SERMON Lent 1c 2019
We really should call this “Nothingburger Sunday.” The devil invites Jesus to lunch and doesn’t even offer him an anchovy. From first to last it’s BYOB, bring your own bread. And there’s even less to it than that: this nothingburger really is nothing. As an old friend of mine likes to say, “If we had some bread, we could have a ham sandwich. If we had some ham … “ No, spending an afternoon with the devil is what I imagine it would be like just staring at your own FACEBOOK page: everything that’s there you’ve put there yourself. 100% donated content.
That, in short, is the biblical doctrine of evil. Easy to grasp and consistent across both testaments: evil has no power. All the power employed in the service of evil is borrowed, donated by us. This is a very important thing to understand when it comes to all questions of human sin. The devil – the horny red, pitchfork devil can’t make us do anything because it’s a cartoon character with all the moral authority of Spongebob Squarepants. Evil is a lie from top to bottom, a matrix of lies. Even the liar himself is a lie.
As I say, scripture is clear about this. The devil character has three big scenes over the testaments: as the snake in the garden, as Satan the Accuser in Job, and here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, In none of these scenes does the devil or the lies it tells have a whiff of power. The whole project is to get Eve or Job or Jesus to believe a lie, and thus to donate power to the lie, and let evil unfold from there. Eve falls for it; the results are before us. Job resists: no matter what Satan does to him (using the power donated in that case by God), Job cannot be made to abandon his faith and curse God. And Jesus slaps down the devil in seconds flat with terse quotes from scripture. We call it “the temptation” but I don’t see Jesus being tempted by anything the devil has on offer. Certainly the story demonstrates that that devil can’t make Jesus do anything, and that’s just as true of us as it is of him.
Unfortunately this cuts both ways: though lies have no power of their own, they have exercised immense power in human life and human history because we believe lies and donate power to them. The Holocaust was nothing but a lie, but millions of people believed it and gave their lives to systematically killing Jews, Roma, disabled people, sick people, gay people, priests and nuns. Lies fester on the edges of communities where human differences come into play: how many lies are being old and believed today about Blacks, women, migrants, transgendered people, Rohinga in Cambodia, Wiegurs in China, homeless people, poor people right here in New York. Lies erupt everywhere there’s money; it’s disgusting the way people lie and cheat and steal to get their hands on stuff that will not make them happy. More lies.
I’m not going to belabor this today. There’s a lie behind every sin, and the first sin is believing the lie. When we do that, we give it power and when lots of people give power to lies it produces suffering, all suffering.
Jesus says, I am the way and the truth and the life. He teaches that the truth makes us free. Perhaps just now is a good time to sharpen our ears to the truth – God knows there are plenty of lies prowling around looking for someone to believe them. What will the world be like – what will our lives be like, yours and mine – with fewer lies and a little more love.
Let us pray.