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Discerning with the Devil

Mar 9, 2019

Every year, the church observes the season of Lent as a joyful and prayerful preparation for Easter. And every year, the first Sunday in Lent, we hear this Gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. It’s a very well known story, and it is a frequently depicted theme in Christian art. Usually the devil is shown as a horrid and grotesque creature who is plying his ineffective trade against a saintly (though disheveled) Jesus.

These scenes remind me of the D.A.R.E. educational videos that I had to watch in school. (For those of you who did not have the pleasure of sitting through DARE programs, they were anti-drug use education programs featured in schools during the 80’s and 90’s.) These programs always depicted drug dealers as sinister figures, often wearing trench-coats and lurking in dark alleys near schoolyards. And the message was always the same: when you see these men, “Just Say No.”

If temptations always took such obvious and striking forms, perhaps they would be easier to avoid. Temptation is a lot harder to avoid when it comes in more friendly forms: the doctor who is offering pain relief; the drinking buddy who wants you to have “just one more drink”; the flirtatious co-worker who is “just having fun”; the politician who offers the “common sense solution”.

So, let’s give the devil his due. and recognize that the temptations that Jesus faced were not the outre offerings of a grotesque demon. In fact, what the devil offers Jesus here are, in fact, sensible solutions to the problems that Jesus is facing. Jesus is hungry; the devil offers him sustenance. Jesus has a difficult mission — the salvation of humankind — and the devil offers him power and authority that Jesus could certainly put to good use. Jesus faces danger and even death in his mission — the devil offers him a path to safety.

All of these things must have presented Jesus with real, serious temptations. It would not have been easy or straightforward for Jesus to just ignore or brush these temptations aside. If we recognize the seriousness of the temptation, we can also learn something from the way that Jesus handles the problem of temptation. Because this Gospel story isn’t just about temptation — it is also a story about the process of discernment.

Discernment, in a religious sense, is the process of determining whether the paths and solutions that we see are coming from God, from our own selves, from the world, or from a more sinister source. It is not an easy process. Whether on a personal level — what should I do with my life? — or on an organizational level — what should we do next as a church? — discernment presents difficult challenges. Because, as Christian people, we should not be lead by the world; and we shouldn’t be lead solely by our own intellect, either. We should be led by the Spirit. As always, Jesus shows us the way. So let’s look at how Jesus handles discernment in this story.

First, we recognize that Jesus faced these temptations only after entering the wilderness. Jesus had to leave the place of comfort — he had not only had to descend out the perfect safety of heaven, he also had to leave the relative safety of his home town. Before any true discernment can occur, we have to be willing to understand and to face the challenges that lie before us.

Second, we note that Jesus began his time in the wilderness by fasting. This is the fast that we emulate when we undertake our own Lenten journey each year. When we fast, we deny ourselves the gift of comfort — comfort is a wonderful and useful thing, but it is also worthwhile to learn to go without it sometimes. The 16th century Spanish mystic known as John of the Cross once said: “Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for.” By shedding some of the everyday comforts and routines that make our life secure, we are better able to listen to that “still, small voice” which speaks the true desire of our lives.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, take note of how Jesus answers the devil with Holy Scripture. In fact, all throughout Jesus’ ministry, we are constantly confronted with a Savior who really knows his Bible. If we are to follow Christ, perhaps we should have the same fluency in Holy Scripture — the kind of daily struggle with Scripture that allows it to become the central influence on our lives. The more comfortable we are with God’s word, the more likely it is that we will be able to discern God’s call to us. And the same can be said for worship and sacramental life, which also draw us closer to God.

As we continue on our Lenten journey toward Easter, it is a great time for us to commit to discernment. Let us use this time to confront the challenges in our lives, to fast from all distractions, and to draw close to God both in Word and in Sacrament. Let us prepare for Easter by readying ourselves to hear where God is calling us, and to follow where he leads us.

This sermon was preached by Mr. Ryan Tobin for the Celtic Eucharist service at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on March 9, 2019. The Gospel reading for this date (the First Sunday in Lent) is Luke 4:1-13.

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