Undoing the Undoer

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 8:1-3 and Luke 4:1-13 preached on February 14th, 2016

Sermon audio

I don’t believe anyone who can say with a straight face that they don’t have any regrets. My life is full of decisions I would gladly go back and undo if I had the opportunity.

One of my favorite old TV shows is called Scrubs. It’s about a few medical students trying their best to make it through their residency program without doing any harm to their patients. The main character, JD, has a very vivid imagination. His inner dialogue narrates every episode. During one episode, every time he’s about to make a mistake, a tuxedo-clad opera singer appears in back of him, and in his huge baritone he belts out one word: MISTAKE! Sometimes I wish I had an imaginary opera singer who would pop up and warn me of my impending mistakes like that. Life would be a little easier that way.

If you could go back and undo or redo a part of your life, what would it be? Most of us have a mental list like that. Hopefully yours is not too long, but maybe it is. We’re human after all. Our lives are filled with moments we would gladly take a second chance at.

I’d tell you one part of my life I’d never redo is middle school. Middle school is when every kid is exploding from the inside. It’s called puberty. During middle school and high school you’re supposed to figure out who you are and what you stand for, but with all the hormones, and the confusion, I’m not even sure that’s possible? The changing, cracking voice. The acne. The bullying. All of that and you’re expected to be a good student, too! No thank you. There’s no way I’d do it over.

There are lots of jerks in middle school, but there are just as many in our adulthood. I say “jerks” because I’m standing in a pulpit and I can’t use the word I really mean. We all know a couple. There are people who seem to make it their mission to have us doubt who we are, who do their best to unravel us, to undo us.

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We don’t talk about the devil that much in church—at least us Presbyterians. In some churches, you hear about the devil all the time. Sometimes you hear more about the devil than you do about Jesus. I had a friend in college who seemed to know more about the devil than he did about God. It was as if his life was some kind of cosmic battleground between the tricks and temptations of the devil and his own efforts to push the devil away. There are some people who believe that their guardian angel leads them to every empty parking space at the mall, and if there isn’t an empty space then the devil is up to his tricks.

There’s a few things we need to unlearn about the devil. Most of our ideas about him are completely unbiblical. They come from John Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Inferno, or some bad horror movie from the ‘90’s. Take this passage for example. There’s no point in this passage where we see the word devil capitalized. And the word satan isn’t here at all. We have to go back to the book of Job to find the word satan, but it’s not a proper name either, it’s just a description of a role: satan means adversary or accuser. In Job, the satan character is not the same Satan we all have built up in our minds: this cosmic, powerful but oppositional force to God. In the beginning of the book of Job, the devil and God seem to understand one another, and in a disturbing way, they’re working together to make Job’s life a living hell. What’s that all about? And if we go all the way back to Genesis, we could ask why this snake is slithering around in a place called paradise? In that story, the snake is never referred to as Satan or the devil. There, the snake is that presence that creeps up on Adam and Eve and says things like:

Are you sure God told you not to eat from this tree? What exactly did God say to you?

The snake’s presence in the Garden of Eden is the thing that has Adam and Eve begin to doubt themselves and God’s plans for their lives. We know this presence all too well. It’s that voice that whispers into our ear that says we’re not good enough, strong enough, attractive enough, smart enough, that we don’t add up. We need something more than what God can give us. It’s that nagging voice that comes to us to plant doubt into our heads, that seeks to erode our confidence and replace it with self-doubt; that thing in us that always seems to make us question who we are, that tries to strip us of our strength and our sense of self worth; that beats us up and kicks us when we’re down.

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The story we read today in Luke 4 comes right after Jesus’ baptism when God’s voice proclaims from the heavens that Jesus is beloved, that he’s the Chosen One, that he’s the Son of God.

The other gospels say the devil shows up only at the very end of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. That’s when Jesus is at his weakest and most vulnerable. 40 days of fasting. No water. No food. If Jesus is going to crack, this is the moment—when he might give it all away for just a morsel of bread. If evil ever has a chance to enter our story, it’s when we’re at our worst, when we feel most exposed. The devil whispers in Jesus’ ear 3 times. We know that whisper. It’s the nagging voice that cuts our knees out from under us, its words shrink our self-worth. It’s a voice that tries its best to convince us that we don’t deserve better, that we’re all alone, that no one else understands.

Jesus, you’re hungry so why not feed yourself.

Jesus, you’re the King of kings, so why not assert your kingly power over the people?

Jesus, since you’ve got God on your side, why not jump from a great height? You know if you do, angels will swoop down to catch you?

Jesus says No to all 3 because the first one would be self-indulgent, the second would self-aggrandizing, and the third would be self-serving. And Jesus isn’t here to show off His own power; He’s here to reveal the power of God. And God’s power isn’t shown through stunts or magic tricks; it’s shown through humble service, shown through quiet acts of love, and ultimately, the greatest act of love the world has even known—His death on the cross. Jesus says No because, all the way through, Jesus never doubted who he was—or whose he was. His hope was always in something much great than anything he could do for himself.

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There’s one part of this story that’s often overlooked. It’s at the very beginning. Verse 1.

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus wasn’t rescued at the end by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit didn’t fall upon him only in the moments he was being tempted. He entered into the wilderness already full of the Holy Spirit. That’s what sustained him the whole way through. The Holy Spirit was Jesus’ sustenance when He had no bread, His strength when He was weak, His rootedness when the devil was trying his level best to push and pull him in all those self-serving directions. Jesus stayed faithful even when his stomach was growling and that testing voice wouldn’t leave him alone.

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This is one of the lessons of Lent. As Martin Luther declares in his hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God, there are many things that threaten to undo us. All these little devils that we come across from one day to the next, that enter into the conversation and try to pull us the wrong way. We might call each one a temptation, but it’s more like a test. The test is: Do we listen to all the lesser voices who like to tell us who we are and who were are not? Whether we’re good enough, or what we need to change about ourselves in order to be good enough? Or do we listen instead for that Greater Voice that sustains us through the wildernesses of our lives? Who’s whispering in our ears? What are they saying, and how do we respond to them? Do we choose our way—do we try facing all of these things with our own determination, using our own strength, wit, and willpower, or do we choose a better way—a bigger life—listening for a greater and wiser voice to guide us through our days, to govern our actions?

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This Lent, we can practice that better way—pay closer attention to that greater voice.

Life is messy and complicated. There’s no opera singer following us around to warn us whenever we’re about to get ourselves into trouble. Neither is there a way to undo our mistakes. The good news is God knows all that. He was one of us. He has lived this life. He knows what it feels like to undergo these things, to be tested, to fail, to get back up and try again. He even knows what it’s like to be undone by death, even the most humiliating of deaths: death on a cross, the worst of all the undoings. But as we know, whenever God’s involved, even that undoing will be undone.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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