First Sunday of Lent:

Deuteronomy 26:1-11                             Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16                  Romans 10:8b-13    Luke 4:1-13

The devil gets surprisingly little air time in church anymore, have you noticed? This is one of the few Sundays where we get to hear about him in the Gospels, though even Jesus did mention him from time to time.

When I was little (and admittedly, my mom took me to an evangelical church, not an Episcopal church) there was a LOT of talk about sin and repentance, virtually every Sunday right before an altar call. And while we mostly talked about sin there was always the understanding that at the back of sin, you would find not only a tempted human but the DEVIL. Red woolen suit, pitchfork, and all.   If you are old enough to remember the comedian Flip Wilson, you may remember his character Geraldine Jones. He’d get all dressed up in women’s clothes, don a wig and some strategically placed padding, and talk in a high falsetto voice about Geraldine’s concerns, like her wardrobe or her family, including her boyfriend - Killer. In particular, every time Geraldine did something wrong or got herself in a jam, she would go into a frenzy of eye rolling, head wagging and full body shaking, while hollering ‘The Devil made me do it!’ The audience would just go crazy when Geraldine started up. You could even buy T-shirts that said ‘The Devil made me do it!’ I loved that comedy show and tried to watch it every week – Mr. Wilson was really funny.

(Younger folks, go to You-tube and look up Flip Wilson and Geraldine. You won’t be sorry, although how a black man in drag got on TV in the 1960s is probably a miracle worthy of a sermon in itself.)

The devil made me do it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could blame the devil and let ourselves off the hook when we do something wrong? That’s the very first thing Adam and Eve did, blame each other and the snake, instead of owning their own guilt and shame. We don’t like it when it’s our own fault, and we look for an out. Mae West is quoted as saying “I can resist anything but temptation”. Me too. I don’t think I need the devil to get myself in trouble – I do that just fine, all by myself.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is the one who is tempted. In fact, He has been in the desert for 40 days being tempted, and these last three are the final tests. Well, maybe there are four. First Satan says “If you are the Son of God”….and Jesus doesn’t bother to even acknowledge that challenge. Then Jesus is tempted with security – turn rocks into bread, and he will never suffer hunger again. That failed too so the devil tried to tempt Him with power – all the kingdoms of the world. Humans are suckers for power – but not Jesus. Finally, the devil challenged Jesus to throw Himself off a tall building, and quoted Psalm 91 for emphasis – but Jesus refused to take the bait. Not even self-aggrandizement via angel attention would lure the Son away from the Father.

Seems the devil couldn’t make Jesus do much at all. Then again, all he has to offer is what Jesus already has anyway – St. John says that through Christ all things were made. The temptation is the improper use of those things. The Father is OK with food, safety, and authority, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to make use of many of God’s gifts. Jesus simply refused to make bad use of anything God had pronounced to be good.

Of course, part of the problem is that Satan didn’t have that much to work with, really. All those temptations – security, power, prestige and glory – all of them are the same tired old material the devil has ALWAYS worked with. In the Garden of Eden, the very first temptation was ‘You will be as God’. That’s it – that’s the biggest weapon in the arsenal. Everything else, all those smaller and more specific temptations, are just recycling. The real temptation is to set ourselves up as the center of our own little universes, to be our own little gods – to put what we want ahead of everyone else. To move God out of the center and allow something else to take His place.   If you’re like me, you can assign noble motives to it, too. You can tell yourself that you just want what’s right, but neither God nor the Devil is fooled by my rationalization. I want WHAT I WANT – and I’ll take it now, please and thank you.

Satan isn’t offering us anything we don’t already have either – again, it’s just an opportunity to misuse the gifts of God. And we can’t blame it on wanting to be like God, either - we are already commanded to be like God – to take up our crosses and follow our Lord Jesus. All those trifles we think we want for the moment are just distractions to keep us from putting our feet where Jesus put His.

And so, Lent. A penitential season. A time of self-denial and reflection.

You can look at it in a lot of different ways. Maybe you resonate with St. Paul, who uses imagery from athletic contests and talks about running races. If so, you can look at the season of Lent as basic training – just a bit of conditioning and strength training for spiritual muscles that might have grown weaker. Or maybe you identify with St. Francis of Assisi, who claimed to have married Lady Poverty in order to better emulate our Lord, who was born in a barn and worked with his hands. Francis practiced penance so ferociously that he probably contributed to his own death with his mortifications.

We don’t have to go that far. But if you find you’re a slave to the little luxuries of your life it’s a good bet that you have allowed something else to usurp the place of God. Lent is the season where the church has traditionally called the people to repent, to turn around and reorder their priorities. In prior centuries it had to do with physical fasting, and some people still do that in a modified way; it would be hard to claim that giving up chocolate or wine is really ‘fasting’, but it’s a form of self-denial. And if that’s what you need to forswear to keep a holy Lent, then by all means.

But what if that’s not what bedevils you? I suspect that you know quite well what your sins are, and chocolate just isn’t that big a deal – your problem isn’t treats, it’s bad habits. What if your most stubborn sin is your tendency to anger when frustrated – are you willing to give up the need to have things go your way?   Or what if you fast from complaining or gossiping for 40 days? There’s 7 deadly sins to pick from – gluttony is just the tip of the iceberg.

This is not in our readings today, but James 4:7 says ‘Submit yourselves then to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’ That’s what happened to Jesus, isn’t it? He resisted, and the devil ‘withdrew to an opportune time’. In this life, every encounter with Satan is another skirmish in the ongoing war – but the battle is already won.

Your job, beloved of God, is to keep resisting. Every day of this life.

Geraldine may roll her eyes and holler ‘The devil made me do it!’ but we know better. The devil can only whisper in your ear, and those whispers are lies. He doesn’t have anything to offer you that God hasn’t already given – he just offers the opportunity to misuse it. Take this season to practice resistance, and follow your Lord Christ into the desert.

It’s the only real way to be like God.


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