Every year, the first Sunday of Lent centers on one story: the temptation of Jesus, by the devil, over forty days in the desert immediately following his baptism. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that retell this head-to-head story. Mark and John don’t include it at all. For some reason, they left it on the cutting room floor. Of the two versions, my favorite is Matthew’s. Matthew gives us greater detail, dialogue, and imagery. I have always had an affinity for the Matthew passage. When I was in seminary, I was assigned this text. But instead of preaching it from the traditional perspective, the way most churches and preachers do it every year, I was given the more challenging task of retelling the story from the devil’s perspective. How would this story look and sound if you told it from the other character’s eyes? That exercise made me a better preacher and is one reason I look forward to the first Sunday of Lent every year.
The main thing I learned about the devil (specifically Matthew’s perspective on the devil) in preparing that original sermon was this: if the devil was going to tempt Jesus or us, he wasn’t going to be anything like the caricatures of evil or Satan we’ve become accustomed to seeing; images that were invented in the Middle Ages and became popular in renaissance art. You know the ones I’m talking about, the pointed horns, the red leathery skin, the pitchfork, the wispy tail. Whoever heard of a red devil anyway? This was back in the dark ages, before Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the greatest minds in history, discovered all devils were blue.
To be genuinely tempting, the devil would need to be quite ordinary, a little charming, unassuming, friendly, a little witty, someone you’d like to go to dinner with, maybe that neighbor with the big TV who’ll invite you over to watch the NCAA tournament, someone with whom you can relax. That’s who the devil is. The devil is cool, calm, and collected. You never see the devil coming, and when the devil asks you to make a moral choice or by the time temptation is placed before you, it doesn’t seem like temptation. It will seem like the right, normal, even natural thing to do. After all, this is your friend, that guy, your buddy; why would your regular next-door neighbor friend with all the same interests, kids in the same school, and a nice two-car garage lead you astray? The devil couldn’t look like one of us, could he? Could the devil be a mirror image of us? The devil is a narcissist whose greatest desire is to be loved and adored, but ultimately, he wants to fit in: seem typical, like us, and even ordinary. The devil seeks to seem normal; blending in and appearing average is his grand goal. Who is afraid of the average? Average flies under the radar. The average is undetected. This is what makes the devil so diabolical. The devil is in the details.
What are the details of Jesus’ temptations? You just heard them: turn stones into bread, throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship me to gain all the power in the world. The specifics may be different, but the temptations are essentially the same: when it comes down to it, the only person you can depend on is yourself. You can’t rely on God, others, your faith, or anything other than yourself.
Remember what I said about the devil fitting in and looking like us, even being the mirror image of ourselves? We are our own worst enemies. Ladies and gentlemen, we have met the enemy, which is us. Each of these three temptations is the same. You don’t need God. You only need you. When you get to the heart of the matter, is that not the essence of every temptation we face as human beings? We can do it ourselves. Why trust God? Why listen to God? Why have faith in anything beyond ourselves? Why not take matters into our hands? After all, we have no idea what the future may hold, and we’re hungry now! The scriptures say the angels will catch us now, put God to the test now! We want to control our destiny now! Give into the devil’s offers of power and control now! Jesus can fill his stomach.
Jesus knows the scriptures say what they say. He knows he can rule the world. But here’s the dirty little secret about Christianity: self-reliance may be the American way, but it’s not the Christian way. The secret to passing these temptations, Jesus teaches us, is that even though we can, and doesn’t mean that we should. Even though we can turn stone into bread, test God’s promises in scripture, or take the devil up on his offer to run our affairs, it doesn’t mean we should. Even though we can do many things, it doesn’t mean we should.
That’s the greatest trick the devil is always trying to pull; he makes what you think you ought to do sound reasonable, regular, logical, and the right thing to do. But, of course, you’re hungry, so why not feed yourself? He even cherry-picks scripture to make his point. Of course, the Bible says God will send his angels; it’s right there in the Bible, so why not put God to the test and show the world that the Bible is the true word of God. Throw yourself from the temple, and his angels will lift you; it will testify to the veracity of God’s word. Of course, you have the right to rule the world; you’re Jesus Christ; what could be wrong with that, worship me, and you’d still be in charge and calling the shots. He makes it all sound normal, natural, logical, and even scripturally sound. That’s how you know you’re being tempted when the wrong thing feels like the righteous, holy, Biblical, and normal thing to do.
The real temptations aren’t drinking, gambling, or looking at porn online. No, the essence of temptation has always been buying into the devil’s big lie that we can do everything ourselves; we don’t need God (or each other) in our lives. Have we bought into that lie? Do we believe the devil is telling the truth? Do we believe his lies that we can depend on our self-sufficiency? I can’t answer that question for us (or you). Only you know whom you’re listening to and whom you believe. Do you trust the man from Nazareth or this person asking you to make what sounds like a perfectly reasonable choice but compromises your morality on every possible level?
The devil wants us to sing a variation of his favorite song: “My Way/Your Way.”
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