A Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
February 14, 2016 First Sunday of Lent
Based on Luke 4:1-13
Luke tells a story of Jesus in wilderness invoking images of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness. Just as the ancestors had been tested, Jesus is put into situations that require him to affirm his reliance on God. As with all of the readings this morning, confession in our times also may involve hard choices when encountering rival claims to sovereignty from political institutions or economic systems.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Common English Bible)
I don’t think I have talked with you about one of the great loves that has shaped my life. Yes, today is my wedding anniversary – our tenth. So I hope you will indulge me as I depart from the fellowship time early in order to get home today. But the great love of my life of which I am speaking this morning is not Ronda.
I love science fiction.
I have loved science fiction my entire life. When I was in elementary school, I took my lunch to school in a Planet of the Apes lunchbox. I was 9 years old when Star Wars was released. I still have my collection of Star Wars cards – the blue set, and the red, yellow, and green sets. Even at that young age I was able to debate the different merits of Star Wars versus Star Trek, a debate that continues in my household today: Ronda is a Trekkie and I am loyal to Star Wars. I was also a loyal viewer of Firefly when it first aired, and recall childhood Saturday afternoons building models of Moonbase Alpha and Eagle one while watching episodes of Space 1999.
Science Fiction novels line many of my bookcases because I started at a young age reading science fiction: John Carter of Mars, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers; Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke. I do indeed have a 26-foot Tom Baker Dr. Who scarf that my grandmother knit when I was in high school. I was one of those youngsters who stayed up late on Friday Nights to watch the midnight Monster Movie, and then I spent many of my Saturday afternoons watching the local Creature Feature: to this day Frankenstein remains one of my favorite movies and favorite novels.
Many science fiction plots, and for that matter most of fantasy fiction, revolve around the struggle between protagonist and antagonist, between hero and villain. And in much of our fiction the hero and villain are easy to identify; just looking back over my list: the gorillas of Planet of the Apes; the Klingons, Romulans, Cardasians in Star Trek – depending on which series you prefer; in Star Wars it’s Darth Vader and the Storm troopers of the Empire and now Kylo Ren and the First order.
I can tell some of you are also fans, because you are nodding your heads and I can see that glimmer in your eye telling me you are able to picture these villains in your mind. I can also tell which of you are not scifi geeks by the glazed look in your eyes. So let me get into this morning’s scripture.
If I ask you think about what the devil looks like, I suspect you’ll probably picture a red man with horns and a tail. Would you be surprised to hear that description does not come from the bible? We try to turn the devil into a scifi villain, perhaps even an alien invader from another planet or dimension.
I know someone will ask me, “How did we got the idea that the devil had horns and a tail?” That imagery begins to show up sometime in the medieval era. Christians used the descriptions of gods in non-Christian religions to describe the devil in the effort to prove those other religions were wrong, deceitful, or evil. In the late 1600 John Milton combines a whole bunch of those ideas together while writing Paradise Lost. That all is reinforced by the New England Puritans warning us against Old Scratch wandering in the woods just outside of their settlements.
But the Bible does not describe the devil as a man with a goatee or wearing red clothing or having a horn or a tail. In the Bible, what is more important is what the devil does.
You might think that the devil is lurking around to pull us away from God and God’s ways – but that isn’t exactly biblical either. “Wait!” you’ll say, “we have the proof right here, in the very gospel lesson we heard this morning:
‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.’”
Yes, it’s right there in plain English. But that one word – tempted – is exactly where the problem lays.
One of the things we do when we try to make sense of a word in the bible is to look at how that same word is used in other bible passages. And this word gets translated many different ways. In this passage is it “tempted,” and again we’ll hear this word in the prayer of Jesus, “lead us not into temptation.” In English that word “tempted” has a veneer of morality. We are tempted by chocolate cake to waver from our diet. Maybe we are tempted by when receiving extra change to stay quiet and not point it out to the cashier. We are tempted to eat cookies or brownies or drink soda rather than fruit or vegetables or water.
But the Greek root word here is not one of morality. The root here is testing, like the test a doctor does to know how healthy you are, like the kind of test you give to a car you might buy, like the kind of test a teacher gives to students. Generally, when teachers or driving instructors give tests, they are not trying to flunk the ones taking the tests, but to help discover what they know and what they can do. In fact, every other time this word is used in Luke, the tempters or testers are human beings: a lawyer (10:25) and part of a crowd (11:16).
This root word is connected to the work of an assayer, a person who tests the nuggets found by a prospector to determine how much gold or silver is in the ore. So here the devil is a character who is testing Jesus as a trail for assessment.
