Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 10, 2008

2008.02.10 “A Conversation with the Devil” 1st Sunday in Lent

Central United Methodist Church

 “A Conversation with the Devil”

1st Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:  1 – 11

February 10th, 2008

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,  ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”  (Matthew 4: 1 – 11, NRSV)  

      Whatever happened to conversation?  Those times when we actually sit down with someone face-to-face, to have a leisurely conversation, wherever it leads?

      Nowadays we tend to have our conversations — or more correctly, our communications — electronically, by telephone or email. Information is communicated, but conversations are not held, because as communications studies tell us, communication is 90% nonverbal. Sadly, our lives are too hurried, too overbooked to sit around holding leisurely conversations.  Gotta run!

      However, like some of you, I remember real conversations.  Growing up before TV took over, I listened in on conversations held by my grandparents and parents and neighbors, on front porches, in swings, and around dinner tables. They were a mix of talking and listening, of story and gossip and argument. Looking back now, I realize how much I enjoyed them, learned from them, and how rare they have become.  

      In light of this, you may be glad to hear that through the Sundays of Lent, we shall overhear a series of conversations in the Gospels, primarily the Gospel of John. And not only are we invited to overhear these conversations, we are invited to join.

      First conversation is a conversation with the enemy, the devil.  Perhaps this may strike you — as it does me — as ironic, given that one of the issues in the current presidential campaign is, “Should we talk to the enemy?” 

      For Jesus, the answer is “yes”, and after his baptism, that’s where he goes. The Gospels tell us, that immediately after his baptism, Jesus was “led by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

      Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in which he concluded that, for every hero, testing is the first step. In Jesus’ case, as Henri Nouwen observed, “you cannot lead people out of the wilderness until you have been there yourself.”

      And so to the wilderness Jesus goes. Was this experience literal or metaphoric?  It was both.  The area known as the Transjordan (across the Jordan), where Jesus went, was desert, wilderness.  It was there Jesus literally physically and spiritually tested himself. As Alcoholics Anonymous tells us, it is when we are H.A.L.T. — hungry, angry, lonely, or tired — that temptation is the worst.  (Don’t we know it?)

      Even now, the wilderness is a place to test ourselves, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Consider such programs as Outward Bound, or Scouting, as examples.  Nature can be awesome, but also capricious, and the margins for mistakes, narrow.  I think of an Eagle Scout canoe trip I went on a few years ago in the Boundary Waters. I remember sitting outside in the pouring rain, absolutely bored, it wasn’t like I could read a book or anything.  On that same trip we battled hypothermia, and later, when the Scout Master accidentally cut a two-inch laceration across the palm of his hand, I sewed it up with a needle, some fishing line, and Leatherman tool.  It was, shall we say, a character building exercise for all.

      But the wilderness is also a metaphorical place. Henri Nouwen, in his book The Way of the Desert, calls the wilderness “the furnace of transformation.”  Time and again, the wilderness is a time and a place where’s God’s people go to be transformed.

      Far in the background lies the Genesis story of Adam and Eve and their temptations by the serpent, not in the wilderness, but in the garden. Next are the accounts of Israel’s 40 years of wandering and testing in the wilderness. Then there is the experience of Moses who was with the Lord for 40 days and nights during which time he neither ate nor drank. (Deut. 34:1-8). Elijah was in the wilderness 40 days and 40 nights before he heard the still small voice.  Forty days and nights, in the Bible, is not a literal number but a metaphorical number, symbolic of preparation and testing. That’s why we observe 40 days of Lent.

      For us, the wilderness experience is also a metaphorical place. It is a time and place of deprivation, fear, doubt, and darkness.  Things are unknown, blurred, confused.

      While there are wilderness experiences we undertake voluntarily, there are also wilderness experiences that come to us involuntarily, through life experiences we may not to able to predict nor prevent.

      Without warning, you find yourself unemployed, and you wake up in a wilderness, not knowing what to do.

      With guilt and anxiety, you wake up one day to find yourself farther down the path of easy money or an affair or greater substance dependency than you ever imagined possible, and you find yourself engaged in a conversation with the devil.

      A relationship that has given your life meaning and purpose ends – either by decision or by death — and you are a lost soul.

      Your faith — which has always sustained you — wavers as beliefs or circumstances change, and you’re tempted to drop out of church.  You find yourself wondering if life makes any sense at all.

      Your mind or body begins to fail you, and you find yourself in a place in life you have never been before, and it is a frightening wilderness.  So frightening you’d barter not only with the devil, but with God.

