The following sermon was offered yesterday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Springfield.
Today’s Gospel about the wilderness temptation of Jesus is a powerful story that readers are fascinated by but often find hard to identify with. We think of it as something that happened to Jesus but not as something that can happen to us. That could be because we have an image of the devil standing next to Jesus. Maybe our image of the devil is the traditional rendition of someone with horns and a pitchfork. But the Bible does not describe the devil. The only thing we know about the devil is that he has a voice. Maybe he is just a voice. All of us, no matter how sane we are, have voices in our heads – voices of parents, teachers, coaches, friends and enemies. Heck, in the time it takes me for one golf swing, there are ten voices going off in my head: “Keep your head down, turn your shoulders, follow through, and don’t swing hard…”
So maybe, once again, this is not just a story about Jesus. It is our story too. Let’s look at it.
The word “devil” in Greek is diabolos. Remember that the New Testament is written in Greek. Diabolos means “one who throws things around,” “one who stirs things up.” That is what the devil does. He changes the true order of things. Recall the devil’s appearance in the Garden of Eden. All is good. All is peaceful and wonderful. But the devil in the form of a serpent goes to Eve and stirs things up. He tells her “don’t just settle for being loved by God. Eat from the tree and you will be God. It is not enough to be God’s creature. Go ahead and be God.” She listens to that voice and reality becomes distorted.
Scott Peck, author and philosopher, describes the difference between a person with a “secular mentality” and one with a “sacred mentality.” The person with the secular mentality feels himself to be the center of the universe. But that will lead to despair because eventually he will know he is one person among six billion others – all feeling themselves to be at the center of things – scratching out an existence on the surface of a medium-sized planet circling a small star among countless stars in a galaxy lost among countless galaxies. The person with a sacred mentality considers the Center of existence to be beyond her. Yet she is unlikely to feel lost or insignificant precisely because she draws her significance and meaning from her relationship, her connection, with that Center, that Other.
The devil is going to “throw things around” once again by trying to distort the relationship Jesus has as God’s Son. And he will do it through a series of “if” statements.
- “If you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
- “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the top of this temple and angels will bear you up.”
- “I will give you all the kingdoms of the world if you fall down and worship me.”
Evil always speaks in conditional terms. Evil always manipulates.
In contrast, God is a straight-talker and never puts conditions on love. Remember the voice from the cloud at the baptism of Jesus. It was God’s voice and God did not say “if you follow through on the mission, if you do everything I command, then you are my beloved Son.” No, God says right out “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And that is before Jesus ever performed a miracle or preached great sermons or healed the sick. “This is my beloved Son” and he puts no conditions on it.
Throughout the life of Jesus, people will speak more like the devil than like God:
- “If you are the son of God, show us…”
- “If you have the power to forgive sins.”
- “If you are the Son of God, climb down from that cross.”
God loves unconditionally. No “ifs.”
Jesus did not manipulate. He did not bargain. Jesus did not come to make a deal with us. Listen to the words on the last night of his life – the words you will hear when we go to the altar. Jesus did not say “This is my Body…and you may receive it if you are in a state of grace. This is my Blood; drink it if you are following all the rules.” Jesus speaks straight and unconditionally. “This is my Body – for you. My Blood – for you.”
This story goes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being. The devil tells Jesus, a hungry man at the end of a forty day fast, “If you are the son of God, turn this stone into bread.” What he is saying is if you are truly loved by God, then God won’t let you be hungry. Jesus, the human one, holds together being hungry and being loved by God. The devil is saying “you deserve better than this. If God loves you, you would never be hungry. Come with me and you can be full and fulfilled.” Jesus has to deal with this lack of fulfillment throughout his life.
Have you noticed how many times in the Gospels Jesus is frustrated – and knows he is loved.
- Jesus is opposed by the Temple leadership – and knows he is loved.
- Jesus is betrayed by Peter – and knows he is loved.
- Jesus is tortured to death by the Romans – and knows he is loved.
Jesus does not need everything to break his way to know God’s love, because the relationship to the Center of all that is, endures.
It works the same way for us.
- Can we have our hearts-broken and still know we belong to God?
- Can we have cancer and know God’s presence?
- Can we be unemployed and be loved by God?
The devil’s voice will always be in our heads, saying “no child of God would ever suffer like this. You deserve better. Come with me.” Oh, to respond like Jesus and say, “I would rather be hungry and on God’s team than a self-satisfied member of yours.”
How did Jesus know this? He knew it because he had an initial and everlasting experience of the unconditional love of God in his baptism. The baptism and the voice from above precede the temptations. This truth will sustain him. This truth can sustain us.
Different cultures express the originating love of God in a variety of ways.
- The Japanese hold new-born babies for the first year of life. The baby is never to be alone. This is because the baby has come from the divine world and is now in a foreign place and needs to be made to feel at home.
- Norwegians believe that when the soul enters the body of the baby, God kisses the baby. And throughout life the soul holds the memory of that kiss.
- The Jewish people believe an angel places the soul in the body and then seals it by placing a finger over the mouth of the child. That is why we have that little indentation over our lips and under our nose. It is where the angel’s finger was when she sealed in the spirit. That’s why when we try to remember something we instinctively place our index fingers into that little crevice. We are trying to remember and we are trying to remember more than where we left the car keys. We are trying to remember our divine origins.
We are made by God. We are made holy.
A long time ago, or maybe recently, someone poured water on your head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And then oil was placed on your head with the words, “I claim you as Christ’s own forever.” Forever we belong to Jesus. No “ifs.” Hungry we are his. Sick we are his. Sad we are his. In everything good and holy and joyful we are his. In life and in death we are his. We have unconditional belonging in the very life of God.
This seems like a good place to end the sermon but I need us to look at one more thing in this awesome story of eleven verses – the ending. “The devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
We are tempted to say, “Great timing, angels. You arrive after all the hard work has been done. You couldn’t have come sooner, when Jesus needed you?”
But, wait. Remember what the angels do in the Bible. They arrive with news of a new era beginning.
- In Matthew’s gospel they visit Joseph in dreams to tell him “don’t be afraid to take the pregnant Mary for your wife. She will bear a son and he will save the people from their sins.”
- In another dream angels appear to say Herod wants to kill the baby. Go to Egypt and live as refugees.
- In Luke’s gospel angels appear three times, always announcing something new.
Of course then the angels appear after Jesus has resisted the devil. They come so Jesus can set off on his mission – a mission that will change the world, a mission of mercy, compassion and hope, a mission so important it did not end with his death, a mission that continues in his Resurrection and the ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit, a mission that continues in you and me.
We are Christ’s own forever. And we are part of his Movement – the Jesus Movement – to change this world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it.