"The devil made me do it."
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
Back in the early 1970’s the comedian Flip Wilson had a variety show on television. One of the characters he played was Geraldine, and one of her catch phrases was, “The devil made me do it.” When Geraldine did something that would get her in trouble, she blamed the devil, and everyone laughed. It wasn’t her fault; it was the devil’s. That’s a pretty convenient card to keep up your sleeve. It’s not my fault. It’s the devil’s.
You can even read about this in the Bible. King David got in trouble one day. The original account of the story in 2 Samuel 14:1 says that God incited David to sin. Later writers didn’t like this idea of blaming God so when they retold this story in 1 Chronicles 21:1 they said instead that Satan incited David to sin. Exact same Bible. Exact same sin. Exact same David. But the way it was left in the Bible, it was the devil who was to blame.
I tell you these things to help us look at the story of Jesus’ temptation maybe a bit differently. Maybe less Medieval devil with horns and hooves and pitchfork, and maybe a bit more as a complex psychological and spiritual drama as Jesus battles within Himself the implications of who He is and what He’s supposed to do.
I mentioned once before the book Lamb by Christopher Moore. It’s a fun, fictional and interesting read. It’s the story of Jesus growing into a fuller realization of who He is as the Son of God. It’s trying to deal with how complicated it had to be for a carpenter’s son to realize He was God’s Son. We don’t want to make Jesus’ spiritual and psychological awakening trivial or purely supernatural. God said “You are my Son.” Jesus said, “O.K.” And it’s over.
We can never forget the real human nature of Jesus. It is no insult to His divine nature to treat His human nature as just as real. How did Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, the carpenter himself, the one who went searching for answers out with John the Baptist, and the one who struggled in solitude and desert isolation for 40 days, how did this Jesus come out of all this as the one who would lead a religious revolution?
Or as we mentioned last Sunday, how did Jesus find the conviction and authority to change thousands of years of tradition with nothing more convincing than, “I say to you …” Where did that assurance come from? Two months earlier, Jesus was still searching for answers out with the Baptist. Do we really want to say that this change was forced upon Jesus only by God’s voice from heaven and challenged only by the devil’s voice in the wilderness? Or, is something profoundly more internal and interesting taking place?
I think it’s also important to know that Matthew’s, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit …” is an intentionally tamer version of the original in Mark where it is written: “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.”
Mark is the oldest Gospel. And in his telling of this story, there are definite indications of a violent reaction. This is not clouds parting, sun shining and rainbows. Jesus is disturbed to the core by the thoughts of who He is and what He is called to do. We soften this story only to make ourselves feel more comfortable with it, and at the same time to make Jesus less like us, and less human.
These events have commonly been called “the temptation of Jesus” as if it’s all about sin, but maybe these temptations are more complicated than right and wrong. Maybe they are the authentic struggles of coming to grips with God.
Read the chapters of the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah to see what I’m talking about. You can be perfectly faithful and still have a deep-seated religious anguish.
What if the imagery of the first temptation is the most basic one? What if hunger satisfied is the temptation to use faith to think of God as nothing more than a magical provider? I’m hungry and I don’t have to be.
There is nothing wrong with praying for favours. God help me with this. God watch over so and so. But if we only use God to fill our wants, our faith is wanting. I imagine Jesus quickly dispensed with this distraction.
But what if this is also the temptation to be relevant? Just imagine how much Jesus would have loved to alleviate all the needs and suffering of His people. How much did Jesus want to be mostly the humanitarian rather than the revealer of God and of what we’re supposed to do?
The second temptation follows upon the first. Jesus struggles with how best to serve God. What if this is a warning about self-deception? What if Jesus knows He must preach and heal, must argue and lead by example, must be peaceful and forgiving without fail, and then the self-deception slips in that He could better serve God by dramatic displays of power and miracle?
How much easier that would have been. But Jesus knows the history of the Bible. The generation following displays of power either have to see their own displays or they fall away. It’s more about the show than the faith. And Jesus moves on.
The third and last temptation is about power. This is the one that can corrupt the worthiest of saviours. Think about all of the leaders we read about who free their nations from oppression to only turn into oppressors themselves. They can’t imagine giving up power. They rationalize and tell people that they’re doing it for the good of others, but it’s really about the power.
This is Jesus’ third temptation. When He faces down power, Jesus is ready to begin His ministry of service and sacrifice.
Just like Jesus’ 40 days, our 40 days of Lent give us the chance to look at our faith and how we will live it.
Do we turn to God only to ask favours? Do we sense in our conscience the hard work we should do as people of faith, but convince ourselves it’s not necessary? And do we really accept that as Christians we are called to serve and even to sacrifice?
Lent gives us the chance to challenge our faith to live it more sincerely. Lent is our chance to give more time to Jesus in our lives. And hopefully at the end of Lent we will hopefully better understand why we choose to follow Jesus, especially a crucified Jesus, and why Jesus is worth it.
For these things may we pray in His name. Amen.
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