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 Methodist or Baptist would easily declare, “That’s just the devil trying to pull you away from the Lord.” My experience with Episcopalians is we 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 [prayed] sang this morning had a lot of “devil” references. My suspicion is our hesitancy is a fear of sounding superstitious, a general lack of understanding or comfort with talking about the devil, or maybe a little disbelief. But I must admit, when I have been told that my current troubles were due to the devil meddling in my relationship with God, I have felt oddly 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. 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 out of self-serving relief, we might align his actions 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. All we need to remember is heavy hand of Rome in Jesus’ day[ii] or the suffering in Ukraine today to wonder about the devil’s offer of turning suffering to justice.
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. Seeking some assurance God will care for Jesus does not seem like that much to ask. The devil’s work is to constantly keep picking away at trusting relationships 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 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. We see how powerful Jesus’ scriptural responses are 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 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 our faithfulness and sinfulness, manipulating our mistrust of God for the devil’s gain. To understand how the devil might be acting, we will need to first label the areas of our lives with which we do not entrust to God: a particular relationship, a big 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. Next, Jesus invites us into a deeper relationship with Scripture this Lent. We have already seen how Holy Scripture sustains Jesus at his weakest hour. Whatever your Lenten practice, consider how you might incorporate some Scripture reading into your week, whether on your own or with one of our Lenten offerings. You may be surprised at the parallels in scripture and your own life. Finally, we are invited this Lent to lean into one another and to God. 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 our 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.