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Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. -Matthew 4:1
The devil takes a while to get to the scene of temptation.
Did you ever wonder why?
The common understanding is that the devil waited until Jesus was weakest. That makes sense, anyway – why not wait until your adversary is most likely to be defeated?
Perhaps that is the reason.
I remember, a little too clearly, what I was like in college: a white girl from a privileged Boston suburb, attending a city school, the University of Pittsburgh. I remember watching my black classmates sit together at dinner, and wondering why I found it so hard to break in to their circle. I remember participating in specifically feminist activities and events on campus, all the while being very proud of myself for not “needing” to attend a women’s college. I remember being sure, somewhere inside myself, that if God loved all of us, and if we were to love each other, we needed to spend time together. And not in segregated spaces. This, it seemed, was the point of discipleship: hadn’t Jesus called people from all over, from all walks of life, to be together in the Kin-dom? Hadn’t Paul called us members of one Body, and reminded us to eat together, to worship together, to shelter and feed each other?
When I was in college, I strove to be colorblind, to learn to compete and achieve in a man’s world. When I was in college, I believed in a meritocracy, and grounded that belief in God.
Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be baptized by John – his cousin, according to some accounts – who had been preaching prophetically, out there beyond the cities, in his own wilderness. John preached, calling out hypocrisy, reminding us of our need for repentance, which is more than just saying we are sorry, but but changing, within our hearts, in irreversible ways. This prophet knows Jesus, in a very profound way; knows not only the man, but the spirit that is within him. Perhaps it is in the face of this Spirit, that he tries to decline, tries to convince Jesus he doesn’t need this water baptism, doesn’t need to be made new, doesn’t need to know God’s grace. But Jesus insists. Jesus, fully human, needs the rebirth of baptism. And then: perhaps, only then, can he follow the Spirit.
It strikes me, reading this text, that we need to feel the need to change before the wilderness is going to do us any good at all. We need to be aware of our need for repentance before we start the fast, before we seek after grace, before we go toe to toe with the devil.
It is human nature to filter our understandings of the world through our own experiences. It is human nature for people to not see or understand what they have not themselves experienced, to assume that others experience the world as they do, and that that way is “normal.” It’s why I didn’t understand the need for the black students at Pitt to find community in common experience. It’s why I didn’t truly get the power and potential of a women’s college for finding a voice that is too often silenced. It’s why so many of us don’t fully get the outrage at young black men, disproportionately stopped, arrested, and imprisoned. It’s why so many of us don’t quite understand the need for marginalized groups to be with those who don’t need to be educated, those who aren’t going to speak in well-meaning micro-aggressions. It’s human nature to see our lives as “normal” and therefore discount the experiences of others.
And human nature is hard to overcome.
It takes real acts of grace, in the face of our dismissiveness. It takes real acts of repentance and renewal to even begin, especially when we’ve been used to seeing our human nature as God’s will.
And although human nature is hardly washed away in the waters of baptism, that seems like a pretty good place to start, if one is preparing to walk along the path that God has laid before us. Even if you’re Jesus. Because it’s not only at Christmas that we need to take the incarnation seriously: the reminder that the divine came to reside within humanity in all of its messiness. And if we do take the incarnation seriously, we need to remember that Jesus was human, with all the biases and struggles that entails; with all the need for repentance, and wilderness, and grace.
Because listening for the call of God is pretty easy, when God says what we want to hear; when we hear God speaking in our own voice – the voice of good intentions.
It took me a long time to see beyond my own privileged experiences. It took a lot of arguments before I learned to shut my mouth and listen; to recognize my own biases, my need for repentance. It took a lot of grace, from those willing to challenge my hubris. It took a long time before I was prepared even for that first step, that plunge into the water, let alone to take those first steps into the wilderness, that place of introspection and self-awareness, that place where we remember that the voice of God isn’t always calling us in ways that echo human nature. It takes a long time for human beings to recognize the particularity of our experience, especially when it’s considered “normal.” It takes a long time for humans – incarnate beings – to see our privilege: the things we can take for granted, the things that are handed to us, whether or not we deserve them. I t takes a long time to recognize the grace that we so often don’t deserve; to feel, in that grace, the need to change our hearts, our perspectives, in irreversible ways; to come face to face with the temptations this world pushes on us and recognize them for what they are.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. But the devil took a while to get there; or at least, to be recognized as such. Time enough for Jesus to take a good hard look at the world around him, in which he’d been raised, at the biases of his own human heart. Until finally, one day, in his hunger he looked at the rock and knew that he could use his power for his own benefit, but that true nourishment lies in community, not in isolation.
And that day he knew that he could leap from the highest point imaginable and not be hurt, but that true devotion was not making God fly to him, but standing with God at the margins to support those who fell easily off of pebbles. That day, he saw clearly the trappings of power, of privilege, wielded for their own sake – even with the best of intentions – served as tools of oppression, and that the true power was held in open hands, given freely and without counting the cost.
