Sunday, January 22, 2006

Jesus and the Devil: The Great Separator

[First in a series on Jesus' three temptations in the wilderness]
Matthew 4:1-4

Today, and the next two Sundays, I’m going to preach about the devil.
I can only imagine what you’re thinking.
Like, “You know,
there’s two churches I’ve always wanted to visit.”

Preaching about the devil is not something I’ve done a lot of,
as a career Mennonite preacher.
And with good reason.
The Gospel is the Good News of God.
So when I preach the Gospel,
I preach about what God is up to,
what God’s mission is in the world.
Too much focus on the devil
can ruin a good Gospel sermon.

There are some hellfire-and-brimstone preachers
who every Sunday pound the pulpit and shout at people
about the terrible, horrifying things
that Satan is doing right under their noses,
and if they don’t watch out
they’re going to wind up in a lake of fire.
And, oh, by the way, Jesus saves you from that lake of fire.
But the accent is on the evil things the devil is up to.
They capitalize on human fear of fire, pain, and eternal torment,
and scare people into the church.
I’m not sure I would call that Gospel preaching.

So I emphasize the wonders of a good and compassionate God,
whose mission it is to heal, reconcile, redeem, and restore.
But I would be doing a disservice to the Gospel,
if I didn’t also say there is a struggle going on.
We live in a world that’s rebelling against the Creator God.
We are all touched by evil, by sin, by the brokenness of the world.

And that didn’t happen because God failed at creation.
It happened because there were powers of evil at work
to undo the goodness of creation.

Theologically speaking, we say we live in an in-between time—
between the original wholeness of creation,
and the wholeness to come, when all creation will bow once again
to the rule and reign of God.

But right now, there is a struggle between good and evil.
We all know that’s the case. We see it everywhere we look,
including within ourselves.
But people understand this struggle in different ways.
Some see it as a war between two individual beings—
God and Satan, Yahweh and Lucifer.
And these beings are given an image, a face.
They could be described like boxers in a ring.
In this corner, we have the white-bearded man on a throne,
with a white robe, a deep voice, and a shining scepter.
And in the opposite corner, we have the red-robed little man,
with horns, a scorpion tail, and a pitchfork.
In contrast, some people not only de-personalize them,
but make them only abstract influences for good or evil,
that aren’t capable of working directly in our lives.
And there are many other ways of talking about good and evil.

So when I talk about the devil these three weeks,
you’re each going to have a different image in your mind.
My position is,
that whether you picture the devil
as a little red demon with a pitchfork,
or as a dark cloud in the spiritual atmosphere,
what really matters for a life of faith,
is that we accept that the powers of evil are real,
they are opposed to God and to God’s mission,
and they are working actively in our lives
and in the systems of the world.
The aim of this sermon series
is to explore how Jesus dealt with this reality,
and what we might have to learn from his experience.

The Gospel writers talk about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness
as a struggle between two beings, Jesus and the Devil.
The Spirit led Jesus there. The devil met him there.
And they struggled.
The struggle was real, and very down-to-earth for Jesus.
No matter how literally you interpret the temptations.

I understood the nature of this struggle better,
when I discovered that the word “devil” in Greek, diabolos,
while it’s often translated “accuser” or “slanderer,”
can also mean something like “divider” or “separator.”
Diabolos is like other words that begin with “di”—
di-verge, di-gress, di-sect, di-vide.
It’s taking what is supposed to be whole,
and separating it into disparate parts.

The lights went on for me.
That’s really the essence of the work of the devil.
To take apart the wholeness God designed in Creation.
God created us in his own image, for fellowship with God.
God created us to be in intimate relationship with each other.
God created us as whole individuals, mind, body, spirit, all as one.
God created us to be united with the earth itself.
The Hebrew root word for “Adam” and “soil” are the same.

But the Great Separator got right to work in Genesis chap. 3,
to tear these unions apart.
Adam and Eve tried to run and hide from God in the garden.
Cain and Abel were separated from each other by murder.
Adam and Eve became ashamed of their own bodies.
And they were all driven from the Garden,
and forced to struggle against the soil for food.

That’s still the work of the devil, the divider, the separator.
To alienate us from God, from each other,
from our own beings, and from the earth.
The devil, as in the book of Job, roams the earth, if you will.
And we, created as God’s free children,
often follow the path of the Great Separator,
and we become alienated.

But the mission of God in this world is reconciliation.
It is to restore what was present in Genesis 1 and 2.
And it’s a mission that will be accomplished.
The cross of Jesus Christ, and the empty tomb,
assure us that life is stronger than death,
that love will drive out fear,
that wholeness will utterly defeat alienation.
But for now, we live in the in-between time,
where the struggle continues.

That’s why the devil met Jesus there in the wilderness.
Knowing that Jesus was embarking on a mission
of proclaiming the rule and reign of God,
over all other powers, worldly and spiritual,
the devil, the Great Separator, met him there in the desert,
in order to separate him from his father,
from his mission, from himself.

So with that in mind, we look at the first temptation.
The devil came to Jesus and said,
“If you are the Son of God,
command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
This was a temptation for Jesus to misuse his power,
and thus separate himself from his true calling.
The power Jesus possessed could at any time,
either be directed toward meeting his own needs,
or toward accomplishing the purposes of God.

