptations of self-reliance and self-congratulation.  As a result of my own experiences that year, I no longer ask anyone about their Lenten practices.  I pray instead that during Lent, each of us encounters Christ in our own way that is meaningful and draws us closer to God.  My hope is that when we encounter Christ in the wilderness of this time, that our encounter deepens our faith and changes us so that we are never the same.

When we see Christ in the wilderness we see who he is as the son of God and what kind of ministry he will bring.  It is not one that is self-serving or power-seeking.  It is a ministry that  is grounded in the belief that God is stronger than all else we will encounter in this world.  Jesus is not here to serve himself, but to serve others.  In his encounter with the devil, we do not know if he is changed, or if the devil is changes, but we know that we must leave as changed people.  As we continue our 40 days and 40 night journey, may we continue to encounter Jesus and be changed by him along the way.  In the name of the Father, son and Holy Spirit.  Amen 


[1] Feasting on the word, exegetical perspective 47

[2] Guthire, doctrine, 179-182

[3] Feasting, exegetical, 47

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