It takes time, for us to approach the Jordan.
It takes time, for us to hear the Spirit’s pull into the wilderness.
It takes time, before we are ready to grapple with the tempter.
It takes time. Sometimes, it takes 40 days, often it takes more, to make the real, irreversible changes, to bring about repentance in the face of God’s grace that calls and accompanies us throughout our preparation for discipleship.
It takes time, but at the end, we walk out of the wilderness. At the end, we walk away from temptation, into the resurrection, and the kin-dom life of God’s eternal promises.
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. -Luke 4: 1-2
This is another one of those familiar texts, for those of us who have been going to church for more than a couple of years. This one gets reproduced, almost verbatim, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and so we hear very nearly the exact same words every single year, on the first Sunday in Lent. And so it doesn’t seem a very strange text, to us; but it is a very strange text.
It is strange to see Jesus alone. This is something that we’re not going to see much of again before Holy Week. That doesn’t seem like a very long time to us, now, in our liturgical year, but it was a much longer time in Jesus’ ministry.
It is strange to us to see Jesus being so intensely, almost entirely human, in this moent
It is strange to us – at least it should be – to hear the word Devil. Which may seem odd in our Christian tradition, with our imagery and our concept of this red guy with the horns and the tail and the pitchfork. But this is a rarity in the Gospels, it’s a rarity in the Bible at all to talk about the Devil. So it is a very normal question – not one we usually ask, but still a very normal question, to ask ourselves what on Earth is going on here? Who is this Devil character anyway?
I think we read this story and we see Jesus out in the desert, probably looking kind of skeletal after 40 days, and this being appears, whispering in Jesus’ ear, suggesting all manner of trouble. We see the Devil as an external force of evil, sent precisely down to tempt Jesus in this moment. We conflate this Devil, this mention, with Satan, who comes in Job, back in the Hebrew Bible, who was, in fact, a somewhat-embodied angelic being who wreaked real havoc with poor Job’s life. And I think it really helps us; I think it does something within our hearts, to see these as beings. To see them as external to us, somehow, these conniving, compelling, fallen angels who are trying to pull us away from God. In a way, it helps us to see them as somehow Darth Vader-like perhaps with a light-saber for good measure. We want this to be a visible, a tangible creature; someone with whom we could conceivably do battle. Someone with whom Jesus could do battle, and have it be that story of Good vs. Evil, because we know how that ends. We have that story, throughout the history of human literature, the Good vs. Evil story, from the earliest mythology right up through Star Wars and Harry Potter. And they end, almost inevitably, with the unblemished Good still managing to overcome Evil personified. As though we could, in fact, rid the world of Evil.
And I think we would all feel pretty good about this story – and I know this is what would happen if Hollywood ever got a hold of this one – if up there, on the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus and the Devil had that last little tempting conversation; if instead of the Devil just giving up, somehow Jesus’ powerful love pushed the Devil off of the pinnacle and he fell down into a little pile of dust and was never heard from again… wouldn’t that be a great ending?
But we run, in that moment, right into temptation ourselves. Right into one of the temptations already on offer in that moment. Because what is on offer here? What is the Devil saying to Jesus in this moment, in the desert (or wherever he took him)?
He’s saying, “You know, there is an easier way. I know what you want to do, I know what you’re trying to do. Did it occur to you that you might be taking the convoluted path, that there might be a smoother option? A way of leading, maybe not by example, but by power? You have the power, Jesus, you know that. You could show them what you can do. You can perform the miracles. You can throw yourself off the Temple and the angels would descend to save you, and wouldn’t that just wow ’em? You’d have them eating out of the palm of your hand. And yeah, I get that you don’t want to turn the rock into bread, because that would just be feeding you, but what about for the sake of your ministry? How about a miracle? Wouldn’t that make life easier? You want those people out there? Because I can give them to you. You want their hearts and minds? I can get that for you. And I can do it in a way that isn’t going to take all the work, it isn’t going to take the pain. Because you know what pain is, now, don’t you? You’re hungry, aren’t you. You want the easy way?”
In that moment, that has got to sound so much easier than what Jesus knows lies ahead of him. Maybe not longer lasting – maybe the easy way is the short-term solution. But in that moment, out there fasting in the desert, you have to wonder if the hard way is going to last any longer. Even if Jesus goes all the way to the cross, is it actually going to last any longer than the memory of the miracle of the angels rescuing the guy who was falling from the Temple?
Because that’s the problem with temptation. It just all sounds so reasonable.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about God, it’s that while God is all-knowing, and all-powerful, and all-loving… nowhere is it written that God is all-reasonable.
