February 26, 2023

How many of you remember Flip Wilson? Wilson was an African-American comedian who had his own television variety show in the early 1970’s. His most memorable character was a woman. Wilson would appear wearing a dress and high heels as Geraldine, who never took responsibility for her outrageous behavior. Her refrain: “The devil made me do it.”

In one memorable skit, Geraldine went out and bought an expensive dress. When she later modeled the garment, she was told that when she was tempted to buy it, she should have resisted by saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” To which Geraldine replied, “That‘s exactly what I said, and the Devil told me it looked very nice from the back.”

That’s how we frequently deal with the idea of Devil, Satan,  the evil one . . . with jokes and humor. We portray him as a ridiculous-looking figure in a red suit, horns, and a pointy tail. Is there, however, something serious about Satan and his tempting?

The Gospel claims that Jesus was tempted for forty days. This comes to us out the context of the forty days that it rained in Noah’s flood, the forty years that the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the forty days that Elijah sojourned in the wilderness. The symbolism suggests a long period of struggle and discernment of what it meant to be a people or a person of God. It represents a time of growing in knowledge and understanding of one’s calling. 

And so we observe Lent for 40 days. Now you math whizzes among us may quickly point out that there are 46 days from Ash Wednesday until Easter. What gives? Well, Sundays, the Days of Resurrection and celebration are never fast days. Since there are six Sundays among those 46 days, Lent itself is only 40 days. In fact, we formally refer to the Sundays as being “in” Lent, not “of” Lent—this being the “First Sunday in Lent.”

For Jesus, the  time of temptation, testing, was lifelong – revisited latter on, for example, when Peter tried to divert him from going to Jerusalem and Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan,” and even at the end of his life, in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he wrestled with the question of whether to “drink the cup” that was before him.

Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness wasn’t a literal, onetime event but a metaphor for his whole life. He wrestled, he sweat bloody tears the scripture says, struggling to comprehend his calling to be Messiah, the anointed one of God. 

Take a look at the wilderness temptations.

  • Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 

Here we have a starving man who was tempted to use his powers to take care of himself, his own needs – before anything else. It was the same temptation as in the garden of Gethsemane. Save your own skin or stay here and wait for the soldiers to come and arrest you. 

  • Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

This was a temptation for Jesus to presume upon his privileged relationship with God in order to draw attention to himself—to show off! “Get all eyes focused on you. Be better than everyone else. Be faster, stronger, meaner, prettier, smarter, something more than others. Life is all about you.” 

And the final temptation:

  • The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Ah, here it is! Power! It’s all yours if you’ll just worship the false god. How often is that our temptation, too? Worship the god of greed, worship the god of wealth, worship the god of empire and the god of profit without conscience. Worship the god of “I’ve got mine—forget everyone else!” “Listen to me,” says the serpent, “and you’ll be like God.” “You can be your own god!” Power!

You know, the question before us is always the same. There aren’t three temptations here – there’s really only one. “Ignore the common good. Take care of yourself. Claim your power.”

And Jesus said, “No!”

The Rev. Tom Ehrich says that power comes in many forms:

. . . as money, but also power over other people’s lives, power to demand special treatment, power to change the rules, power to exploit other people’s labor, power to compel obedience in even the smallest things – people crave it, covet it, kill for it. How else to understand everything from our willingness to get ahead at the expense of others to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Power!

Those who portray Jesus as a pleasant companion on life’s journey, the perfect big brother who has our back but doesn’t demand much, or (see him as) the partisan who joins our battles for power should look harder at Jesus standing on a high mountain and spurning all the power that this world has to offer.

Has there ever been a more radical and discomfiting sight than Jesus saying “No” to the very thing most of us want? What kind of God is it who walks with us and talks with us and leads us home but rejects our heart’s desire, who declares humanity’s primary life-quest (for power as) meaningless?

No king who claimed a throne and built a cathedral next door would tolerate a bishop telling him his royal trappings were nonsense. No wealthy set would remain in a church that taught humility, serious tithing, radical leveling. 

I wonder if we realize how radical Jesus was in the wilderness. And how radically different our lives would need to become if we wanted to follow him. It’s hard to hitch our wagons to a Savior whose path isn’t leading to what we want.[1]

 His path is the way of the cross. 

This is the Lenten task—to realign our lives in keeping with the way of Jesus—to get ourselves turned around and straightened out. To examine our ways and our priorities in light of what Jesus—not Satan—would have them be—lives of empathy, care, and love. 

May our Lent be a time of true transformation. 


[1] Tom Erich, in a Meditation in Morning Walk Media entitled, What, No Power?, March 10, 2011.

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