Devil’s Blessing - thrive UMC Official Blog

Devil’s Blessing

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”[a]

Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[b]

The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[c]

12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[d]13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

            Last week we read about John the Baptist, as an introduction to our new series called, the Saving Wild.  In that story from Luke, people had been leaving the city and their homes to venture out into the wilderness around the Jordan River to hear John’s message and to be baptized in the river, as a sign that their lives had been changed.  And, as most of us know, Jesus had been among those people, and as he rose up from the water, the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven announced: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

            Then, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  And out there in the wilderness he was tempted by the devil for forty days. 

            Of course there are a lot of things that are interesting about this story that we just read; but perhaps the most striking detail here is that the one who prepares Jesus for his ministry is –out of everyone- the devil!

            In modern times, we prepare pastors to start their ministry in the church by sending them to seminaries in big cities; but Jesus went the opposite direction to get ready for his work on earth.  He went away from the cities, and the closest thing we have to a record of any kind of lesson he received from a teacher is this story about his examination by the devil.   

            Now, before we go any further, we first have to set the record straight here on a key point regarding the devil.  For most of us, when we hear the word ‘devil’ it immediately conjures a specific image in our mind.  We imagine something like a bright-red half-goat man, with pointy horns, and a long, curling tail, right?  Sometimes he’s really small, and he sits on someone’s left shoulder in the movies, trying to get the character to do something evil.  That is not the devil that appears in the gospel of Luke. 

Here the word ‘devil’ simply means a ‘false accuser’ or slanderer, or defamer.  And usually when the word ‘devil’ was used in ancient literature, they were talking about people.  So when you hear the word devil in the gospels, you’d probably be a little closer to the original meaning if you imagined like a member of the paparazzi waiting in a celebrity’s bushes trying to catch a scandal, or a private investigator looking for evidence of an affair, or a lawyer who’s chasing the chance to sue. You could probably add Christians who collect sin-gossip to the list if you’d like. That’s the kind of devil Luke is talk about. Devils are the seekers of moral dirt. And here this one’s trying to catch Jesus off guard, or doing something wrong. All that stuff about monster-looking things from a fiery dimension came into the Christian imagination at a much later point in time. 

But what’s curious about this passage is that Jesus isn’t tempted by ‘a’ devil; he is tempted by ‘the’ devil.  And here there’s room to interpret this passage to be about an interaction between Jesus and a real, physical person, or between Jesus and a specific heavenly figure, or perhaps even –as I’ve seen in some commentaries- an encounter between Jesus and his own psychological devil.  That remains, however, an open question.

            In any case, the point here is that this time Jesus is spending out in the wilderness is an intentional period of formation.  If Jesus ever formally studied under any teacher or rabbi in his youth –all the gospels leave that story out; but notice this: three of them talk about Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted, or tested, by the devil.  The message here is that Jesus didn’t go to some fancy, elite institution of higher-education like the Harvard or Yale of Judah –Jesus instead learned his lessons from the School of Hard Knocks.  His teacher was the devil –who incidentally also taught Old Testament at my seminary.  And the lesson he learned was not how to get what you want –but how to get by without it.

            Look at the exam he was given.  He may have gone through more than this, but the three lessons recorded in Luke go like this:

  1. Jesus, you’re clearly famished.  Just turn a stone into some bread.
  2. Jesus, you could be the ruler of the whole world –just worship your accuser and it’s yours.
  3. Jesus, jump from the top of the temple, for Psalm 91:11-12 says that God’s messengers will protect you, so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.’

And to all of these invitations, Jesus responds: ‘no.’  And after each ‘no,’ Jesus then justifies his answer with a quote from scripture –all of them, by the way, coming from the book of Deuteronomy.  For example, when the devil calls Jesus to satisfy his bodily hunger, Jesus says “It is written, people won’t live by bread alone…” 

There it is folks, don’t eat bread –because the Bible says so.  If you eat bread, you’re a child of the devil, because God’s way is gluten free. 

Is that what’s going on here? Is Jesus being tested just to make sure he knows all the right rules?  No!  In fact, the part of the verse he quotes isn’t the most important part –instead, the most important part is the line that immediately follows.  Let me read for your all the first 5 verses of Deuteronomy 8 so you can see what’s going on here. Here Moses is talking to all of the people, shortly before they’re going to enter into the land that will become their home –the Promised Land.  They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for the last 40 years.  This is what it says:

You must carefully perform all of the commandment that I am commanding you right now so you can live and multiply and enter and take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors. Remember the long road on which the Lord your God led you during these forty years in the desert so he could humble you, testing you to find out what was in your heart: whether you would keep his commandments or not. He humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you the manna that neither you nor your ancestors had ever experienced, so he could teach you that people don’t live on bread alone. No, they live based on whatever the Lord says.[a] During these forty years, your clothes didn’t wear out and your feet didn’t swell up. Know then in your heart that the Lord your God has been disciplining you just as a father disciplines his children.

So when Jesus starts off by quoting that passage, saying ‘people don’t live by bread alone,’ the whole audience would have been able to finish the line… ‘but they live by the word of God.’  In other words, food is not the most needed thing –the most needed thing is what comes out of God’s mouth, which is reality itself.  And not only would that audience have known the whole line, but they also would have known what it meant, which is that if God didn’t give it to you, then you don’t need it!  Hunger can actually be a means of God’s teaching. Hunger invites you into humility –and being humble is better than being full!  But what matters most is not the state of your stomach but of your heart.

