Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent 1A

NB: With a bit 'o help from Douglas John Hall and Maryetta Anshutz in Feasting on the Word.

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In a sermon a few months ago I asked you, “How would you recognize God’s voice if you heard it? And how would you know it was God’s?”

Today, I want to adjust the question a little, and ask, “How would you know the Devil’s voice if you heard it? What does the voice of evil sound like? How would you know evil if it was sitting across the table from you?”

On the surface, the answer may sound obvious. Just listen for the sound of the guttural voice, growling under your bed at night.

Or look for the goateed fellow in the red pajamas and pitch fork standing on your shoulder, whispering naughty suggestions in your ear.

Or the guy with horns growing out of his forehead, laughing at you while you try to follow the bible’s moral guidance.

Is that what you hear when you listen for the voice of evil?

Or maybe you’re not so fanciful. You know that there’s evil in the world and it bears no resemblance to a cartoon character. You’ve seen it. Heard it. And felt it.

Maybe for you, the voice of evil is the one justifying child poverty in our communities as a unavoidable result of economic changes.

Maybe it’s the voice of third world dictators oppressing their people as they try to hang on to power.

Maybe it’s the church leaders who covered up decades of sexual abuse.

You can say that the voice of evil is everywhere, shouting in our ears.

And that would be true. But I would say that the voice of evil doesn’t only shout, but also whispers.

The voice of evil sends us subliminal messages, until evil’s message makes its way into our lives, and before we know it, we stop recognizing it as evil.

I think that’s the evil that Jesus was fighting in the desert. After all, there wasn’t anything in the devil’s temptation list that we don’t affirm as good. Yet Jesus rejects as evil. Or at least outside of his mission and God’s plan for him.

Look at the first temptation. The devil knows he’s hungry. After all, Jesus hasn’t eaten in weeks. I’m sure he was getting the tummy rumbles.

So the devil says, “Hey, Jesus, just turn the bread into stone. You’re famished. People will understand. Plus it would be a really cool trick.”

“One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus replied. “But by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Okay, Jesus. Be that way.

The devil then takes him to the roof of the temple.

“Jesus, if you just jumped from here, the angels will swoop in and carry you to the ground. Then people will know who you are, and will listen to you and believe your message is from God.”

“The bible says, ‘Don’t test God.’”

Okay, Jesus. But this is a lost opportunity. Don’t you know about the power of self-promotion?

Then the devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world. “Think of it Jesus, think of all the good you could do if YOU were in charge and not these petty, selfish, ham-fisted, rulers. You could REALLY set the world straight - one YOUR OWN terms. All you have to do is bow to me just once.”

“The bible says, worship the Lord your God, and only him.”

“Okay, Jesus, leave the world to these small-minded incompetents. Let’s see how THAT works out.”

Then the devil disappeared and the angels nursed Jesus back to health.

But I’m not sure that Jesus passed the test, because I don’t think that test ever finished. The devil was just getting started.

These temptations popped up all through Jesus ministry. Jesus had to be on his guard against the forces of evil trying to end his mission, trying to pull him away from God’s purpose for him.

It may seem like the devil tempted Jesus with three different temptations, but I think there was one temptation running through each of them, and through Jesus’ entire earthly mission: the temptation to power.

The power to bend the world to feed personal desire; the spiritual power over the heavenly realms to draw attention to himself rather than to God’s message; and political power over earthly kingdoms.

The devil tried to get Jesus to abandon his mission of changing the world through love, by tempting him to change the world by force. Force is easier than love.

And since the devil failed to tempt Jesus, he turned his guns on to a more susceptible group: the church. Christians. Us. I think we’re being tempted everyday by the very things that Jesus was tempted by.

When our churches aspire to be religious corporations rather than servants to the poor and hurting, we are being tempted by the devil to abandon Jesus’ mission.

When we demand that Christians be given preferential treatment from government and culture, and seek to change the world by force or by legislation rather than by love, the devil wins a victory.

When we worry more about doctrine and dogma than about sharing and being good news to broken people in a sin-stained world, we succumb to evil’s temptation.

And, of course, we DO fail the devil’s test, just as we fail God’s test. The devil knows the standard by which we will be judged, and knows the evil that lives within us. The devil knows what buttons to push.

The devil knows that we aspire to transcend our humanity, that we have a will to dominate, that our selfish impulses often overwhelm our desires to do good.

The devil knows that we are capable of terrible evil and incredible good. The devil knows that we are muddle of mixed motivations, and the harder we try to deny the darkness within us, more darkness comes out of us.

We will be tempted. And will fail. We ARE tempted. We DO fail.

But Jesus, finally, did not.

He passed the test by dying on the cross rather than crown himself as king. He conquered his enemies by suffering a horrible defeat. He won the war by losing the battle.

Love won over force. Servanthood was victorious over power.

On the cross Jesus overcame our darkness with God’s light. A light that glows with a cleansing fire. A light that disinfects. A light that shines in our hidden places. A light that fills the whole world with God’s loving grace.

That’s why I don’t worry too much about our future. I know we’ll be tempted and I know we’ll fail. But Jesus has passed the test for us. And that’s all we need.



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