Another important part of figuring out the meaning of a word is its context: how is it being used in the story. In Luke’s story, Jesus has just been baptized by John, the Holy Spirit has descended from heaven like a dove accompanied by a voice that says “You are my child, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” And then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, …
Many people have described this as Jesus taking a spiritual retreat. He’s going out into the wilderness to get away from it all in order to focus on God. Jesus knew that there were special things that God wanted Jesus to do, and Jesus wanted to know for sure that he was strong enough inside to do that work. This time away is dedicated to thinking, to praying, to wondering, end even making plans. So Jesus went into the wilderness for a special learning time.
During that time, Jesus got hungry. And tired. And lonely. But through all of that time, Jesus knew that God was with him. We get all of that information in just one sentence: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted [or tested or assessed] by the devil
And now we are back to that villainous character, the devil.
In the same way that we look at one word as it is used in many places of the bible, we also look at how once character is used in many places. And for most of the bible the devil is not portrayed as the embodiment of all that is evil.
The most complete description of a devil comes from the book of Job, where Satan tests the faith of Job with many disasters. But in Job – and in most of the Hebrew Scriptures – Satan is not a name. It is a title: “the satan”: like the king or the judge or the prophet; “the satan” is a title denoting a certain responsibility. In Job, God and the satan are portrayed sitting together in the courtroom of heaven evaluating creation, especially humanity. In this courtroom, the satan is sort of like a prosecuting attorney. The satan is there to make sure God is asking all the tough questions of assessment. To change metaphors, it is sort of like satan is the director of human resources having to sit down to conduct an annual performance review of the CEO of the company.
In the book of Job, the satan asks God “How much faith can a person have if everything goes well for them. It is easy to like you God, when everything goes well; real faith is demonstrated when things don’t go right.”
Let me take a pause there and recognize this is one of the classic Christian explanations of evil: evil is a test of our faith. And let me also so I don’t subscribe to this idea of evil. Yes, our faith is strengthened in times of trial, but I do not believe that God puts those obstacles in our way to see how strong we can get. But in Job, that is the working premise of the story: the satan is one who proposes to God a way to examine the faith of Job. I am convinced that Luke intends for us to hear that biblical echo.
The satan shows up here to test the faithfulness of Jesus. With each test, Jesus responds with scripture. In the ultimate battle, the satan quotes scripture to Jesus – Psalm 91, which we heard read this morning as our Call to Worship. It is a Psalm of trust, a Psalm promising that God will provide. And the Satan uses this Psalm to say “If you can provide for yourself, then your trust in God is limited.”
Out in the wilderness – we’re meant to hear the echoes of Moses in the wilderness, of Elijah and Elisha in the wilderness – Out in the wilderness Jesus is tested by the devil – we’re meant to hear the echoes of Job and others who are tested by the satan. In this testing, Luke puts scripture in the mouths of both the satan and Jesus: echoes of scripture echoing scripture.
Lent is a sort of time out when we take the time to think, to pray, to wonder, and even to make plans as we focus on God’s presence in our lives. We may not go off into the wilderness, but we take some sort of time out as we get ready for Easter to wonder about what God wants us to do and to remember that in all of the things we face God is with us.
Lent is a time in the church calendar meant to remind us of the 40 days of testing Jesus. We are meant to be taking risks so that we can test and assess our faith. That is going to take different shapes for each of us. But it is not lost on me that we as a congregation are being presented with some very difficult decisions during this season of Lent.
I think we are being tested – not necessary seduced by the devil but tested by God and God’s company to see where our strength lies. It may at times feel like we’re in a tug of war between two sides, but I think if we’re really honest we’re in a tug of war that goes in more than two directions: we’re being pulled and kneaded like bread. We haven’t been offered control over the mightiest cities of the earth. We haven’t been lifted up to the pinnacle of the temple (or even our own steeple) only to be threatened that we’re going to be pushed off.
The testing we are about to undergo isn’t necessarily between one good and one evil choice or even one good and one bad choice. It is a choice between several paths, each of which – just like a race course, a ski slope, or the half-pipe – have good and bad parts, sections that are easier because they are more familiar and sections that are more difficult to test us in ways we may not have been tested before.
This is Lent, when we focus our work and our attention on what it means to be Christ’s disciples not in the abstract, not in a story book land but in our day to day living. Let us thank God that the spirit has led us into this wilderness where we are tested to the degree where with sincerity we can pray “God, Great is thy faithfulness.”