The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
First Sunday in Lent
Someone periodically will ask me to state my views of the devil. Usually the tone of voice causes my alarms to go off – and I realize my views are only a stage for their lecture. “Well, actually, I don’t think much about the devil.” This is when they enlighten and warn me, but probably figures they got to me too late. My explanation is woefully deficient: “I need to work on my relationship with God first. Once I perfect that, I’ll move on to the devil – like you have.” As a seminary professor once said, God created human beings, gave us free will, and watched what we do with our free will, and decided He need to create the devil. We were doing just fine on our own.
The Bible does not speak with one voice here. In the book of Job, God gives the green light for the devil to test Job – to see how he holds up under calamity and chaos. In the gospels the devil appears as an enemy of God, trying to derail Jesus from his mission. And sometimes we read how Jesus rid people of demons – some lesser form of evil that takes hold of a person.
Jesus at his baptism hears a heavenly voice confirming who he is. The Holy Spirit invites Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of retreat and interrogation by the devil. Jesus fasts the entire time. Makes me wonder which side the Holy Spirit’s on. Whether this is God’s permission, or the devil’s cunning, we don’t know. After forty days, Jesus ends the fast. He has to be starving, and there don’t seem to be any Burger Kings in the wilderness. So, the devil comes up with a creative solution. “Look Jesus, if you really are Son of God change this stone into a loaf of bread. Why if you can do this, think of how you could feed the hungry, plus attract a lot of people to your cause.” Jesus has nothing to prove to the devil, or anyone, except his Father. “You don’t live by bread alone.” I don’t think Jesus is against soup kitchens and food pantries. He has a different mission – to open our hearts for God’s new reign. Maybe if he can get that done, people who have more than they need will share with those who don’t. What an interesting strategy, don’t you think?
Next the devil takes Jesus on a field trip. Must be way up high, because they can look down and see the world’s kingdoms, wealth and power. “Jesus, all this is yours, if you simply worship me.” Think of all the good – Jesus could do – bring peace to the world, enact justice – lift up the poor. To use such power, Jesus’ influence quotient could skyrocket. But Jesus knows his scripture, his Father and his mission. He trusts God to provide the influence he’ll need, to do what needs to be done. Maybe again, if our hearts can change for God’s sake, we could do something about wars, hatred, power abused, and such.
One more shot – the devil next leads Jesus to Jerusalem, to the Temple where they are now standing on the protective wall that prevents people from falling off a balcony ledge. “Just jump – if you are the Son of God, you’ll be fine. God won’t let His anointed one even trip over a stone. That’s in scripture. If you are who you say you are, God will preserve you, and people will listen to you.” Again, Jesus quotes one back at him back – “I nor anyone tests God.” Again, Jesus doesn’t deviate from who he is, or from God’s plan. He trusts God will catch him when the time is right.
The devil is finished for now. Jesus passes the test, thus far. The devil will come back for another try. The devil doesn’t give up on Jesus. Nor can we ever take for granted that we have conquered sin or evil.
When have you been tested? Tests like Jesus was given won’t be ours. Yet each day we do have tests that reveal what’s on our insides – what gets expressed as our character. Choices between good and bad, right and wrong are easy. Deciding between good and best is tough. Honestly, I don’t always know the best from the good. And we can work ourselves into knots trying to listen for God’s voice. Am I hearing God’s voice, or my own? How do I know? Maybe God gives us some extra credit points, just for thinking about God in such a moment.
For Jesus, his test results reveal what sort of Messiah he’ll be – perfectly obedient, loyal, and trusting of God alone. As followers of Jesus, what do others see in us? Would they know we strive to trust God alone by our choices? What kind of person will you be to the co-worker who bad-mouths you behind your back? Do you accept the job that offers more salary and security for your retirement, or one that fulfills what you really want to do? Could your annoying neighbor be a test? Even the small things, in a way, test us. But how about heavier areas: like passing on gossip, shading a story to make someone like bad, telling something you know is not true? These could easily be our moments of testing – when others and we can see what is truly inside our hearts.
Jesus passes with flying colors. He proves who he is by his obedience and loyalty to the Father. The devil’s strategies, appealing and possible, are not God’s. For us, evil presents itself in subtle ways. Because we are not Jesus, we sometimes mess up. And we keep praying, “Lead us not into temptation.” But temptations keep coming up, and God just seems to sit there watching us go down the wrong road sometimes. But He never loses sight of us – when we mess up or get it right – lo, he’s there, always.
The good news is we know the One who took his test, and passed with flying colors. He’s got a perfect score. And now the really great news – he’s on our side, and he’s built enough extra credit points he can share with us, so we can pass, too – even when we fail.