Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 1, 2020
“Don’t Blame the Devil”
Matthew 4: 1-11 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only God.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
“The devil made me do it.” When the excuse that “the dog ate my homework” doesn’t work, or “the wind blew my assignment out the window,” just blame the devil. Like Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine. “Why did you buy that dress? The devil made me do it.”
Our lunch and lectionary group met on Thursday at Noodles and Company and the first response after reading the text for today was a sigh and an “ugh” about the devil. And it’s true. How can you take the idea of a devil seriously when popular culture has personified it as a red faced being holding a pitchfork? Or when the devil has so often been used as a simplistic means of condemning someone you consider evil. The idea of a devil brings out all sorts of issues for people who value science and reasoning. We’re not going to do that today.
But there is something to the whole idea of “devil” in the context of this story. Matthew is not attempting to personify evil or an evil force. It’s much simpler than that. Scholarly consensus is that the word more accurately means “the tempter.”
Following his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness where he was confronted by the tempter. He was specifically led to the wilderness to be tempted. It’s fascinating that following his baptism he wasn’t exempted from temptation. We might think, now that you’re baptized, you’ll be left alone. But rather, he was driven right into it. By the Spirit, no less. Then, 40 days and 40 nights later, at his hungriest and loneliest moment, he was offered what any of us might have thought was an angel bearing some bread and offering some help. Instead, at his lowest, here comes the tempter.
One scholar described the meaning of “the tempter” in this context as one who “misleads, deceives, diverts attention, discredits, or slanders.” Misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, slanders. And attacks.
I read that list to our lunch and lectionary group and everyone started laughing. And it could be right here that my sermon starts identifying examples of misleading, deceiving, discrediting, and attacking. For today, I’m simply going to say, “you get the idea” and move on. Except to say that once you have repeatedly misled and deceived the public, constantly attacked the media, and done everything in your power to discredit science, don’t be surprised if people don’t believe you about a public health emergency. But I’m not calling anyone the devil here nor am I blaming the devil for this mess. The devil didn’t do it.
My New Testament professor in seminary, Marilyn Salmon, translated the word here as “seducer.” She translated the Greek and argued that the devil was not just trying to tempt Jesus but to seduce him using flattery. We might think seduction is all about sexuality, but the art of seduction, she argued, is to persuade disloyalty and lead someone astray with false promises. “There’s no harm in a little bread. It’ll be our secret. There’s no harm if you’re just trying to do good things. Let me help you. There’s no harm in asking God to protect you. Look, it says so right here in scripture.” Imagine using scripture as a tool of seduction. But seduction has only one reality: for the seducer to get what they want.
I have a question for all the white evangelicals who are in lock step, offering their blessing to everything the president wants. Are you tempted by all the power and control the president has granted you? Or are you being seduced by all the power and control he wants from you?
I honestly can’t read today’s scripture without seeing the glaring parallels of Christians grabbing on to all the power they can get to control religious minorities under the false premise of religious liberty, along with a license to discriminate against LGBTQ folks, and exert control over women, and demonize people of color to legitimate their incarceration, or exclude non-white immigrants, especially from s-hole countries around the world. But don’t blame the devil. This is simply cruel, wrong, unjust, and immoral. And Jesus wept.
But, wait. Have I not just played right into the temptation or seduction to consider progressive Christians more enlightened, better educated, more reasonable, more just? And ultimately, more righteous?
How many white progressives were seduced by the attraction of a black president meaning that America had truly become a post-racial society? Willing to believe, overlook, that all those confederate flags were really just about pride in one’s history? Not a symbol of hatred waiting to be seduced by right suitor. Or that a female president will make the country less sexist. How many liberals are tempted while on a trip to another country or to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to think or say out loud at some point, “Why don’t they just…” I’m quick to want to solve the issues of other cultures and countries because I believe our educational system is more evolved.
Are progressive Christians any less susceptible to conspiracy theories, especially ones that confirm our bias too? If you pander to my prejudices, no matter how educated, I’ll believe you.
