The Way of Subtlety and Comfort

Luke 4:1-13

1.

Jesus has just been baptized.

That was quite an amazing event, wasn’t it?

For one thing, the Holy Spirit showed up. Up until this point in the story, we didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Holy Spirit.

And then, to boggle our minds even more, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus bodily, like a dove.

For another thing, a voice from above spoke. “You are my Son,” it declared, “the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

This voice called Jesus “Son.” By simple inference, the voice belonged to a parent, a heavenly parent, God.

So, okay, let me get this straight. The Son was there; the Holy Spirit too; and also, by inference, the Father?

Why, that’s classic Trinity!

And thus from his baptism we’ve just learned something amazing and mind-boggling about Jesus’ identity!

And that’s just the first phrase of today’s Gospel!

What comes next is even more mind-boggling.

Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit; and Jesus is led by that Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted for forty days by the devil.

If we clean up the sentence a little, it really says: The Holy Spirit leads God the Son to the devil.

Wait a minute!

Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the devil? It almost sounds like they’re working together.

But I thought the devil was God’s enemy! Just what kind of collusion is going on here?

2.

Let’s talk about the devil today, shall we?

Just who or what is the devil? Can we make any sense of him at all?[i]

Is the devil a spirit?

If so, then I guess we don’t need to take him very seriously. After all, science has taught us that our world is material. We don’t talk about or even believe in spirits anymore—ghost stories of a bygone era.

Well, then, is the devil a personification of evil? Because evil, after all, is real.

Ah, but there again we see a breakdown. For evil is a misguided understanding of our world. Rather, things fall apart; systems collapse; people suffer maladies of the mind. It is our task to repair the brokenness. Science is pointing the way. With enough tinkering, we can fix anything.

So, then, is the devil just some kind of abstract idea?

Maybe. But, if so, it’s a silly idea. Our reason and experience are enough to show us that!

Do you see the difficulty? The devil has been so misunderstood and otherwise battered back and forth from age to age, from culture to culture, that we simply don’t believe in the devil at all anymore—or if we do it’s some lame caricature, a personal being sent to tempt me into something scandalous—sexual misconduct or embezzlement.

“The devil made me do it,” we say.

But I don’t read anything anywhere about the devil being involved in any way when the Prodigal Son ran off and blew his inheritance on a wild life. If the devil didn’t make him do it, why should it be any different for me?

3.

I wonder: Maybe our world doesn’t believe in evil anymore precisely because we have cheapened the devil to a comic-book villain.

But what if we do take the devil seriously? What if, instead of seeing the devil as a red-skinned man with an athletic physique, a rather fashionable handlebar mustache, and a scary laugh—what if we consider him more as the Evil One, or maybe as the archetype of evil? Would we then also take evil more seriously too?

Whatever else you think of the devil—of Satan—whatever material and spiritual notions form your worldview—I’m asking you to set these aside for a while.

Okay?

Now, think about organizations you know, collective bodies with which you are familiar: churches, schools, companies, corporations, cities, nations.

Doesn’t each of these entities possess a kind of corporate personality?

We talk about school spirit. Don’t we mean by this a kind of overall feel of the place, some intangible sense that makes the school different and unique from another, similar school?

So, we can also speak in the same way about larger entities. For instance: Google has a corporate personality; and Google’s corporate personality is very different than Yahoo’s.

So then, what about for nations? Doesn’t the United States have a corporate personality—the spirit of our nation? And it’s much different than the spirit of, say, Mexico or Canada.

Corporate personalities are a thing. But how do you qualify them? They’re bigger than any one person or policy. They transcend changes from one administration to the next. The cast changes but the story stays the same.

Have you ever noticed? Over in the book of Revelation, John addresses letters like this: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus”; “To the angel of the church in Laodicea”; “To the angel of the church in Smyrna.”

I think this is what John is getting at: corporate personalities. He personifies these corporate personalities by calling them angels.

So, what if we wanted to write a letter to the corporate personality of our fallen world? To whom would we address our letter? An angel, perhaps? A fallen angel?

1 John 5:19 says it this way: “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.”

Our fallen world has a corporate personality. And this corporate personality has a name: Satan, a. k. a. the devil.

And the Spirit led Jesus to this devil in the wilderness, where he was tempted for forty days.

4.

So then, what about these temptations?

First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread. The fast was over; Jesus is famished. So why not? Looking ahead, wouldn’t Jesus do just this anyway—command bread into existence—when he feeds the 5,000? Doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me.

Second, the devil tells Jesus that all the kingdoms will be his in an instant, if he will just worship him. But this was something the Jews were hoping for and expecting anyway, that a messiah would come and sit on the throne of David. And, anyway, Jesus is already King of kings and Lord of lords. So, again, what’s the big deal? Is this even a temptation for Jesus?

And third, Jesus is tempted to cast himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. He knows he’s going to die for the sins of the world. What is Satan’s ploy? Trying to scare Jesus away from the cross? Does Satan maybe not understand that Jesus will in fact truly and surely die when he is crucified?

Not quite sure what’s happening here; but, yet again, it doesn’t seem like that big of a temptation for someone who understands the profound mission before him.

If nothing else, the devil is subtle.

You know what I think is happening here? The Jewish world has long been expecting a messiah who would come and deliver his people from hunger, oppression, and ultimately death.

And that is in fact what Jesus did!

But the real temptation is to do these things according to the corporate personality of the world—the old way—not according to Christ—the new way.

5.

As Christ’s disciples, let us take heed.

The old way is tried and true; the new way, on the other hand, requires creative energy and innovation, an exploration into the unknown. The old way has been proven effective over time; the new way poses risks. The old way brings comfort; the new way, Jesus’ way, brings uncertainty.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to stick with the old way? The path of least resistance? Especially if it works?

The devil does not come to us as a fiend or bogeyman, standing on our shoulder and whispering in our ear, tempting us toward this or that scandalous sin.

Okay, maybe now and again.

But much more often, evil—and evil’s archetype, the devil—tempts us with subtlety and comfort.

But, if evil is as subtle as I say, how do we know the difference between temptation and blessing?

The answer is where I began: with Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” that voice from heaven spoke; and the Holy Spirit descended upon him bodily, like a dove.

The answer is with Jesus’ identity. When we know who Jesus truly is, then we can discern between the old way and the new, between the way of subtlety and comfort and the way of love.

[i] In the discussion that follows I rely on Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence, Chapter 1. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: