And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” 5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time,6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written,“‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” 9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said 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 guard you,’11 and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” 12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Anyone here been to Yellowstone National Park? The first white fur trapper to see the Yellowstone Country, did not experience wonder and delight as he walked among the geysers, steam vents, bubbling multi-colored paint pots and steaming, and hot pools of water, as I hope we have, if we have been there. His name was John Coulter, and he experienced terror and dread, because he thought, surely this is the place where “Hell Bubbles Up.”
Today, we know better. Geysers like Old Faithful are works of God, not the devil. But had John Coulter been in the trenches of France during World War I, or Auschwitz in World War 2, or in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda in the 1990’s where we first learned the phrase, “ethnic cleansing,” there he would have seen hell bubbling up. In such times and places, it seems easier to prove the existence of the devil, than of God.
What bubbled up from hell in those places was outrageously, unbelievably, undeniably in-your-face evil. But in today’s Gospel passage, we see how amazingly sly and subtle evil and The Evil One can be. But that’s the Good news in this passage. And I’ll give you four reasons why it’s good news. I’ll also talk about the cost in this passage, but only two reasons for that. So, today, the good news outweighs the bad two to one.
The good news in today’s Gospel passage is this: we have a mortal, ruthless, merciless, implacable “enemy of our souls,” the same one who tempted Jesus in the desert. He is known in the Bible as Satan, the devil, the Evil One, the Father of Lies, the enemy of our souls, the Adversary, the Accuser of the Brethren, the Prince of the Power of the air, the serpent, the dragon, and more. This enemy wants and works for nothing less than our eternal separation from God. And we, on our own, are no match for him.
Now, please don’t think of some sly, handsome devil in red tights, with a tail, a goatee, cloven hoofs for feet and horns on his head. I don’t see him behind every door, nor do I give him credit for every evil thought or deed of ours. Like the title of the Tyler Perry movie puts it, “I can do bad by myself.” If ever I see someone acting really weird, I’ll call a doctor or a psychologist long before I’ll call an exorcist.
So, is it outdated, primitive, backward, regressive, medieval and unenlightened to talk about a personal yet spiritual force for evil, by whatever name we’d use? If so, then we must cut quite a few pages and passages from the Bible, even half the pages out of the gospels. For all the other things that Jesus is and does, as teacher, healer, preacher, prophet, and more, key among his roles and ministries is his deliverance ministry. Before his confused and befuddled disciples understood and confessed who Jesus really was, the unclean spirits knew and confessed who Jesus was, but in cries of terror and despair.
Usually, the Evil One’s work is quite sly and subtle. For one thing, he never plays fair. He attacked Jesus at his weakest time and point, after forty days of fasting. He’s also slick. He can load so much fear, doubt and suspicion into the fewest and simplest words, words like, “If.” “If you are the Son of God….” he says to the Son of God. Notice how he’s not saying a bold-faced, outrageous lie. Rather, he’s selectively using a piece of the truth, but as bait with which to try and get Jesus to swallow a hidden hook of falsehood.
And so the Father of Lies pits one half-truth against another half-truth. Or he dangles before us good things, but for bad reasons. Father Henry Nouwen, in his book, In the Name of Jesus, described these three temptations of Jesus this way: “Turn this stone into Bread” is the temptation to be relevant, as the world counts relevance. Now, what could possibly be more relevant than feeding the hungry? Especially if you could feed all the world’s hungry people by turning rocks into bread? Do that and no one will ever need to farm again.
Jumping from the pinnacle of the temple so that the cheering, adoring crowds can watch you descend gently to earth in the hands of angels, and have it go viral on Youtube and Facebook, is the temptation to be popular, as the world calculates popularity. Now, what’s wrong with a little popularity? Don’t we all want to be loved and valued? Don’t we all need to be loved and valued?
“Worship me,” says Satan, and “and I will give you all the world’s governments and armies and businesses.” That’s what all his lies and temptations are finally about: worshiping him, rather than God. That is the temptation to be powerful, as the world counts power.
