March 22, 2014

The Easy Stuff


Text: Matthew 4:9: “...and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

It is the beginning of the season of Lent. Even if you don’t follow the calendar of the church that closely, just the sudden differences in Sunday morning might have told you something was up. We chanted a long, long series of prayers on our way up the aisle today, the Great Litany. In the language of the church, whenever something gets called “great” it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best thing ever, but means that it is the longest form of whatever it is. There are a lot of litanies, but there’s only one Great Litany; there are a lot of vigils, but there is only one Great Vigil of Easter.

So, welcome to your Lent this year. I hope you are off to a great start.

The theme of the morning is the human reality of temptation. Lent is meant to bring us up short against the gap that separates our best selves from our usual selves, and to get us thinking about the reality that closing that gap for good is something we can’t do on our own. It’s only something we can do with God’s help, because if life teaches us anything it’s that our temptations are stronger than our capacity for self-will.

The way this usually goes is that we read the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and hear the story of Jesus resisting the temptation of the Devil; and from that we are mean to learn a few lessons. First, the Devil is behind every temptation; second, Jesus is better than we are, because he overmasters every temptation; and third, the when you overcome temptation, angels come and take care of you.

That is the first grasp I had on this story, and maybe it’s the way you learned it, too. It’s probably okay as far as it goes. But there may be more here.

Let’s consider those temptations set before Jesus. It seems like they involve matters of the body, matters of the spirit, and matters of power. Jesus is hungry, and he’s offered easy food; Jesus is despairing, and he’s offered easy assurance; Jesus is powerless, and he’s offered all the power in the world.

That’s one reading. But if you look more carefully at those temptations, you see they are really all about the same thing. Because in every case, the basic temptation set before Jesus is to prove who he is on the devil’s terms.

The giveaway is the way those first two temptations are set up. It’s not, “If you’re hungry, then...” or “If you’re lonely, then...”; it’s “If you are the Son of God, then...” It’s a small distinction that makes for a big difference.

Here’s the difference: Jesus is being asked to prove himself for all the wrong reasons. He’s being asked to lend his virtue to an unworthy end. It’s not that bread is bad, or that the assurance of God’s presence is bad; and it’s certainly not that God simply taking over all human affairs would be bad. God knows we do a poor enough job sorting out things for ourselves.

No, it’s that doing all this for the purpose of dancing to the Devil’s tune would in effect be handing virtue over to the Devil’s purposes. And when you see it that way, it’s a pretty easy decision to make.

The first reading I was taught of this story wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t complete. The temptations set before Jesus really aren’t close calls for him—exactly because it’s perfectly obvious that it’s the Devil behind him. That’s the easy stuff. When someone, or some thing, or some job, or some profession, or some boss asks you to sell out your values or your principles for some other purpose— even some other seemingly worthy purpose—it really isn’t a hard call, or at least it shouldn’t be.

The point of the story isn’t supposed to be that Jesus is somehow so much stronger in the face of temptation than we are. That may be true, but when the Devil himself is staring you in the face asking you to do something, it’s a pretty easy call to know that you probably shouldn’t yield.

Now, that said—there is a problem here. You might call it the hard stuff. It’s not that certain moral choices are easy, and others are hard, because some choices are obviously wrong and others are harder to parse. You all already know that, and it pretty much goes without saying.

No, the real difference between the story we have about Jesus this morning and our own circumstance is that the Devil doesn’t come directly and confront us anymore, because in our culture we have lost any real connection with any idea of a willful, calculating evil.

I’m following here the thinking of Anthony Delbanco and his now nearly twenty-year-old book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost The Sense of Evil. Delbanco was inspired to write his book when he started grappling with a basic problem he saw in our conversation: We are inundated with evidence of the persistent presence of evil in the world, of the human capacity for cruelty and depravity, and yet we have almost no language with which to make sense out of it.

In the course of twenty centuries we made an enormous transition from the idea of the Devil as the personification of Evil, a force contending in spiritual combat with God, the source of
all that is Good, to the image of Adolf Eichmann sitting in the defendant’s chair in an Israeli courtroom, dressed in a simple suit and tie and seeming a simple, mundane bureaucrat on trial for genocide and mass murder.

Evil is still with us, but it seems to have lost its force, or at least its vivid danger. It is as though—as Delbanco says, “evil tends to recede into the background hum of modern life.” It is as though the very idea of the “self” has become “a collection of functions and duties rather than an accountable moral being.” The work of the Devil is everywhere, but if we have lost our very sense of the self, then none of us really knows where to look to find him.

This is the hard stuff—the truly hard stuff—of our predicament. It’s worse than the tempter not showing his face when setting the temptation before us. It’s that tempter no longer has a face to show; and yet the temptation is still with us.

There is no easy way out of this predicament. But truly I tell you, it surely is a predicament; and it means we stand all the more in need of both the means of grace and the hope of glory that we are given by God through the life and work of Jesus. We need it because without the clarity our ancestors had about the real and active presence of evil looking to trip us up, we are surrounded by dangers we can’t see, like sailing in a fog through rocky waters.

At least we can hold on to this much: we know that the Devil stays close to Jesus, chiefly out of fear. The story we have this morning reminds us of that. So at least if we, too, stay close to Jesus, we are more likely to see the Devil for what and who he is—and to have the companionship of the Lord in recognizing the tempter, and in resisting whatever he sets before us. Amen.