Reason is a human thing, not a divine thing. Reason is a measure of our human understanding. Let’s remember that not all that long ago, the idea that the earth revolved around the sun was unreasonable. God is not calling us to be reasonable beings. God is not calling us to common sense – there’s precious little of that in the Bible, either, quite frankly. God is calling us to love. And love is not reasonable. And love is not common sense. And love is not something we do out of human nature.
Human nature, in this moment, is exactly where we find Jesus. Totally pulled into this human body that is, in that moment, suffering. Can you imagine forty days of fasting? There is nothing going on in Jesus’ head, other than what is going on – or not going on – in Jesus’ stomach. There is just no way. There is no way he can be thinking about much beyond when the next meal is going to happen. He is not battling an external projection of evil; he is not battling a Vader or a Voldemort with light-sabers or wands or whatever we need to make this story really awesome. He’s battling his stomach. He’s battling that little voice within us all, that little one that says, “Well… but… what if?” He’s battling the knowledge that this road that he is starting down is going to be really, really hard. That people won’t always hear him. That he’s going to be upending the status quo and that that is not going to be popular – oh, man, is that going to be unpopular because there is no way that such a thing is ever going to be popular – and that it’s probably going to end him up in even worse pain than forty days without food.
He’s battling the little voice of fear that must pop up in moments like that: fear that no one is going to listen, that no one is going to hear him, that nothing is going to happen – no matter how he goes out and preaches, that the crowds won’t come, that maybe humanity is already too far gone.
He’s battling that little voice of doubt. That’s not a little voice in this story, it’s the loudest voice in this story, did you hear it? The Devil says to Jesus, “IF you are the Son of God, take that rock, turn it into bread, and feed yourself. Think you can do it? Are you sure? IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the Temple. You know what’s promised, you know what will happen. Or don’t you quite believe it? Are you willing to take that risk? Are you really the Son of God, Jesus? Would the Son of God be this hungry right now?” The Devil throws them like darts into a suffering body: “IF… IF God will provide… IF? IF God will save you… or any of us…”
It’s a familiar moment, it’s a human moment in a hungering body, when divine power seems no more than temptation itself. when all those voices stop sounding like fear, and start sounding like common sense.
Maybe, in this moment, we can all remember how those old Good vs. Evil stories really go: how Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side to protect his love and unborn child. How even Dumbledore, in the story – the good guy, the one we all looked up to – flirted with the power that he was given, and considered turning it to evil purposes. Maybe in this moment, we can realize that the Devil never, actually, is external.
And we find ourselves now in Lent. Lent, the forty days before Easter when, in memory of that forty-day fast, we, too, give things up. When, in memory of that human hunger, we deprive ourselves, even in small ways. Or we add things into our schedules – because we assume he wasn’t just fasting, out there in the desert, but that he was praying; and so we add a new prayer practice, or we add service, or we add acts of loving-kindness, and we make those our Lenten disciplines. And they’re all good – don’t get me wrong, if any of that sounds like what you have decided to do this Lent, I will not discourage you from acts of loving-kindness! But over the course of forty days, there will come that moment, it happens to all of us, when we’re tempted to cheat, just a little bit. When we’re tempted to suspend those rules that we set for ourselves because after all, we’re the ones who set the rules, so we can bend them, it’s not a big deal. We weren’t thinking ahead, that’s all, there has to be some sort of reasonable clause in there for unforeseen circumstances, for the unexpected…
And in that moment, Lent can begin.
Because there comes a point in all of it when we find ourselves saying, “Well, yeah, I suppose that makes sense…” When the external voices stir up internal fears and doubts, and another way forward seems so much smoother and easier… and Lent can begin.
Lent can begin at any point, not only during this particular set of forty days, but Lent can begin when each of us on this path can recognize the fears that each and every one of us carries. When we recognize that little voice of doubt that will not leave us alone. When we find ourselves questioning God’s provision, God’s abundance and God’s care. Maybe we even question the idea that God is, in fact, all-loving. Or we question whether God actually understands our fears and our doubts, when we wonder if God will actually forgive us, this time.
Lent will begin, for each of us, when we recognize the voice that is within, that little Devil-whisper that occurs in every human heart. It will begin when we are ready to stand up and square off against that voice, to hold ourselves firmly in the path that God has set for us, even though it’s not going to be the easy way. When we are willing to trust that people will come, that the money will be there, that we’re all going to be okay in the end, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. That we, as individuals, as the church, as a community, can not only live, but thrive, if we can just stop acting out of a place of fear.
Lent will begin when we can realize that the story of Good vs. Evil – that ubiquitous story through all of human experience, is our story – each and every one of us individually. That there aren’t light sabers or wands or excitement. That getting rid of the personification of evil isn’t necessarily going to help. That we are going to be consistently doing battle throughout our lives with the little, quiet, compelling voice from deep within us.
Lent will begin with our willingness to face that voice, to recognize it, to name it… and to say No.