Luke 4: 1-14

For many people the devil is the doorkeeper of Hell, the picture of evil, and the darkest of beings. In the book of Job in the Old Testament, the one called Satan is invited by The Lord to try to break down a faithful man. In religious folklore, Satan would often lead fallen angels to do malevolent things to people on the earth.  And we know there was a serpent in Genesis that was the epitome of a tempter. Sometimes these titles and tasks of the Evil One get muddled in our minds, with roots coming from different traditions. Today Luke describes the devil talking to Jesus. Was this devil an actual being, as some have believed since they were young? Or was this devil a voice in the head of an emaciated Jesus coupled with a mirage in the desert? People may love to say “The devil made me do it,” but it could also be, as I pointed out in my children’s sermon, that a voice seems to speak to us in one ear to commend us for a decision with words like: “That’s the right thing to do; good choice!” while another voice entices us to make bad choices with words like:  “Go ahead! Have a little fun! No one will know! You deserve it!” Today’s lesson is almost like a play, a morality play about making choices, and having to bear the consequences of each choice. The devil challenged Jesus to do three different acts as tests. At the end of the day, you too may decide the devil is less of a living being and more of a weakness of conscience in one’s own mind. Let’s see.  God gave us free will to choose and said: “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” [Joshua 24: 15]

That struggle has been depicted in this story:

An old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, doubt, sorrow, regret, greed arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

And his grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

That was Jesus’ choice in the desert, and our choice every day.

Years ago I read this story in the first issue of Events Magazine:

A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem Bureau had an apartment overlooking the Western Wall. Every day when she looked out, she saw an old bearded Jewish man praying vigorously.  Certain he would be a good subject to interview, the journalist went down to the Wall and introduced herself to the old man. She asked, “You come every day to the Wall? How long have you being doing that? What are you praying for?” The old man replied, “I have come here to pray from twenty-five years. In the morning, I pray for world peace and the brotherhood of man. I go home and have a cup of tea, then I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth. And very, very important, I pray for peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.” The journalist was impressed and asked this follow-up question: “How does it make you feel to come here every day for twenty-five years and pray for all these wonderful things?” And the man lowered his head and said: “Like I am talking to a wall.”

Our goal as Christians, I believe, is to always, in every situation, make the devil feel like he is talking to a wall. Jesus gave just a passing reply to each of the temptations he heard. But often we can be more like Adam and Eve. They gave in to the temptation to eat from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. It’s as if Eve decided to make an apple pie from the fruit for dessert and Adam decided he couldn’t pass it up! But it was bitter fruit. It made their heads spin. As they ate that fruit, what came to my mind was the Disney scene when a wicked witch gave a poison apple to Snow White! “No! Don’t eat it!” The world spun and those first humans tripped into the irreversible world of sin. In their perfect world, the glass that was more than half full became half empty. Poor choices brought on consequences. For example: the tempter was now a slithering serpent; disagreements grew in the Garden like dandelions; and childbirth became so difficult it would be called  “labor.” History would call it the fall from grace; Christian doctrines often refer to it as the original sin; the event from which Jesus was born to save us. Jesus was both human and divine, which is important. He had to be connected with God so his actions could save our souls, not just lose his own life. Also his humanness really mattered, because he was tempted as you and I are tempted. A person in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “It takes a drunk to connect with another drunk.” In a similar fashion, prisoners often listen better to former prisoners, and people who want to get clean from drugs may listen best to someone who used before. Today we’ve been reminded: “Jesus was tempted as we are, yet he did not sin.” So what is the secret for doing that? Here are two thoughts:

Sister Molly Monahan, herself an alcoholic, said this in her book Seeds of Grace- A Nun’s Reflection on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous:

“I know from the sad stories I have heard from or about others who have had relapses even after years of sobriety, that I am always in recovery, never cured; that if I denied my alcoholism and began drinking, I would lose all the good things in my life. By analogy then with my disease, that is what I think sinfulness looks like, what we all look like in our sinful state; these are the lineaments of the visage we bear as children of Adam and Eve; the marks of what we call original sin. 1) Our sinfulness is always destructive … in some way to ourselves and others ….And 2) We cannot save ourselves. We are utterly dependent on the love, and power, and goodness of God who is willing to help us, and we need others to bring us to this knowledge and power.” [pp. 150-151] 

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, described our situation writing: “As in Adam, all die; but in Christ, shall all be made alive!” [1 Corinthians 15:22]  Without Jesus, we have no sure hope of being saved from the consequences of choosing our way instead of God’s way.

A second thought comes from the Scottish preacher, James S. Stewart in his book The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ. In it he says:

“The Master’s fight with Satan happened out in a desert, far from the beaten track and the eyes of men  ….Yet the evangelists are able to give a vivid and detailed account. How has that come about? Clearly there is only one explanation: the story came from the lips of Christ himself. Why did Jesus tell it—why did he go back and bring it to light? For curiosity? For biography? No. To first help his disciples through their own temptation hours; and second, because the titanic struggle of the desert days and nights had marked his soul forever and he could not forget.” [Abingdon Press, 1978]

Don’t we at times, like Jesus, have great struggles against sin regarding, drink, or drugs, or sex, or stealing or suicidal thoughts that put us in the wilderness with the devil? Can you remember times when your thoughts were unholy or your actions were destructive; when you thought your salvation might be in jeopardy? Jesus’ preparation for ministry was marked by vivid, rigorous soul testing. In honor of the price he paid not just on the cross, but in his time of trial, we too know we can enter our own deserts, prepared for the tempters we will face. Today, remember the verse of the hymn “This is My Father’s World” that said: “Oh let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.”  Stand firm with Jesus, so the devil, when trying to tempt you, will feel like he (or she!) is talking to a wall.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 10, 2019