Temptations. Seductions. And one more. At some point, advertisers realized consumers weren’t going to be convinced to buy their product because of cost or quality. They made it not a question of whether their product is better but whether our lives will be better… And not just better, people will think more highly about us. And our lives will be easier. But not just easier. Without it, our lives will be emptier. And who wants an empty life? Do you really want to miss out?!
Therefore, we are sold an idea:
Tide doesn’t clean our clothes. It liberates us from dirt.
Mastercard isn’t a method for payment. It brings us experiences in life that are priceless.
Almost 20 years ago, PBS Frontline did a documentary called The Persuaders about how successful advertising gives meaning to our lives. Or tries to.
Starbucks isn’t primarily about coffee. It creates community.
Nike is about transcendence, not merely shoes.
The documentary’s conclusion was that the ultimate triumph of “the persuaders,” are through “ministries,” interesting choice of words, “through ministries of data mining, focus grouping, ad-making, anxiety marketing, spin segmenting, and demo-graffiti — The ultimate triumph will be to get us to believe that they multiply and educate our choices instead of pouncing on and pandering to our prejudices and vulnerabilities.”
And then, of course, is all the fear-based political advertising. How can we resist? And how much more so if we’re lonely and haven’t eaten in 40 days.
40 days and 40 nights is simply shorthand for saying “a very long time.” Many of us feel like after 40 days of this administration, we’re at our lowest point, or at least a low point, in our democracy. If we’re not seduced to bury our head in the sand and chant “Everything is OK,” or to claim, “Everything will be OK,” then our temptation is to deflect, “I can’t do anything about it.”
Everything is OK or will be OK. For who?
I can’t do anything about it. Why not?
On Ash Wednesday, we collectively prayed:
“The truth is, we are not really sure about following the Way of Christ. We believe it is the right thing to do, but actually following Christ would turn our whole world upside down.” Things are really that bad, are they? The ultimate seduction of the privileged.
We went on: “We confess that sometimes what binds us can trick us into feeling safe and comfortable in the midst of our suffering. Divine liberation is so foreign that we fear it is unsafe and unwieldy.”
“And yet, inside of each one of us, your still-speaking voice pulls at our heart.” And with that comes the power to resist.
For Ash Wednesday, as we met to begin the journey of Lent, Jenny Whitcher re-imagined the words of the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 58. It directly answers the challenge of the tempters, the seducers, and the persuaders of the world:
“Living out your faith will lead you forward.”
“If you remove the burdens and chains from among you,
stop pointing fingers,
and with hate-filled and hurtful words,
stop speaking of evil;
If you have the courage to open your hearts to deep and loving relationship with one another;
Minister to and heal one another,
use your God-given gifts and talents to live out the Gospel,
and seek the Spirit of God in everyone you encounter…
Then we will be in right relationship.
Then, the Holy Spirit will rise within you and guide you continually.
[God says,] I will meet your needs when you encounter times of wilderness and thirst.
I will make you strong, and I will nourish you.
You will be vibrant like a well-watered garden;
You will be full of eternal life like a fresh spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ruins will be rebuilt, and the broken places of your heart healed;
You will rise up with the power of love to implement justice and to transform everyone and everything that stands against love.
You will be the foundation of faithfulness for many generations to come;
You will be called repairers of the breach,
The restorers of the streets we live in.”
And with that I invite you to turn in your bulletin to our unison prayer:
Prayer of Confession
One: We call out to you, O God. It is not so much that we choose evil, but we often
pursue little goods and lesser gods. And we lose our way. Times when...
All: Our love becomes too narrow
Our excuses too wide
Our blaming too quick
Our forgiveness too slow
Our gratitude too rare.
By your mercy, deepen our longing into trust
Our pride into compassion
Our fear into courage
Our frustration into creativity
Our timidity into boldness
Our prayers into action, however simple and small.
Assurance of Grace
One: Hear the good news: God accepts our sincere hearts. We are forgiven!
All: Thanks be to God!
 Robert Bryant, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page 47
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