Two Can Play at That Game
One of the more effective sermons I’ve ever heard was at a Christian summer camp for ninth-graders. The speaker wanted to warn us about the devil, and his main point was that the devil doesn’t bother with the troublemakers and menaces to society we might know. Those people were already on the devil’s side, happily doing the devil’s work. Christians, on the other hand, were the devil’s main preoccupation. We Christians, the speaker said, make excellent prizes for the devil—if he can win us over. The speaker warned us: “The devil is interested in you.”
This message appealed very well to the ego-centric world of young teenagers. The devil was paying attention to us? And here I thought the devil would just find me annoyingly wholesome and boring! Although my understanding of the devil has changed since the ninth grade, I have to say that I still have this alertness that Christian identity and Christian community aren’t safe havens from the devil’s attacks. Rather, the devil, in some form, insinuates himself to us Christians, learns to speak our language, adapts our defensive techniques, and tries to use our faith and trust against us.
Today’s gospel only confirms this sense of the devil’s tactics. Luke’s gospel has crafted the account of Jesus’s temptation to show how skillfully the devil turns our defensive weapons, our protective shield of faith, against us. After forty days of fasting in the desert, Jesus has two things to help him face the devil’s assaults: He has the Scriptures he knows by heart, and he has a deep faith that God will sustain him. But by the devil’s third attempt to win over Jesus, the devil tries to twist these sacred texts and Jesus’s trust into something that could harm him and destroy his mission to proclaim God’s kingdom.
Here’s how it happens. As we heard, the devil first tempts Jesus to feed himself and to prove himself by turning a stone into a loaf of bread. But Jesus remembers a verse from the history of his people wandering in the wilderness and receiving manna directly from God, and he quotes to the devil, “One does not live by bread alone.” Next, the devil offers Jesus a shortcut to glory and power by whisking him to the top of the world and inviting Jesus to worship him. Then Jesus remembers what is really a mish-mash of phrases from two verses of Deuteronomy, and he answers, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
And that’s when the devil realizes: Two can play at this game. In his engagement with the devil, Jesus has relied on cherished Scriptures and on trust in God to provide for him. So that’s what the devil himself brings to the next round: Two beautiful verses from a Psalm, and a promise of divine protection.
The devil takes Jesus to the high point of the Jerusalem Temple and asks him to prove that he is God’s beloved child by throwing himself to the ground. The devil tempts Jesus with the very words of the Psalm that we ourselves repeated as our Psalm this morning. They are these: “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.” But Jesus matches the devil with a Scripture verse of his own: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus prevails against Scripture verses recited with such certainty, because the quality of Jesus’s faith in God isn’t something he needs to prove to anyone.
But as the ominous ending of today’s gospel suggests, the devil isn’t done with Jesus yet. The gospel tells us that the devil left Jesus alone, waiting for a more “opportune time.” Five weeks from today we’ll be present for that more opportune time to tempt Jesus. On that Sunday—Palm Sunday—we’ll hear Luke’s story of the crucifixion, when Jesus faces three more temptations. These temptations are actually three taunts from different speakers that if Jesus is the Son of God, he’ll prove himself by saving himself.
And yet, once again, Jesus withstands this temptation by falling back on the things that sustained him in the desert: The Scriptures he knows by heart, and his complete trust in God. With his last breath, Jesus will cry out with the words of Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Then, he’ll exhale for the last time.
For all of these weeks between the temptation of Jesus in the desert and the temptation of Jesus on the cross, we must train ourselves to resist a devil who can recite our sacred texts from memory, and who preys on our trusting faith. What Jesus shows us is how to cling to Scripture for comfort and sustenance rather than using it to tempt others to prove themselves. And Jesus shows us how to live with a trust so deep that we can offer our lives to God’s kingdom even if it seems that God has failed us.
The devil can turn anything against us—even things that seem good, and sacred, and true. Today’s gospel gives us fair warning that the things we consider good, and sacred, and true might, in a vulnerable moment or in a season of need, turn into the devil’s weapons. Lent is a season when we can learn, like Jesus, to rely on the Scriptures and on God in ways that are much deeper than the devil’s ways. The devil uses Scriptures as tools for harm and faith as something we have to prove.
But when Jesus entrusts himself to God, when he inscribes God’s Word on his heart and when he falls for God’s kingdom, he doesn’t look to be intercepted by angels. He asks only to be received into God’s embrace. Amen.
- Rev. Dr. Lora Walsh