Sunday March 1, 2020

1st Sunday in Lent - 2020a

Old Testament - Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

New Testament - Matthew 4:1-11

Your Last Breath

INTRODUCTION: The working title for the song was originally “The Devil Is My Name.”


When the Rolling Stones were finally done recording it, though, the title had morphed into one of their most famous and controversial songs: “Sympathy for the Devil.”   


With Mick Jagger singing as the Devil, the song, with its samba rhythm, opens with the Devil almost gleefully presenting himself to listeners: 


Please allow me to introduce myself

I'm a man of wealth and taste

I've been around for a long, long year

Stole many a man's soul and faith


From there, the Devil goes on to boast about his involvement in assorted historical tragedies. Among other things, the Devil claims to have been present for World War II:


I rode a tank

Held a general's rank

When the blitzkrieg raged

And the bodies stank


And what about all those religious wars fought in Europe down through the ages? Well, the Devil takes credit for those too:


I watched with glee

While your kings and queens

Fought for ten decades

For the gods they made


But most importantly of all, of course, the Devil takes credit for seeing to Jesus’ death:


And I was 'round when Jesus Christ

Had his moment of doubt and pain

Made damn sure that Pilate

Washed his hands and sealed his fate


Given that the Stones had already raised assorted hackles for their sexually charged lyrics on previous songs, and that an earlier album was actually titled  Their Satanic Majesties Request, “Sympathy for the Devil” only served to fuel speculation that the Rolling Stones were real-life devil worshipers. A charge they continue to deny even today.         


Of course, while the Devil takes credit for Jesus’ crucifixion in “Sympathy for the Devil,” he could have just as easily also talked about his involvement in Jesus’ temptations. For according to Matthew, he was also “‘round” for that little event as well, right?


With his hair not even dry yet from his baptism, Jesus is promptly driven out into the wilderness. And after fasting for forty days and nights, Old Scratch shows up to see if he can’t capitalize on Jesus’ weakened state. While each temptation offered is unique, all three have the same basic aim. The goal, in short, is to get Jesus to misuse his unique rank as God’s Son for his own personal benefit and gain.


The devil begins, “Say there, Mr. Jesus. You gotta be hungry at this point. Why not turn some of these stones lying around on the ground into bread?”


But Jesus, even with his stomach growling, refuses to use his special status to his own advantage. “One does not live by bread alone,” says Jesus, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”   

Rebuffed, the Devil then moves to his second option. “Say there, Mr. Jesus. If you’re really God’s Son, prove it. Jump from the top of the Empire State building so the big guy will be forced to rescue you.”


Again, another temptation for Jesus to use his position as God’s Son to ensure his own safety and security. But yet a second time, he opts to forgo traveling such a tantalizing and safe road for himself. “You shall not put the Lord your God to test,” says Jesus. 


And then finally, after being refused a second time, the Devil makes one last ditch effort. “Say there, Mr. Jesus. All the world, its kingdoms, splendors, and wealth, can be yours if you’ll just drop to a knee before me.”


But for a third and final time, Jesus refuses. Rather than gain fortune and worldly esteem by following Satan, Jesus chooses to remain loyal to God - even though such loyalty will eventually come at great personal cost. “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”  


So the Devil was involved in more than just Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. He also showed up at the end of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. “Please allow me to introduce myself,” cooed the Devil, “I'm a man of wealth and taste and I've been around for a long, long year.”


Of course, while it sounds a bit odd, we can forget that having to deal with temptations is almost unavoidable for people of faith.


For anytime a person sets out to live for God and God’s wishes, well, it is inevitable that they will face temptation along the way. Living for God, after all, just tends to naturally bring a person into tension with the world.


For the world, while hardly a totally depraved and evil place, also doesn’t always take too kindly to God’s instruction. So while some people seem quick to assume being tempted is a sign of weak faith, I, and others, actually think it is just the opposite.


Or as another minister has put it, “The nearer one lives in proximity to God, contrary to our expectations, the greater the influence of temptation...temptations in some very real sense are the consequences of a life set apart for goodness and God’s will.” 

Surely that helps explain why Jesus, immediately after his baptism in Matthew’s Gospel, so quickly finds himself facing all those temptations from the devil. For with his baptism, that life set aside for God’s will was officially begun and it was only natural then for the temptations to start flowing.


In the Greek, the word devil is actually drawn from two words that when combined together mean, “to throw over or across.” And that’s just what happens with the devil. He throws all kinds of obstacles across Jesus’ path as he seeks to faithfully follow God’s way.   


So do you see how, in a funny sort of way, temptations are actually a sign of faith? Normally, we’re quick to think having to deal with temptations is a sign of weak faith, as if we wouldn’t have these problems and struggles to face if our faith was only strong enough. But it turns out dealing with temptation is more the result of actually having faith than not.


For “the nearer one lives in proximity to God,” the more temptation becomes an issue.


Centuries ago a man named Anthony set out to live in the deserts of Egypt.


Taking Jesus’ counsel literally that perfection was to be found in selling all his possessions, Anthony gave away the family land he had inherited, dropped his sister into a convent, and headed off into the Western Desert, about 60 miles outside of Alexandria.

But a funny thing happened to Anthony on his way to the desert. As legend has it, he soon found himself facing various challenges and temptations from the devil and other supernatural forces.


Among other things, the devil sought to afflict Anthony with things like boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women in hopes of diverting him from his task.


One other story claims that while Anthony was travelling in the desert he came across a plate of silver coins. Wondering why such a plate would be in the middle of the desert, he quickly realized the devil must have put it there. “Ha! Devil,” Anthony is said to have exclaimed, “thou weenest to tempt me and deceive me, but it shall not be in thy power.” And with that the plate of silver coins disappeared.


Still later as he walked Anthony then came upon a plate of gold coins as an even greater enticement. Throwing the coins into a fire, they too quickly vanished just like the silver did earlier.


No wonder Anthony eventually became known as Saint Anthony the Great and is reported to have said at one point during his life in the desert, “Expect temptation with your last breath.” For he too seemed to understand that temptations were actually the byproduct of any life set apart for God.


One temptation after another was set before him during his journey. And all of it, because he was seeking to live in closer proximity to God.


CONCLUSION: Of course, we don’t have to be a monk trying to live in the desert to experience temptation, do we?


For temptation is always around for those seeking to live for God and God’s wishes. Whether in a desert cave, a humble hut in a village, a small city, or a bustling urban center, temptation is sure to find us.


So don’t worry too much if you feel like you are especially inundated with temptations. That hardly means your faith is weak, as some might want to suggest.


Shoot, near as I can figure, having to deal with temptations actually means just the opposite. It means you’re likely doing a pretty good job of trying to live for God.


And if that’s case, well, you can probably expect temptation right up until your last breath.


And now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.