Lent 1c, February 14, 2016

February 15, 2016

Frustrate the Devil
Luke 4:1-13

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where 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. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And 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. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 9 Then 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, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

I like this story of Jesus in the wilderness. It’s a unique story. Most of the stories that we find in the Gospels portray interactions between Jesus and other people, but this story is different. This story isn’t about the way Jesus related to other people or what he taught in public places. This is a drama that played out within Jesus’ heart, mind and soul. There is only one person on hand in this story and it’s Jesus. It’s a powerful portrayal of Jesus coming to understand himself, and deciding what he was going to do with his life. We may not all have experiences as vivid as Jesus – probably because we don’t spend forty days fasting in the wilderness, but we all make decisions about what we will do with our lives and who we seek to serve, and it’s good to see how Jesus navigated that territory.

This story serves as an introduction into the spiritual life of Jesus. It strikes me as being very instructional. And one thing it points to is how valuable it can be for our souls when our bodies get put in difficult places. This wilderness experience Jesus had was not like a backpacking trip in a national park. This experience was a trial – not an adventure. I think it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t just step in to the wilderness – he was led in to the wilderness by the Spirit. It was a hard place to be and he was there for a long time. God’s Spirit remained with him while he was there, and that Holy Spirit enabled him to emerge from the wilderness with a powerful sense of clarity and resolve, but God’s Spirit wasn’t the only spirit out there.

I think this story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness can serve as an enduring source of encouragement to all people who are living in harsh circumstances. Being in the wilderness is hard, but it can be spiritually enriching, and we should claim it when we’re in it. If you’ve got chronic pain – you are living in the wilderness. If you don’t have enough money to pay your bills – you are living in the wilderness. If you’ve got cancer – you are living in the wilderness. If you or a loved one is battling with substance abuse – you are living in the wilderness. If you struggle with depression and despair – you are living in the wilderness. The wilderness takes on a lot of different forms in our lives, and it’s a hard place to be, but it’s also the place where we make monumental discoveries and decisions.

I don’t want to water down this concept too much, but the truth is we have all had the wilderness experience. We all know what it’s like to be in a hard place for too long. We haven’t all been equally tested, but we all know what it’s like to be in a difficult circumstance for what seems like a long time.

And we all know what it’s like to run in to the devil. At least we sort of know what it’s like to deal with the devil. Actually I have highly conflicting ideas about the devil. I made it through seminary without having to define my thoughts about the devil. Being the moderate United Methodist that I am I’m not inclined to identify the work of the devil as quickly as some of my Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations, but I’m not dismissive of the concept of the devil.

We have in our scripture lesson a very clear reference to the devil – which is reason enough to hang on to the concept. But I’ve also encountered people and situations that provide evidence for the work of the devil. Unfortunately, Jesus never gave us a nice clear lecture on the problem and presence of evil in this world, but we know it’s with us. The presence of the devil isn’t exactly clear to me, but I do believe that the sales rep. for evil is showing up for work every day.

I love the way the author and theologian, C. S. Lewis, portrays the devil in his book, The Screwtape Letters. This book is put together as a series of letters from a character named, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, and they are what you might call minions of the devil. This book portrays hell as having an elaborate bureaucracy – which makes great sense to me. I think we’ve all gotten caught up in forms of bureaucracy that are absolutely hellish. Hell isn’t just hot – there are long lines and lots of forms to fill out. Honestly, the thought that hell is an eternity of having to navigate layers of horrible administration and supervision scares me to death.

The letters in this book contain advice from Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, on how he could be more effective in leading his assigned human away from God. The letters are characteristically demeaning and critical of Wormwood – as you would expect from a supervisor from hell.