Jesus had a legitimate need.
He was fasting. And Matthew says he was famished.
He was in a weakened state.
But the whole purpose of his fast,
was to set aside physical need and comfort,
in order to more fully attend to God,
and to who God was calling him to be,
and to what God was calling him to do.
Jesus went into the wilderness,
for the sole purpose of clarifying his identity in God,
to more fully identify with the purposes of God in the world.

What a temptation it must have been, in a state of weakness,
to turn inward,
to redirect attention to needs of the self.
If Jesus gave in to this temptation
to misuse his power for self-satisfaction,
it would have meant profound separation
between his agenda, and God’s.

So Jesus answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Now, obviously, this is about more than eating or not eating.
There’s nothing terribly profound about saying that
healthy life requires much more than food.
We need shelter, good relationships, fulfilling work, love.
Everyone already knows this stuff.

Jesus is communicating a much deeper truth about human life,
one that the devil was hoping he’d forget about.
Jesus was saying, when he quoted Deuteronomy,
that full and abundant human life is found
outside our narrowly-defined selves,
and our narrowly-defined needs.
Our deepest human hunger is bigger than our stomachs.
It is a God-sized hunger.
When we move beyond our narrow selves into God and God’s purposes,
then we touch life in its fullness.
The power we’ve been given in life, however great or small,
should be put to use for that larger good,
the good that is God’s work.

Isn’t it the case, that we are nearly always drawn
to use our power to meet our own self-defined needs.
That’s true of individuals.
And it’s true of systems—like families,
like congregations,
like institutions,
like corporations,
like nations.

In this world we live in, the way we use power is almost entirely
under the influence of the Great Separator.
Power is used to divide and conquer.
Power is used to gather and accumulate resources for ourselves,
and the groups we represent,
and therefore it sets us apart from others,
it puts us into adversarial, competitive relationships.
Power separates.
At least, that’s what we’ve come to expect about power.
Power gives us the right to order our world in such a way
as to maximize our own advantage.
Even when we use our power and wealth
to meet the needs of others,
like those who suffer from poverty, disaster, or war,
as noble and necessary as helping might be,
it still can serve to maintain our position of superiority.
We still call the shots.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” we say.

Well, I say, the kind of world that makes a rule,
that beggars cannot be choosers,
is a world under the influence of the Great Separator.
It’s a world that keeps those with power and resources
safe and secure in their exalted positions,
and keeps the poor and needy in their dependent positions,
without the dignity and freedom of choice.
Jesus seemed to think even beggars had human dignity and freedom,
and could be “choosers.”

It would have been a simple thing for Jesus to use his power,
in that one little moment out in the desert,
to relieve his own hunger,
but it would have given the Great Separator a foothold.
It would have been a step toward separation from his calling.
A small step, maybe. But one heading down the wrong path.

I think, by Jesus saying no to the devil,
it prepared him for a life of redefining power altogether.
The power that Jesus lived out all through his ministry,
including his suffering, death, and resurrection,
was a power that showed itself best when it was laid down.
It was an upside-down power.
It was the power of letting go.
The power of choosing not to do what he could have done.

That was the power of the cross.
A fitting conclusion to what began in the desert.
Jesus’ ministry begins and ends struggling with the devil
over the same temptation—
a temptation to misuse his power
to meet his own needs
and short-circuit his suffering,
rather than lay down his power for the larger good.

The bread temptation was relatively easy to resist.
It took one quote from scripture to get rid of the devil.
At the end, it was more difficult.
His right-hand man Peter tried to convince him to take another path.
In the Garden, Jesus begged God to let him avoid the suffering.
It was so agonizing, he sweat drops of blood.
Then on the cross, one of the thieves, along with the soldiers,
dared him to use his power to save himself.
It had to have been a great temptation.

But he chose the power of sacrificial love.
The moral power of declining to use the power he had
to save himself and destroy his enemies.

That is a sobering thought
for those of us who live in a culture that glorifies people
who use their power and wealth to benefit themselves.
We hardly blink an eye anymore,
when rich, spoiled celebrities go to court to sue somebody
who offended them, or inconvenienced them,
or stole some of their limelight.

And it’s a sobering thought
for those of us who live in a nation
that uses its global economic and military power
to bully other nations into doing whatever is in our best interests.
We hardly blink an eye anymore,
when we thumb our nose at the rest of the world.

Now I certainly don’t expect Hollywood or Washington or Wall Street,
to suddenly start acting like Jesus.

But we, brothers and sisters, are the church.
We are instructed to act like Jesus.
We are expected to fashion our lives after a different model.
We are called to be a community of contrast.
Shaped and formed by the person of Jesus Christ.
A people who live as if the reign of God is near.

But in this meantime, we are being tempted just like Jesus.
To separate ourselves from our truest calling.
And it’s not merely an individual temptation
that we must resist individually.
We, the body of Christ, are collectively being tempted
to abandon our calling and identity,
to separate from God and God’s purposes,
and to be absorbed by a world that is largely
following the way of the Great Separator.
We have to shift the way we see ourselves in the world—
as a community of God’s people who live by a different ethic,
an ethic shaped and formed by the person of Jesus Christ.

In all that we are, and all that we do,
both individually, and collectively as a church,
let us follow the One who was tempted, severely, and withstood.

—Phil Kniss, January 22, 2006

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