When we 21st Century Christians hear the story of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, it most likely evokes one of two responses:
- We roll our eyes at the mention of the devil, as we conjure up images of a little red man in tights with horns and a pitchfork. “Other than children, who believes that silliness?” we think dismissively.
- “Well sure, Jesus could resist all those highly seductive offers of power, money and worldly dominion because he was the Son of God. But me, well… I’m a mere mortal, weak and subject to temptation. I don’t have his capacity to resist.”
Both thoughts are folly, and both are evidence of just how wily and seductive the power of evil truly is in the world.
Evil (which Satan and the devil represent in the scripture) is an insidious, seductive and relentless force in our lives that will stop at nothing to gain entry into all our hearts and minds in any way it can muster. Even Jesus’ success in resisting the devil’s temptations in the wilderness did not deter the devil. Our passage today closes with these ominous words, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
The devil may have failed this first attempt, but he will go back to the drawing board and devise another plan, until he finds the one that works to break us down and make us his.
It would be folly to dismiss the devil and his relentless efforts to gain entry into our souls. It is equally foolish to write him off as a quaint Halloween caricature. When we do so in both instances, he laughs!
As for the argument that “Jesus is God’s Son and I’m not,” I would argue that the Jesus we get at this point in his life and ministry is the all-too-human one. In the Incarnation, Jesus takes on our humanity, where he is tempted and tested like us all. He does this for the sake of knowing, deeply and intimately, that this is what it means to be human.
Jesus did not have a divine shield that went up (like the shields of the Starship Enterprise when enemies approach) to protect him from the temptations being proffered. In the Letter to the Philippians, we are told that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” (Phil. 2:6-8)
In other words, Jesus was God, but by becoming human he emptied himself of his divinity so that he was fully human. Therefore, like any one of us, Jesus is vulnerable to the world’s temptations and the devil.
The text tells us that the key difference between us and Christ comes right after his baptism, when he was “full of the Holy Spirit.” God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus allowed him to resist the devil’s temptations. But being filled with the Holy Spirit is not unique to Jesus – it’s not a holy inoculation. Just as the Holy Spirit filled him at his baptism, so it also fills every one of us at our baptism. It isn’t just Jesus who gets the divine advantage with the fullness of the Spirit – we all do.
Our problem is we forget… or ignore it. In either event, when we do forget or ignore the presence of the Spirit already in us, we lose our ability to resist and be protected from the “deceits of the world, flesh and the devil,” as we prayed in (today’s) Great Litany.
This past week, I read a great blog post by the Rev. John Pavlovitz. His writing offers a profound example of how when we are dismissive of the reality of evil and forget we have the divine presence of the Spirit in us, Satan gains hold and is able to wreak great havoc in our lives. The title of the Blog piece is “Christian, the Reason So Many People are Losing Faith — May Be You.”
In this article, Pavlovitz argues that the growing millions of people who have given up on the Christian faith and have become part of those legions of folks who call themselves spiritual- but-not-religious or Nones (people with no specific religious identity) have done so because we, who call ourselves Christians, have stolen their religion from them. Pavlovitz writes,
“They’ve looked at our body of work and found it far less than convincing. For all our loud, flowery talk of a God who is Love, we’ve repeatedly proven ourselves incapable of a worthy demonstration in close proximity—and so away they walk.
“Far too often, people are abandoning Christianity because they are looking closely at believers like you and me and finding very little light worth moving toward. They are rubbing up against our specific, individual lives, and instead of coming away with the sense that God is real and worth seeking, they are determining that God must be dead or at best irrelevant—and we probably shouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
“We haven’t arrived here overnight and there are lots of reasons for it, but in America especially, I think we’ve gradually evolved into a nearly Jesus-free Christianity; one that allows us to claim Christ while not being saddled with the annoying burden of living like him in any meaningful way. We get God’s cachet and we get our way, which is how we like it: cheap religion without the costly personal transformation.
“If we’re honest, in the course of a given day out there most of us are usually far more interested and invested in winning arguments, proving points, garnering Retweets, and throwing shade than we are reflecting the compassion and humility and dignity of Christ to people in our path. We have so strayed from the plot and so made God in our own nasty image, that we’ve convinced ourselves the best answer to the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’—is be a jackass.”
What delight evil must take in seeing the decline of the Christian faith being caused by those very people who claim to be Christian, as they create a Jesus-free faith! This is because we have caved in to Satan’s temptations. The devil must laugh when we are more interested in the egoistic, self-serving, mean-spirited endeavors of winning arguments, proving points, garnering retweets and throwing shade. That’s when we ignore the Spirit within us, and forget to emulate Jesus’ humility and compassion. How much fuel do we throw on hell’s fires that desire to consume us, when the best answer we can give to “What would Jesus do?” – is to be a jackass?
"We have so strayed from the plot and so made God in our own nasty image, that we’ve convinced ourselves the best answer to the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’—is be a jackass.” (John Pavlovitz)
- All too quick with snark.
- Too willing to bully people who disagree.
- Think of rhetorical touches and comeuppances.
- Too subjective to let partisanship overrule the Gospel.
- Too facile in gossip and character assassination.
With the devil having such power over us, people look at us and say, “If this is Christianity, then I don’t want it.” – and Satan laughs.
Pavlovitz states, “I’ve always contended that the best evangelism is simply to tell people that you’re a Christian and then not be a complete jerk. I believe in faith-sharing through the sermon of a life resembling Jesus.”
It is Lent, a time of self-reflection and repentance; a time to make a right beginning of renewel in our lives to follow Jesus. I invite you in this Holy season to meditate and pray on these questions:
- Is the life I am living worth aspiring to; my countenance, my manner, my default condition?
- In any significant way, does my faith in Jesus make me different than those without it?
- Is my life a witness to the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit within me?
- To the best of my ability, do I exhibit the kindness, compassion, forgiveness and love of Jesus… or am I a tool of Satan that has caved into Satan’s seductive temptations?
- Am I diligently trying to follow Jesus or have I defaulted to evil’s wiles?
This Lent, let’s take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror and ask these questions. Where we are wanting – and we are, all of us - may we pray for God’s guidance that leads to an amendment of life, so that the testimonies of our lives may give witness to the salvation and love of Jesus, to all people.
Only then will Satan be beaten down under our feet. Only then will this Christian faith of ours become the Jesus Movement that will redeem us… and the world.