Having grown up in the mostly Methodist and Baptist South, I grew up a culture that had no problem talking about the devil or Satan. If you are starting to doubt yourself or are feeling abandoned in some way, a Southerner has no problem declaring, “That’s just the devil trying to pull you away from the Lord.” My experience in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and especially with Episcopalians in those areas, is that people are not as comfortable talking about the devil and labeling the devil’s work in our lives. I am not sure why we get so skittish talking about the devil. Even the Great Litany, which we pray this morning, makes us uncomfortable with all its “devil” references. My suspicion is that our hesitancy is a fear of sounding superstitious or a general lack of understanding or comfort with talking about the devil. Perhaps we are not even sure the devil exists. I too find myself in the camp of having a difficult time wrapping my head around the concept of the devil. But I must also admit that when I have been told that my current troubles were due to the devil meddling in my relationship with God, I have felt better. There is something quite freeing about naming the devil in the midst of our lives.
Our gospel lesson today highlights why we are so skittish about the devil. The devil works in the thin space between good and evil. For example, the three temptations of Jesus from the devil are just ambiguous enough that Jesus could reason his way into responding positively to the devil. First the devil asks Jesus to turn a stone into bread. Now if Jesus decides to do such a thing for himself, who is famished from fasting for forty days, we could see his action as self-serving and certainly in line with the devil. But if Jesus turns the “abundant stones that cover Israel’s landscape into ample food to feed the many hungry people in a land often wracked by famine,”[i] then in good conscience, he might begin to consider the devil’s tempting offer.
Next, the devil tempts Jesus with the power to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. Now if Jesus decides to take such authority out of a desire for power and greed, we could easily deem his action as rooted in self-serving sin. But, if Jesus agrees to take that authority so that he can rule the world with justice, then the deal with the devil becomes a bit murkier. If you remember, at the time of the Gospel, the land is under the heavy hand of Rome.[ii] Jesus could easily turn their suffering to justice if he accepts the devil’s offer.
Finally, the devil tempts Jesus to prove God’s protective care. Now if Jesus were jumping from the pinnacle of the temple just to show off how protected he is, then we could judge Jesus to be behaving in a sinful way. But Jesus is committing to a tremendous journey. Jesus might like some assurance that God will care for him. In this light, the request does not seem like that much to ask.
The temptations for Jesus are not unlike the ways that the devil tempts Adam and Eve so many years before. What the devil does is plant a seed of doubt, making Adam and Eve wonder why God would keep such beautiful fruit from them – why God would keep the truth from them about the tree. The devil’s work is to constantly keep picking away at trusting relationship with God, fostering mistrust between God and God’s people.[iii]
Several years ago the film Doubt received several Oscar nominations. The movie explored a Catholic Church and School where the head nun accused the priest of sexual misconduct. But the story is presented so ambiguously that even by the end of the movie the viewer is not sure if abuse took place or not. This is that thin place between truth and lies, between trust and mistrust where the devil thrives. And truthfully, even in the movie, with whom the devil is cooperating is unclear. This is the danger in all of our lives today – the lines between God’s work and the devil’s work are so close that we have a hard time naming the devil in our lives.
Luckily Jesus’ responses to the devil give us some guidance today. In each of the three temptations, Jesus leans on his deep understanding of Holy Scripture. Jesus leans not on his own personal strength, but instead leans on the truths that he learns in the Hebrew Scriptures. We see how powerful Jesus’ response is because the devil attempts to distort this strength as well. In the third temptation, the devil quotes scripture himself, trying to lure Jesus back into that thin place. But Jesus cannot be fooled. Jesus knows that the devil is using partial scripture citations that can be misleading out of context.[iv] Jesus knows that a dependence on Holy Scripture will support him in his weakness.
As we begin our Lenten journey, today’s gospel lesson gives us much to ponder. First, we are invited into a time of pondering how the devil might be acting in the thin spaces between faithfulness and sinfulness, manipulating our mistrust of God for the devil’s gain. In order for us to understand how the devil might be acting, we will need to first label the ways in which we mistrust God. If there are areas of our lives which we do not entrust to God: a particular relationship, a job or school decision, something challenging at work or at home, or an uncertain future, these are areas that are most susceptible to the devil squeezing his way into our lives. Our invitation this week is to spend some time reflecting on the areas of mistrust of God in our lives and to pray for strength to turn those over to God. Only when we understand where our mistrust is can we begin turning back into a trusting relationship with the God that loves and supports us.
Second, Jesus invites us into a deeper relationship with Scripture this Lent. We have already seen how Holy Scripture sustained Jesus at his weakest hour. Whatever your Lenten practice, consider how you might incorporate some additional Scripture reading into your week. And if that feels too burdensome, you can use today’s Scripture insert and meditate on those four lessons at home. If you are feeling more adventuresome, you can start praying Morning or Evening Prayer from the Prayer Book at home. That prayer practice will expose you to a good amount of scripture. And if you are feeling really adventuresome, you might just pick a book of the Bible and start reading. You may be surprised at the parallels in scripture and your own life.
The invitations today are many. In this time of Lent, we are encouraged to enter these forty days knowing that Jesus has been there himself and managed to lean on the God who saves us time and again. If Jesus can lean on God in his weakness, we can lean on God in our weakness too, even if we are not totally ready to trust God with all of ourselves. Just admitting that hesitancy is the first step to kicking the devil out of our thin spaces. Amen.
[i] Sharon H. Ringe, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.
[ii] Ringe, 49.
[iii] David Lose, as found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=668 on February 15, 2013.
[iv] Darrell Jodock, “Antidote for Temptation,” Christian Century, vol. 112, no. 6, Feb. 22, 1995, 203.