The second temptation the devil offers Jesus is probably the most straightforward: good ol’ political power.  Jesus could be the acknowledged ruler of the whole world, and all it would cost him would be a moment of worship.  But here we learn something about our devil: he is the one entrusted with the whole domain of all the earth. Now, quick question: when Jesus is being asked this, who is the leader of all the dominions of the earth? 

If you were here last week, you should know this.

The Roman Emperor Tiberius!  It tells us that at the beginning of Luke chapter 3.  But this devil, who gave the power to Tiberius could take it away and give it to Jesus!  And this is the biggest clue we have about what kind of devil Jesus is dealing with here –this devil is presenting itself as the power who rules Rome –and there’s so much more going on here, but we have to move on.

Anyway, Jesus responds with a quotation that follows the Shema, which is a prayer that every good Jewish person was supposed to pray every day: “Hear o Israel, our God is the LORD (four sacred letters).  The LORD is one! And then it goes: Love the lord with all of your heart, all of your being, and all of your strength.  Then again, a little later: don’t follow other gods, because, and I quote “the LORD your God, who is among you, is a passionate God!”  Oh, and it gets even better: just read the first part of Deuteronomy chapter 6.

Then, finally, there is a last temptation: Jesus is taken to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem and invited to jump. 

And of course, this is not something that would sound at all tempting to most of us —after all, who wants to jump off of a building that’s 150 feet tall?  But what’s interesting about this test is that the devil now becomes the one who starts quoting scripture.  Jump, says the devil, “for it is written, he will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” 

Two quick things about this temptation:

  1. If Jesus were to take this literal leap of faith, and angels were to come out and catch him before he splats, then it proves both a.) that the scriptures are true, and that b.) Jesus’s devotion is perfect.
  2. The temple in Jerusalem is a very busy, public place: so if Jesus were to jump off the top and be caught by angels, not only would he know that he’s totally faithful; but so would everyone else! This would be like the ancient equivalent of catching a miracle on video and posting it to Instagram.  From the get-go, this event would prove that God was with him –and –get this- he could have all of the righteous prestige and holy reputation without bending the knee to any foreign god. 

In other words, test number 3 is an invitation to become a public Jewish saint who commands not just earthly armies, but heavenly armies. That would be a sign that Jesus was like the prophets of old? Do we see the implications here?  Can we understand how each of these devilish invitations would have been tempting? 

And more than that, can we see our own temptations here?

Can we see that these three invitations the devil extends to Jesus are precisely the ones we want Jesus to say ‘yes’ to? Don’t we want Jesus to provide everything we need for us –so that we won’t have to go hungry?  Don’t we want Jesus to come in and be the president we’ve all been longing for –to restore our nation and heal our political brokenness?  Don’t we want Jesus to be the saint that proves that God is on our side and that we’ll never have to worry about the daggers and threats of our enemies? 

To each of those invitations and possibilities, Jesus resolutely says ‘no.’  And as he says ‘no’ he points us back to Deuteronomy to remind us that the thing that matters most to God is the state of our heart.  We, as human beings, are always worried about the external outcomes.  We want results, we want power, we want satisfaction.  But God shows us a better way: to be humble and grateful for what we already possess in this moment. And if we can have that, then we are free.

In the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, which Jesus references to the devil, in verses 10-12 it says:
10 Now once the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to you—a land that will be full of large and wonderful towns that you didn’t build, 11 houses stocked with all kinds of goods that you didn’t stock, cisterns that you didn’t make, vineyards and olive trees that you didn’t plant—and you eat and get stuffed, 12 watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

In this season of Lent, we’re invited to follow Jesus out into the wilderness, so that we can watch ourselves, and notice the cravings of our hearts. Most of us have lived our entire lives sheltered by the cities and politics and dogmas that other people built and have handed to us.  And in all kinds of subtle and obvious ways, almost every aspect of our lives can become directed by both the carrots and whips of powerful spirits around us, and by the insatiable cravings of our own ungrateful hearts.  So that we can –even in this great land of freedom and opportunity- end up still living as slaves. 

So it is to us today that Jesus offers the keys of freedom in this new season of lent: if you’re starting to feel like a captive to your own life, then maybe it’s time to embark on a journey into the wilderness.  Take a break from your routines and what you think you know to enter a wild and familiar space.  Go somewhere that you might otherwise tend to avoid.  Go and see how other people live. Drive to a small town for a cup of coffee and ask about what’s happening. Be with them for a while in it. Or if you’re always surrounded by people and noise, maybe spend time by yourself –without any screens or media that would distract you from listening to your heart. Test yourself to see if you can go without some of the things you think you depend on for a while.  But most of all: learn to be unafraid of meeting the devil.  For as Jesus shows us, sometimes it is only the devil who can be the teacher we need, who will prepare us for our real ministry.  And no, of course we don’t need to give in to it –indeed we shouldn’t.  But neither should we run away, for the devil’s greatest power is being able to chase us into even greater traps.  And in this way, you will receive the devil’s blessing: which the courage to be yourself in the face of another.

Let’s pray.

John Sprole
March 20th, 2019 at 9:27 pm

What an intriguing and thoughtful message. Thanks! And blessings on you and Thrive while you struggle with “the vote.”

April 24th, 2019 at 10:50 pm

Thanks for your kind words, John! And we could use all the blessings sent our way. These are interesting times we’re living in.