      Those who experience such wilderness times know why we pray: “Lead us not into temptation — the time of testing — but deliver us from evil.”

      In the wilderness, who is our conversation with? It is with the devil. Our word devil translates the Greek diabolos which originally meant accuser or slanderer. In the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), it was used to translate the Hebrew word satan, meaning adversary.  By 200 BCE the name Satan had become the embodiment of evil and by NT times it had become synonymous with devil.

      There are those who believe the devil to be a real being, you may be one of them. You may agree with 19th century Chicago evangelist Dwight Moody, who once said, “I know the devil is real, I’ve done business with him.” 

      But as with the wilderness, others think of the devil metaphorically, the personification of evil, or with the word taken in its original and deepest meaning, of the one who is the Adversary, the Accuser.  In that sense, I believe the devil appears more frequently in designer clothes or in an expensive suit, than with hoofs and horns.  In that sense, the devil is that voice that speaks within our heads, saying, as he has always said, “Did God really say . . . ?” 

      In an article that appeared 18 years ago in the Christian Century (“Testing That Never Ceases,” February 28, 1990), United Methodist preacher and professor Fred Craddock pointed out that temptation usually does not involve an obvious or undisguised evil. The scene before us is not a cartoon of Jesus debating some horned creature with a fiendish face who smells of sulfur.  Rather, Jesus is wrestling with the will of God for his life and ministry and is presented with three excellent offers, all of which have immense possibilities for good.

      Turn stones to bread. In a world of unbelievable hunger, why not?  Leap from the pinnacle of the temple.  In a world callous to sermon and lesson, why not use spectacle?  Enter the political arena.  In a world of slavery, war, oppression and disregard for life and rights, why not?  Because for Jesus, that is not God’s way, the way the final solution will be won. Ultimately, temptation is not a private morality game but a contest about whom we worship and how we live. 

      Even after we make our choices, it will not be easy.  Jesus will soon preach good news to the poor and release to captives, relieve the bruised, cleanse lepers, and heal the blind and crippled. He will be opposed.  Forces that traffic in human misery and reap huge profits from the poverty of others will try any means to turn him from such a ministry.

      In this regard, the world has not changed. Every church, every person who engages in the ministry of Jesus will quickly learn that there is another team on the field and it is often surprising and disappointing to learn who their members are.  Of course, churches that do not extend themselves in addressing need seldom if ever face opposition. But those that do, well, as the old saying goes, “You can always tell who the leader is by the arrows in their back.’”

      When finally Jesus survives the test in the desert, it is not because he quotes Scripture.  Let it be noted that the Scripture he used was not a Bible in his hand, but the Scripture in his heart and head, the only kind that really counts.  And, as Shakespeare observes about this passage, “Even the devil quotes Scripture.” Mostly like we do, out of context and for our own purposes.

      Neither was Jesus’ victory achieved by denouncing the offers tempting him. On the contrary, in the course of his ministry he would serve others, by feeding the hungry, performing wonders, and his ministry did and continues to have enormous political impact. Rather, Jesus’ trump to every test was to refuse to be like God, to serve himself first, the same old offer made to Adam and Eve. 

      In other words, Jesus did not use his power to claim exemption, either from the wilderness experience or the painful path of sacrificial service. 

      As St. Paul put it in his Letter to the Philippians:

      “He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all.  When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took of the status of a slave, became human!  Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that, a crucifixion.”  (Philippians 2: 6 – 8, The Message, by Eugene Peterson)

      Those of us who desire to follow Jesus – whether churches or Christians — must walk this way, because finally it is the only way — the path of suffering, serving, and dying — that is the pathway to Love and Life.

      Meanwhile, in our time of testing and temptation, we find ourselves having this same old conversation.  It seems to me the question is not, “How do we avoid it?” but, rather, “How do we learn from it?”

A few years ago I came across “Autobiography in Five Chapters” by Portia Nelson. Perhaps it best describes the learning curve of temptation:

        (1) I walk down the street.

        There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

        I fall in.

        I am lost . . . I am hopeless.

        It isn’t my fault.

        It takes forever to climb out.

        2) I walk down the same street.

        There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

        I pretend I don’t see it.

        I fall in again.

        I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

        But it isn’t my fault.

        It still takes a long time to get out.

3) I walk down the same street.

        There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

        I see it is there.

        I still fall in . . . It’s a habit

        My eyes are open

        I know where I am

        It is my fault

        I get out immediately.

        4) I walk down the same street.

        There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

        I walk around it.

5) I walk down another street.

Amen.

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