March 10th, 2019 “The Devil Within” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a time when we turn our hearts and minds toward a period of reflection. In the church, the period of Lent lasts for forty days, which doesn’t include Sundays, leading up to our celebration of Easter which will be April 21st this year. The first text of the Lenten season is always the temptation of Christ which gives us an opportunity to reflect on our own experiences of temptation, as well as our own sinful nature.
This year of course, we are reading in the gospel of Luke. As with the other gospels, in Luke Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness immediately following his baptism in the river Jordan. Jesus has been baptized by John, he has witnessed the Holy Spirit descending on him in the bodily form of a dove, and he has heard a voice from the heavens. God has spoken and declared that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, and that God is pleased with him. The moment of baptism is the moment Jesus is anointed to begin his ministry, but before he does that he needs to determine what his ministry will be. That is what the time in the wilderness is all about.
Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness during this season of self discovery. The period of forty days is meant to evoke a remembrance of the Israelite’s period of wandering in the desert forty years. It is also the reason that our own season of Lent lasts forty days, a reflection of this time Jesus spent in the wilderness. The wilderness itself is a common place for struggle as well as for growth and insight. Both of which will be a part of Jesus’ experience, and both of which may play a part in our own individual Lenten journeys.
The author of Luke tells us that for forty days Jesus was in the wilderness and was tempted by the devil. I’ve always had a hard time with this story, just as I have a hard time with any narrative that references Satan or the Devil. You see, I’m not sure I believe in the devil. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe that we are tempted in many ways during our lives. But I have never witnessed those temptations, or any evil in the world, coming from an outside source. All the evil I have ever witnessed comes from the hearts and actions of people. All the temptations I have ever experienced come from within me.
I think the devil is a scapegoat and an excuse. If we can say “the devil made me do it” then we are no longer responsible for our own sinful nature. But if we can admit, “I led myself astray” then we can take responsibility for our own actions, repent, and move on towards healing. The real temptation comes from our own hearts, or the devil within.
So, you can believe what you want about Satan and the Devil but now you know where I stand and you know where I am going with this sermon and how I am reading this story today. If we can examine the temptations of Christ as thoughts from within his own heart instead of some outside evil force, then suddenly they become more real and applicable to our own experience today. I love Jesus, I want Jesus to be real, I want Jesus to be fully human, and therefore I want Jesus to be really tempted like I am.
The first temptation seems pretty straightforward. Jesus fasted during the whole forty days and at the end of the period of fasting he was very hungry. In the story Luke tells the devil suggests Jesus turns stones into bread. In the story I am telling, it is easy to imagine that Jesus might come up with this idea on his own. Jesus is hungry and this little miracle would assuage his hunger. A big picture temptation is also clear, for if Jesus can turn a few stones into bread for himself, than he can turn every rock in Israel into bread and no one would ever go hungry again. That would be a pretty big temptation for a Messiah.
Thankfully Jesus determines that this is not a proper use of his power and authority. He also seems to determine that though feeding the people would be a blessing that is not the reason he has been sent as the Messiah. Jesus knows that “One does not live by bread alone” and so he must bring salvation to the people of Israel in another way.
For Jesus’ second temptation he considers all the kingdoms of the world. In the story Luke tells the devil promises to give them over to Jesus, if Jesus will but submit to the devil one time. In the story I am telling, I think that Jesus faces the temptation of worshipping his own ego versus worshipping the Lord our God. Jesus refutes the temptation with scripture, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
Personally we all struggle with the battle between our ego and our desire to serve the Lord. Imagine what it would be like to rein your ego in if you know you are the Messiah, the Son of God! That would be enough to cause anyone’s head to swell with pride. I am certain Jesus was tempted to walk the path of glory instead of the path of the suffering servant.
For the third temptation, Luke tells us that the devil takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and encourages him to jump so the angels can save him. In the story I am telling, I think that Jesus was tempted to prove to himself and to others that he was the Son of God. He is tempted to prove his beloved status as declared at his baptism and to win the people over with amazing signs and wonders. Nothing will catch people’s attention like legions of angels catching Jesus in the temple square. Again, though, Jesus is able to reject the temptation, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Like all these temptations from the devil within, this connects to Jesus’ ego, “Just how much does God love me?”
So often we can’t connect with the stories of Jesus’ temptations, we can’t relate and they don’t feel real to us. The devil has never visited me and asked me to do anything. When we reconsider the temptation of Jesus, and remove the role of an outside tempter, devil, or Satan, then suddenly the story becomes fresh and new. We can understand Jesus’ time in the wilderness as a wrestling with his own ego and identity. We can relate to this story and see that Jesus was fully human and tempted like we are. If we struggle to tame our egos in the face of the Lord, imagine what a struggle it was for someone who thought they were the Messiah!
Lent is a time for us to be honest about who we are and honest about our own sinful natures. This morning, while offering a challenging new interpretation of this text, I want to also offer you an opportunity to consider all the ways you tempt yourself. How is your ego, or the devil within you, leading you astray today? Are you ever tempted to use your power or influence to get what you want? Or maybe bend the rules a bit if it will help your friends or even a stranger? All for a good cause of course! That’s the first temptation.
Have you ever been tempted to worship yourself or put yourself before all others? Our American culture certainly promotes the worship of the ego! Does your life lead others to God, or does it simply encourage others to adore you? I can imagine social media plays a role here and this is the second temptation.
We experience the third temptation anytime we desire to test God. How do we know God is real? How do we know God loves us? Does God need to prove Godself to us? If you do this for me, than I will believe in you forever. If you heal my friend of cancer, I will be a better Christian. If you make my child a believer, than I will devote my life to your service. Must God earn our faith through signs and wonders, or is it something we are simply able to offer as a matter of obedience to the divine?
Today we are gathering around the communion table, and when we celebrate here we are always called to take a moment and reflect on our own standing before God. Today I invite you to consider all the ways your own ego has tempted you. Instead of blaming our sin on an outside force, let us take responsibility for our own actions. Let us admit that we have done wrong, been selfish, and worshipped ourselves, and then let us gather at the feast table with clean hearts.
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a wonderful start for our own Lenten journey. For forty days Jesus was tested. It was a time of reflection and a time of spiritual growth. We too, are entering a forty day period of reflection and growth. The season of Lent is a time to be intentional about our actions. It is a time to fully reflect on the ways our world and our own hearts try to lead us astray. This is an opportunity to return to the Lord. May God give us courage and strength, as we too face the devil within. Amen.