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Devilish Distractions

Lent 1 Common Lectionary Year C

Luke 4:1-13

©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

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For a Gospel text that is ostensibly a portrait of a solitary man in a barren wilderness, digging deep into the inner recesses of his soul, this text is crowded with characters: the Holy Spirit, for one. She, who just moments before in Luke’s Gospel was hovering gently like a dove, calling out to the world how much God loves him. is now more driving, leading compelling him into this wilderness, to test his own spirit.

Then, there’s the wilderness itself,  the story means nothing without it. The wilderness plays a role as multifaceted and complex as any other character. It is the location, throughout the Biblical witness, of encounter with  the holy.  wilderness into which Adam wanders after he’s cast out of the garden, the wilderness to which Jacob, the wandering Aramean, Jacob flees, the wilderness of Exodus and Exile, of Elijah, Jeremiah, of John the Baptist, and now of Jesus. Wilderness is omnipresent,   at once the place of his spiritual sustenance, and of his physical agony of his hunger and thirst. Wilderness is that place for the toughest of existential trials, the ultimate ‘edge’ place. Wilderness  becomes the backdrop  upon which devilish visions of bread stones, and glittering cities of power and pomp are cast, by the third character in our supposedly solitary scene.

The Voldemort of Scripture, the one whose name should not be mentioned in holy  or sane, progressive theologically liberal company; the Devil.

What a distraction! Do I have to deal with the Devil? Well, thanks to Luke, who conjures up the image of the Satanic One no less than six times, and who puts words, silky, smooth, subtle, distracting words in his mouth, yes, we do have to deal with the Devil.

And what a devil it is! Nowhere to be seen when Jesus is strong, newborn from the waters of his baptism. Nowhere to be seen,  – except with his forked tail between his legs- when Jesus flourishing in his ministry in Galilee, teaching, healing, and ridding people’s lives of this tempter’s devilish distractions.

But after 40 days – there (slide of wilderness), in he slides, under the stick- ribs of hunger, hovering hazily in the shadows of fatigue, dripping seductively onto the parched tongue, his acid drops of fear, doubt, mistrust.

How dare he? Does he know with whom he messes? Of course he does! He is the plague of the fatigued, the grieving, the weakened; a lone wolf preying in the wilderness of human frailty, and tempter of human strength, twister of human hope. Luke has him in a stroke of his pen.

Now, I know I’m venturing where angels  and wiser preachers fear to tread, by lingering and indeed digging deeper into Luke’s personification of evil . I risk giving the Devil more than his due, I risk doing precisely what I don’t want to have happen here, and that is to have you so distracted by the devil, because that is precisely what the Devil does.

But, venture I will, at least a little. Because, even if we’ve never called this distracting one “Devil” like Luke does, and never soldiered through a 40 day fast, never knowingly put ourselves into devilish danger, we’ve all experienced this: the subtle invasion of fear, the imperceptible drumbeat of doubt, the blurred vision of creeping mistrust.

Even as I say that, of course some of you know all too well, know too well what 40 days in the wilderness is all about. The body-wracking nausea of chemo or radio-therapy, the poisonous fear of an undiagnosed illness, or one whose prognosis turns the blood to ice; the fracturing of friendship or family because of one misspoken word multiplied by silence; the trauma, the body blow,  the chaos of some private or public disaster that has toppled us personally over the cliff of certitude into a freefall of our cherished fundaments of faith,  in ourselves, in others, in God. We’ve been here, (screen) all too many of us. And we have encountered what Luke calls the devil, even if we don’t or daren’t.

But I’m not done yet, let me dig deeper still, peer out over that precipice to that distorted vision of the world that the devil cast before Jesus, tempting him with ‘benign regime change’ distracting him with deviant images of power and authority to shape the world with devilish design; well look where it’s gotten us: we’ve seen fear be-night the world in every generation of recorded history, when someone’s arrows, tanks, and guns, or IEDs explode in the faces of the innocent; innocence is lost, fear begets mistrust, and doubt drowns hope in despair. School shootings, gang executions are yet more horrifying manifestations of toxic paranoia for which we barely have words to utter our rage, our lament and despair.

And always, lurking underneath all like marsh gas, poisoning the air, are those same insinuations and devilish distractions that tested Jesus.

You may be offended that after a catalogue of catastrophe such as I’ve recited, I would belittle their impact and importance by calling them ‘distractions’, devilish, or otherwise.

But distractions they are….. “If you are hungry, feed yourself….. If others are hungry, you feed them bread.”  “If you want power, even the good kind of power that makes the world kinder, I’ll give it to you.” “If God is to be trusted,  why don’t you take a leap of faith.”

They are distractions because they turn our attention; they turn our attention in on ourselves, our plight, or our possibility, our power, or our lack of it,  our problems or our self-made resolutions, they keep our attention away from the  fourth character at play in this wilderness drama.

The truly Unseen One, the One we so easily lose sight of when we are faced with 40 day fasting, when we are cast into the wild places of grief, or illness, or war, or decay, or decline, or love gone wrong.

These devilish distractions delude us into fighting the battles by ourselves, with no hope of victory, no end in sight, no bread to fill the belly, no power strong enough, no programme of church growth good enough, and the devil wins…..

Or would if it weren’t for how this drama plays out in Luke’s script. For the Unseen One is at work, in the memory of Jesus. Now, let me be clear, it’s not the recollection of choice passages of Scripture that turns the tale from one of terror to one of gospel, because we can see clearly, that not only Jesus, but the devil, can quote Scripture to serve their purposes.

But the memory of Jesus draws deep from the well of a people, his people, our people, who in every generation experienced  the unbreakable fidelity of the Unseen One, God.  The testimony of Scripture is not to provide talismans against misfortune, but rather to recall,  to re-collect, to re-member, to bring to present reality, this cumulative, persistent, witness of millennia to the faithfulness of God, particularly in wilderness times, times of trouble, in times of chaos.

It’s in this retelling,  carefully, persistently, in good times and bad, in the bringing of first fruits, in the singing of songs of God’s rescue, through cracked, parched, starving lips, that we defeat the Devilish distractor, by turning our attention, our hope, our longing and our pleading, back to the fourth character, to the Unseen One, to God. From whose persistent, rescuing, prevailing, protecting care and love, nothing in all the earth can distract or separate us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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