Archive for The devil

The Way of Subtlety and Comfort

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by timtrue

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.

Seeking New Life

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

Luke 24:1-12

Alleluia.  Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Amen.

We say this together, yes.  And we’re happy to be saying it—alleluia!—after setting it aside for the past 6.5 weeks.

But I wonder: do we mean it?

Christ is risen.

But do we tire of hearing the same old story?

Don’t we come back to the same old place at about the same old time of the year to engage in the same old service and hear the same old story?

Think about Mary Magdalene.  Not what you know about her today, in 3rd-millennium America; but how it must have been for her when she approached Jesus’ tomb on that dark morning and saw, incredibly, that the stone had been rolled away.

Can you do that?  Can you remove yourself from our twenty-first century mindset long enough to put yourself in Mary’s place?

What must have gone through her mind when she saw this?  What did she think when she entered the tomb and saw that Jesus’ body was not there?

Did she think someone had stolen Jesus’ corpse?  That’s what the Gospel of John suggests.

Whatever the case, here in Luke she didn’t have much time to think it over.  For, suddenly, she found herself standing in the midst of two other-worldly beings, “men in dazzling clothes”!

What must she have thought then, at that moment?  The passage says she was terrified and bowed her face to the ground.

Amazing!

But is all this lost on us?  Do we somehow miss it?

Because if it is, if we do; then surely we’ll miss the best part.

The best part of this story is not as dazzling as the rest of the show.  So if we’re no longer dazzled by this dazzling story—I mean, we’ve heard it so many times now—we’ll pass right over the less-dazzling-nevertheless-more-important part—the most important part—of this story.

It’s what these other-worldly messengers say.

They ask why.

Do we miss that?  Do we miss the challenge that these other-worldly messengers present?

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Now, there’s something in us that desires the new and novel.  There’s something about our humanity that seems to be wired this way.

  • The first iPhone was released in 2007;
  • The iPhone 3G came out in 2008;
  • In 2009 it was the iPhone 3GS;
  • 2010 launched the iPhone 4;
  • 2011, the iPhone 4S;
  • 2012 revealed the iPhone 5;
  • 2013 saw both the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5C;
  • 2014 gave us the iPhone 6;
  • 2015 went one step further with the iPhone 6S;
  • And—don’t worry, Apple will not let us down—2016 promises to give us the iPhone SE, with all the capabilities of the iPhone 6S but the more popular and convenient size of the iPhone 4.

Apple keeps giving us new phones—new, expensive devices—and we keep buying them!

Of course, this is just one example.  But what is it in our human nature that likes the new and novel?

And so we come to the Easter story—that same old story.  It’s not new.  It’s not fresh.  It’s the same old thing we’ve heard over and over for the last two thousand years.

And no matter how the church tries to repackage it and resell it every year, it can’t keep up with Apple.

Unlike my iPhone, the Easter story doesn’t have touch screen technology.  It doesn’t cater itself to me specifically, knowing what makes me tick.  It doesn’t interact with me with an almost human-sounding voice.

We’ve all heard it said that Jesus meets me where I am.  And yet Jesus doesn’t close to where my iPhone meets me.

And the same old story Easter and its men in dazzling clothes have, well, lost their dazzle.

It was there in the Garden, you know: this human desire for the new and novel.  Satan, that serpent of old, knew it.  And he capitalized on it.

“You’ve been in this comfortable garden a while now, Eve,” he slithered.  “Hasn’t it all begun to feel a little too comfortable?  A little too familiar?  A little ho hum?  A little, perhaps, mundane?”

And with a focus on the new and novel, he continues to wear Eve down.

“You know,” he says, “God calls it monogamy, when two people like you and Adam are bound in lifelong matrimony.  Sounds to me more like monotony.”

And so on and so forth until Eve actually becomes sympathetic; until,

“Has God really said,” Satan questions, “that you will die?  Surely, you’re not gonna die just from taking one little bite from that delicious fruit.  Instead—let me tell you—it’ll blow your mind.  You’ll know new things, see new things, beyond your wildest imagination.  Just do it, Eve.  Just take one bite—and hold on for the ride of your life!”

There’s something in our human nature that craves the new and novel.  Satan knows it.  Apple knows it.

Now, to clarify, and for the record, I am not equating Satan here with Apple, Inc.

In fact, I will go so far as to say there is nothing inherently or morally wrong in craving the new and novel.

In the story about the Garden I just reiterated, Adam and Eve’s desire for the new and novel was there before they fell into sin.  In other words, it was there in our humanity before sin ever entered the picture, in that part of our divine image that’s not tainted by sin.

So there’s nothing morally wrong when you find yourself craving the next version of the iPhone.

And Apple, Inc. is not in league with the devil.

Nevertheless, sometimes we crave the new and novel so much that we forget about the important parts of life.

Like the same old Easter story we hear year after year.

Or that same old message the “men in dazzling clothes” tell us all: not to look for the living among the dead.

But that’s just what’s going on here; that’s just what the dazzling men are telling us.

This is not the same old story year after year.  This story is new and fresh each time we hear it—or it should be.  For we are not told to look for the living among the dead, but rather to look for the living among the living!  That’s what resurrection is, after all, isn’t it?  New life emerging from the old!

So then, this story of resurrection, rather than being confined to the pages of a book, is alive and all around us.  We just need to know where to look!

For example, how many of you know a cancer survivor who, after getting a clean bill of health, has said something along the lines of, “Now I have a new lease on life!”  Isn’t this a kind of death and resurrection?

As another example, what about marriage?  What married person doesn’t know the truth of dying to self in order to enjoy new life in and with another person?

Now, okay, these are big things—overcoming cancer; deciding to leave the single life for marriage.  There’s a certain sense of death and resurrection in them that’s fairly obvious.

But what about in smaller things?  Do you see resurrection—new life—in these?

Do you see new life in the waters of baptism?  We go down under the water—symbolizing death to self—and come up again—symbolizing new life in Christ.  Isn’t this an expression of death and new life?  And so we renew our baptismal vows, annually, at this service.

Or, did you see it in the new fire and the Paschal candle?  New fire snuffs out darkness with its light.

Do you see new life each time you come to the altar to receive communion?  This is your spiritual sacrifice, where you die to self and live in Christ.

Or, to move out of the realm of the sacred, what about in the first-grade classroom, when a student’s eyes suddenly light up with the joy of a new truth discovered?  Do you see new life here?

What about in the smile of a homeless person as you hand her a sandwich?

Any time hope overcomes despair; any time truth defeats falsehood; any time beauty conquers ugliness; any time charity gives selflessly; any time goodness prevails—aren’t these all examples of new life overcoming death?

New life is all around us!

Let’s take the advice, then, that the men in dazzling clothes give us.  Jesus is not here, they tell Mary, where you might expect, in a tomb, among the dead.  Rather, he is risen.  He is out there, with the people, among the living!  Go, seek, and find him!

This “same old story,” rather than being dusty, old, and monotonous—is alive.

That’s because this same old story is about resurrection.  It’s about seeing new life all around you, in and through and with all the living souls with whom you interact day in and day out, all those people who may or may not clamor to get the latest iteration of the iPhone.

Do you see the new and novel in your daily life?  Do you see new life all around you, in the world of the living?  Do you live out resurrection?