Now, isn’t power a good thing? Can’t we use it for good? Isn’t Jesus supposed to have all power over the planet? Won’t it be great when every knee does bow and every tongue confesses that he is Lord? The Prince of Peace ruling The Peaceable Kingdom, doesn’t that sum up our hope as Christians? So, why go through three years of opposition, homelessness, confused and clueless disciples, only to end up on a cross, when he can have it all then and there?
No, relevance, popularity and power are not bad things in themselves. But when the Evil One offers them, there’s always a catch. He turns treasures into traps. Like when churches and denominations pay people to keep silent and so cover up abuse, and abusive clergy, and then just move those clergy around. They think they’re protecting God and the witness and ministry of the church. And they can stay relevant, powerful and popular. Those sound like good things, right?
As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Now, to say that we have the same ruthless, implacable, merciless enemy who compulsively seeks our ruin, as did Jesus, How could that possibly be good news? Three reasons: First, it says that WE are not the enemy. Yes, We must each face responsibility for our problems and our part in the problems of the world. But we are not the problem.
That’s why I often come away from a prison visit inspired, especially when the person I’m visiting says something like, “I did it, and I accept responsibility for it. My crime is in my history, but it’s not my identity. I did that, but I am NOT that. My rap sheet is mine, but it is not ME. I am a Beloved child of God.”
This is also important for getting through depression. In the deepest depths of depression, emotionally speaking, we become our own judges, juries and executioners for every simple little slip-up, misstep and oversight. And yet for the same faults and failures we’d usually be a lot less hard on other people. Depression says, “We are the problem,” when the truth is, We have a problem, or a problem has us. It’s called “depression.”
It’s vital to get counseling and medical help for depression, even though depression says to us: “shame on you for needing help.” What also helps is realizing that the intense self-loathing of depression is very much like someone else’s hatred for us: The Accuser of the Brethren. His hatred, contempt and loathing for us are not really for any fault or failure on our part, though that’s what he says. His hatred stems precisely from how beautiful and beloved we are. He hates us not because we are sinners (though we are), but because we bear the glorious image of the God whom he hates and fears, and whom he cannot be. So, if ever any negative self-loathing thoughts or feelings start to worm their way into our heads, remember who really thinks and feels that way about us, and why: The Accuser of the Brethren, because of how beautiful and beloved we are as bearers of God’s image. Again, to say that we have an enemy, the same one who tried and tempted Jesus, is Good news, because we have met the enemy, and he is not us.
A second reason that having such an enemy is good news is because then, logically, THEY are not the enemy. Who do I mean by “they?” Oh, whoever we just love to hate. Whoever it is against whom we carry on angry arguments all the time, in person, on Facebook, or even just in our heads: the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Traditionalists, the Progressives, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, whoever has hurt us or dissed us and we can’t get over it, or whoever we fear might hurt us or dis us someday.
Even if someone counts us as their enemy, they’re not our real enemy. They’re just friends who have been taken prisoner in the chains of fear and hatred. As we have often been. As Pastor Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church often says, “If it has flesh and blood, it’s not our enemy.” That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies…..” the human ones, he means. That’s Why John asks, “How can we love God, whom we can’t see, if we don’t love the people we can see?” So, the second reason why having this particular enemy is good news, is because we then need have no other flesh-and-blood enemies, not even those who count us as their enemies.
The Third reason having such an enemy is good news is because Jesus has shown us, in every battle from the desert to the empty tomb, that his enemy is not invincible; he is vulnerable- he has more than met his match in the Word of God, both the Living Word, Jesus, and in the Written Word of the Scriptures. Notice how Jesus, the Living Word of God, employed the Written Word of God as a weapon against the tempter. Each of Jesus’ counter-attacks begins with, “It is written,” or “It is said.” Jesus thereby flattens hell’s lies with heaven’s truth.
That’s why Christian Education and Faith Formation are Bible-based and so important. Yes, the Scriptures give us comfort, guidance and hope. But they also scare the hell out of hell. That makes our Bible studies, our daily devotional readings and prayers, our Sunday School classes not only information-gathering sessions, not only inspiration-gathering sessions, but lessons and training for survival in a world where hell is constantly bubbling up, whether in the most outrageous and blatant ways, or in the most sly and subtle ways. But we won’t recognize these hellish irruptions if we don’t know the Word the way Jesus did. Nor if we don’t use the Word the way Jesus did, not against each other, but against evil and the Evil One.
So, again, the three reasons why having such an enemy is good news is: 1) We are not the enemy; 2) They are not the enemy; and 3) our true enemy is not invincible; he is vulnerable and defeated already, not by any human weapons or wisdom, but by the Divine Word.
Now for the 2nd QUESTION: What’s the Cost of such good news? One cost is that we are drafted into the fight of our lives, literally. There’s no avoiding it. We may not be interested in evil and the Evil One, but they are very interested in us. And they never stop. Get one challenge and struggle out of the way behind us, and successfully, and it won’t be long before another one arises. There are different challenges and temptations for every age and stage of our lives.
For example: sometimes, in the last years or days of life, someone who has walked faithfully with God and family and the church all their years, never or rarely giving into the sins of presumption against God, are sore tempted by what ancient Christian catechisms call a very serious sin: “despairing of the mercy of God.” Someone who all their lives confessed that “I am saved by God’s grace through faith,” may wonder, “When I see God face-to-face soon, will God be pleased with me, and accept me? Did I do enough in this life? Was I good enough in this life, for him?”
Like he did in the desert, the tempter is dangling as bait before us one half of the truth: no, we’ve never done enough, there’s always more that could be done, and better; something is always unresolved that must be left in God’s hands, and no, there’s no way for us to earn God’s pleasure. But then the father of lies is deliberately and deceitfully obscuring the other, more important part of the truth: It’s about God’s goodness, only God can ever do it all, or enough or perfectly; God is already pleased with us as his children, and his handiwork, and in our trust in him to bring us safely through this life into the everlasting joy of his presence. Such fights happen from one stage of life to the next, not because we are bad, but precisely because of how beloved and beautiful, precious and important the enemy of our souls knows that we are to God. That’s one cost of today’s good news.
That’s one reason why I am a pacifist Mennonite minister: not because I am afraid of fighting, but because I don’t want to be fighting the wrong enemy, in the wrong war, with the wrong weapons.
A second cost: winning these battles from which we cannot run, means not only that we forsake bad and wicked things. We must sometimes forego good things, but for the sake of better things, even the best things. Think again about Jesus’ three temptations. By turning stones into bread, Satan pretended to offer Jesus not only food (a good thing, of course) but “relevance.” But Jesus was already more than relevant. He is “the Word of God” and “The Wisdom of God.” He is “the way, the truth and the life.” As our “Bread of Life,” Jesus and his teachings are more than relevant; they are timeless, trustworthy and true.
As for the power that Satan offered by worshiping him, Jesus already had greater power, the power of love, to be displayed most powerfully upon the cross. By that he earned his rightful rulership over the world, so that every knee shall bow before him.
As for the popularity which Satan dangled off the top of the temple, Jesus has something better: being God’s Beloved Son. But he proved it not by provoking our awe and admiration, but by being “despised of men and acquainted with griefs,” so that we might inherit and share his identity as God’s Beloved.
If we undertake any sacrifice or special discipline in this season of Lent, let that be the reason for it: that we forego something good for something better. Better things like our partnership with the ministries of Bridging Cultures, the Senior Center in Bolivia, the Jubilee Food Pantry, or the food shelf of The Canby Center. We have Lenten season activities and opportunities to sacrifice good things like a meal or some innocent indulgence, for such better things. Any such sacrifices are but minor skirmishes in the ongoing fight of our lives.
As I said earlier, there’s a fourth item of good news from today’s Gospel passage: However scary our fights with lies, trials, temptations and suffering might be a times, there is always someone who is even more scared and despairing than are we: the one who lost his battle with Jesus in the desert 2100 years ago, and who went on to lose every battle with him ever since. He is more scared and despairing than we can ever be, because his ultimate defeat is assured, and because every lie and temptation he offers could well backfire on him. It could spur us to rely on God and to grow in goodness, strength and wisdom. And it often does.
To the Lamb of God who is also the Lion of Judah, belongs the victory, and even more glory and honor than the Accuser of the Brethren falsely offered hi