Screwtape is very eloquent in describing the many ways that humans can be led astray, and it’s easy to recognize those various paths we get on that lead us away from trusting in God. It’s an entertaining book, and it’s got a lot of truth in it. It plays with this idea of how the devil operates in our world, and I like what C.S. Lewis says in the preface to the book. He writes:

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell in to my hands.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors …

He goes on, but the point he makes that makes great sense to me is that we can make too much or too little of the forces of evil that are present in this world. We can give the devil too much credit, or we can fail to guard our souls against the ever-present forces of evil.

The story of the temptation of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus defeating the devil forever. You might say Jesus won that battle, but the war wasn’t over, and still isn’t over. As the scripture says, the devil departed from Jesus until a more opportune time.

I think it’s good for us to understand that the best we can expect to do is to put up resistance to the presence of evil in our day. And while it would be nice to think we could live such holy lives that the devil wouldn’t even want to get near us, that isn’t how it works. The very own son of God wasn’t immune from the voice of the devil. And those offers were even sprinkled with some Holy Scripture, but Jesus didn’t buy it, and I love to think of how annoying that must have been to the devil.

Luke doesn’t invite us in to the mind of the devil, but C.S. Lewis opened that door for me, and it’s really satisfying for me to think of how this devil who visited Jesus must have been harassed by his peers in hell. It’s actually pretty motivating for me to want be as frustrating as the devil – to the devil. Maybe it’s the devil in me, but I like the idea of creating problems for the devil.

I wish I could claim that I’ve caused some kind of terrible turmoil for some poor devil in a small cubicle in a corner of hell, but as surely as I may have done that, I fear I’ve probably allowed some other devil to claim a corner office. I could really get in to this way of thinking that I’m either providing my assigned devil with advancements or demotions, but I’m actually more inclined to be dismissive of the presence of the devil. I don’t really stay on the lookout for the ways in which I’m vulnerable to the devil, and as C.S. Lewis noted, we Christians can err in both directions.

I’m mindful of the vows we United Methodists make when we present ourselves or our children for baptism. Here are the first two questions we ask people who come for baptism: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? And, Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

These are good questions for us all to continue to ask ourselves. Are we fully exercising our power to renounce and resist and reject evil in our world?

The funny thing about wilderness experiences is that while they are difficult and draining – they are also the places where we truly come to understand the power that we have to be strong witnesses to the presence of God in this world. It’s in the wilderness that we often make the decision to give ourselves more fully to God. It’s in the wilderness that we can grow less attached to the materials of this world and we learn to trust in the grace of God.

Jesus was famished after forty days, and it’s easy to make bad decisions when you are thoroughly stressed, but the devil didn’t tempt him then because he was weak. The devil tempted Jesus at that point because Jesus was in touch with a new sense of power. Jesus had gained something in the wilderness that he didn’t previously have, and he had to decide how he was going to use it.

Jesus chose to serve God and that must have been terribly frustrating to the devil, and this is the same option we all have. It’s not easy to turn our various difficulties and challenges in to opportunities for spiritual growth, but it can happen. The Holy Spirit doesn’t always lead us in to the wildernesses we find ourselves in, but the Holy Spirit is always on hand to help us navigate whatever territory we are in, and to turn our trials in to triumphs. The Holy Spirit is there to help us see through the shiny offers the devil is inclined to make.

Throughout our lives we come to decision points, and through them we are either giving God something to celebrate or we are helping some wretched devil get a promotion. We don’t always see what we are doing, and that’s a problem, but it becomes less of a problem the more we give ourselves to the things we know that God desires. The more we serve God through acts of mercy, kindness, compassion, and justice the more sensitive we become to the work of God to redeem the world. The more we make ourselves available to God through prayer, Bible study, worship and acts of devotion the more conscious we become of God’s loving presence in this world.

We can make too much or too little of the work of the devil, but we can never pay too much attention to the life of Jesus Christ and his claim upon our lives. He’s not easy to follow, but with some effort and some openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives we can bring some joy to heaven and generate some frustration in hell. And what a happy thought that is!

Thanks be to God – Amen.

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