Date: February 14, 2016
Title: “Off the Record with the Devil”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
There is nothing quite so extraordinary as a new Christian, or a newly committed one – the enthusiasm, the fire of the Spirit burning in the heart, and the joy of faith enlivening the mind. There’s nothing quite like it. I was reminded of this reality when my children came home for Christmas this year.
First, let me give you a little backstory. When my daughters were in middle school and high school we moved to Eugene as I was appointed to the Cabinet. Since I knew I would be traveling many Sundays of the year, I left it up to the girls to decide which church to join. Surprisingly, they decided they needed to go to the church where they could attend both Sunday School and worship each Sunday. They were definitely church kids, and I was pleased.
Then Sarah graduated from high school and went off to Massachusetts for college at Mt. Holyoke. And rarely went to church again. So imagine my surprise when she came home this Christmas, full of enthusiasm, with the fire of the Spirit burning in her heart and the joy of faith enlivening her mind! She began to tell me enthusiastically about the house church she has been attending, a fellowship a friend of hers has started in the Bay Area. I asked her what they do, what a typical meeting of the house church involves.
“Well, Mom,” Sarah said, “We start off by reading the Bible together. And then one of us – either David or I – give some remarks related to the Scripture, and then the group jumps in to discuss it. After that we pray together and then share a meal.” As she told me this Sarah’s eyes shone and the excitement grew as she told me “We just finished reading the book of Acts. And you know what, Mom? It turns out that Christian love is more radical than Marxism!”
Who knew? There’s nothing like the enthusiasm of a heart newly on fire with faith. And the season of Lent is our chance to rediscover that same kind of enthusiasm, to reclaim the fire of God’s Spirit in our hearts and the joy of Christ in our minds. It is a gift, these 40 days of preparation for Easter. Yet, don’t waste your time looking for this gift in the Bible. Lent just isn’t there; it didn’t spring up with the first Christian communities, but came about much later – about four centuries later, in fact. Lent began when the first blush of Christian enthusiasm had waned and believers had become rather nonchalant about their faith – kind of like us. When Christians had stopped the radical Book of Acts kind of sharing, the Christian love which is, according to Sarah, more radical than Marxism… then it was that the Church announced the season of Lent, from the old English word lencten, which means spring.
So here we are, once more being invited into a sort of “spring cleaning” for our souls. Once more we are gifted with 40 days to remember what it is to live by the grace of God, and not only by what we can supply by ourselves. Barbara Brown Taylor writes about Lent in this way:
I think of it as an Outward Bound for the soul. No one has to sign up for it, but if you do, then you give up the illusion that you are in control of your life.
Indeed, Lent suggests we give up our illusions of control, and walk right out into the wilderness with Jesus – right out where we will run smack dab into temptation. Today’s Gospel lesson picks up right after Jesus’ baptism. You remember that story – how Jesus goes to the river Jordan where he asks his cousin John to baptize him. And coming up out of the water, the heavens open and God’s Spirit descends on Jesus and he hears the Divine voice say “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
It’s like Jesus has just won the Superbowl of authority and identity! And what does he do next? Does he head off to Disneyland to celebrate with family and friends? Hardly. Instead, he heads out into the wilderness all alone, to choose for himself his own life path. And he encounters the Devil along the way.
As the story goes, there are three temptations offered to Jesus. First there is bread, and the temptation to satisfy a physical appetite. Then there is glory, and the temptation to beef up a reputation, to garner the spotlight and bask in its glow. And finally there is safety, and the temptation to trust in one’s own power. The problem for Jesus out there in the wilderness is not these temptations themselves, but the possibility that they will distract Jesus from his calling.
If we were to go “off the record” with the Devil, I suspect he might tell us something like this… He might say to us, “You people, you foolish people! You think of temptation as a leaning toward something – doing something we know we shouldn’t do. You see that chocolate cake sitting on the counter, the piece you said you were bringing home to your spouse, but of course nobody knew you were bringing it home, and it would taste so good. So you think it is leaning toward something when you are tempted. But in reality, temptation is all about luring you away from something. It is intended to draw you away from your relationship with God, and away from your truest selves.”
That’s the secret maneuver the Devil so cleverly hides in bread, in power, and in safety. Each of Jesus’ temptations – and ours as well – are meant to erode and undercut the relationship with God and therefore undermine our own identity. It is an issue of identity theft, and we are often the unwitting victims. Just think about all the attempts made to rob us of our identity every day. There is the media barrage of advertising designed to make us feel inadequate, or to create a need we never knew we had – and the solution of course is to buy whatever is on offer to satisfy the need and relieve the insecurity. Or consider the cultural assumptions that life should always be happy and relationships should be easy. And if there is conflict in your marriage, or discontent, then the solution is simply to get out, or to go onto the next relationship. Even campaign messages from presidential hopefuls all seem intent on instilling fear and preying on our insecurities. Whether it be terrorism, immigrants, corporations, joblessness, global warming, high taxes, low wages, the wealthy, the poor – depending on the candidate, the topics change. Yet the message is still the same: you should be afraid, because you are not enough… but just elect me and I will keep you safe!
Humorist Sam Levenson put it well when he quipped:
Lead us not into temptation. Just tell us where it is; we’ll find it.
Going “Off the Record with the Devil” reminds us of the absolute necessity of staying on the record with God. It reminds us of the need for each of us individually, and all of us collectively, to remember who we are. Brian Doyle, in his Book of Uncommon Prayers includes his “Furious Prayer for the church I Love”, which goes in part:
Granted, it’s a tough assignment, the original assignment. I get that. Love – Lord help us, could we not have been assigned something easier, like astrophysics or quantum mechanics? But no – love those you cannot love… It is easy to advise and pronounce and counsel and suggest and lecture; it is not so easy to do what must be done without sometimes shrieking. Bring love like a bright weapon against the dark… The Rabbi did not say build churches, or retreat houses, or secure a fleet of cars for general use, or convene conferences or issue position papers. He was pretty blunt about the hungry and the naked and the sick. He was not reasonable; we forget this. The Church is not a reasonable idea.
Going off the record with the Devil reminds us of the absolute necessity of staying on the record with God, individually and collectively remembering who we are. I was struck this week by the end of the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and appreciated Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward’s words at the last press conference when he said:
There’s good that can come out of this. Friends and neighbors can get off social media and sit down over a cup of coffee and talk out their differences. We can’t continue tearing each other apart, hating each other because of differences of opinion. There’s a reason why people risk their lives everyday to come to this country. It’s because it’s a fine place to live. But we cannot go on like this. We have to remember who we are.
It is time for each of us, and for all of us together, to say “no” to every would-be identity thief. We must say no to bigotry and hatred, no to fear and insecurity, no to greed and manipulation, no to all the off the record temptations we face every day. It is time for us instead to say “yes” to God – who knows us and loves us as we are, God who calls us beloved and expects us to do the same for one another. Today – right now – throughout this season of Lent – let us say a resounding YES to God, and thereby come home to ourselves at last. Thanks be to God! Amen.