I wonder if today’s Gospel text is what has given rise to the many movies and stories that our culture has about selling one’s soul to the devil. My favorite version of that story comes in the movie “Bedazzled”: the version done in 2000 as a remake of the 1967 movie of the same title. In this movie, a geeky IT guy, who is hopelessly in love with a beautiful co-worker, is visited by the devil. The devil then gives him seven wishes if the geeky guy will sell her his soul (in this story, the devil is a woman). Hoping that he can use these seven wishes to get the girl of his dreams, the guy agrees. But, predictably, something goes wrong with the wish each time. When he refuses to make his last wish, the devil, pretending to be a police officer, throws him in jail, where he meets “a really good friend.” I’d like to start off with this clip today to help us think about this story of the devil testing Jesus in the wilderness.
I like this quote, because this “really good friend” reminds us of something that we all know: our soul doesn’t really belong to us, anyway, it belongs to God. And the devil does try to confuse us and mislead us, so that we don’t know who we are and whose we are. That’s what the devil is trying to do in today’s Gospel. He is testing Jesus and trying to get him to buy into a false idea of what being the Son of God, the Messiah, actually means. But, in the end, Jesus passes the test and knows who he is and what his identity as the Son of God entails.
Now, the first thing that we need to notice about this story is one little word that I changed when I told it. In the text that you see before you, the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God. . .” Well, that’s not an entirely accurate translation of the Greek. The Greek word that is used here can mean either “if” or “since”. When we say “if” in English, it implies a sense of disbelief on the part of the devil, and that’s not what’s going on here. The devil knows and believes that Jesus is the Son of God. That’s not what he’s testing. What the devil is trying to get Jesus to do is to change what being the Son of God means. “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” In other words, the devil says, “Jesus, you and I both know who you are. I know you have the power to do this. Do it. Use your power to serve yourself and your needs, then, maybe, take care of the needs of these human beings you came here to save.”
The second thing that we need to note about this story is that God and the devil are not equals. Many Christians today, whether we know it or not, act as though this good vs. evil thing is a battle between equals, with God, the God of all things good, fighting against the devil, who is the god of all evil. This is not what the Bible teaches. Throughout the Bible, when the devil, or Satan, appears, he is still underneath of God. In fact, Martin Luther likened him to a dog on a chain that can only move around so far before he is stopped. Now, this idea gives rise to all sorts of uncomfortable questions that we don’t have time to go into today. But, as uncomfortable as this makes us, the devil is testing Jesus in much the same way that the serpent tested Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden back in Genesis 3. So, let’s look at these tests that Jesus undergoes and compare them to the story of the tree of good and evil.
The first test that Jesus undergoes is the test of using his power as the Son of God to turn a stone into a loaf of bread. Food is a basic need that we all have, and all of us have felt, at one time or another, the agony of a growling stomach and then how good it felt to fill our stomach with food. In Genesis 3, we see Eve considering the fruit of the tree, and her first consideration is that “the tree was good for food”. Adam, on the other hand, doesn’t even think about it—he takes what Eve hands him and gobbles it down. In contrast, Jesus withstands this first test, in spite of his ravening hunger after 40 days: he rejects the baser urge to eat and relies on the word of God that “one does not live on bread alone”. In other words, Jesus passes the test that his ancestor, Adam, the first “son of God”, failed: Jesus relies on the word of God to sustain him and not physical food.
The next test that Jesus faces from the devil is that of having all earthly power over all the kingdoms of the world if he will bow down and worship the devil. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem much like the test that Eve faced when the serpent told her she should eat the fruit of the tree. But it is. The serpent told Eve that if she ate of the fruit of the tree, she would be “like God, knowing good and evil”. And that is why, ultimately, she ate of the fruit: she wanted to be God. And this is the test the devil puts before Jesus: be like God, he says, and have complete power and authority, and rule the kingdoms as you will, with earthly power. Think of all of the good you could do by bending people to your will! And such a small price to pay: bow down and worship me, instead of God. But again, Jesus withstands this test: even though Jesus is the Son of God and such glory would rightly be his due, and without having to die a painful death on the cross, the price is simply too high: let God be God, and worship God alone. And in that mystery of his being human and divine, he knows it is not his place as a human to take God’s place. Again, he passes the test that his ancestor Eve did not.
The third test that Jesus faces is an extension of the second test. And this time, the devil is more cunning, because he quotes Scripture to make his point, even as Jesus has been quoting Scripture at him all along. Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, he says. Test God’s promises in God’s Holy Word. And, even if God doesn’t come through, you have the power to save yourself. Use this power you have to show the world who you really are, the devil says. Be the Son of God! Be like God in all of God’s glory! But Jesus again passes the test where his ancestors did not: Don’t test God, he says.
Now, what does all of this mean for us? At this point, many preachers would tell their congregations that Jesus is a model for us, and we, too, should be strong and follow Jesus’ example in resisting temptations. But, that’s not what this story is about. This is not about us being strong and resisting the temptation to eat chocolate if we’ve given up chocolate for Lent. This is instead about the messages we receive about who we are and whose we are. I’d like to tell a story to illustrate this idea.
About 7 years ago, my parents were living in Virginia and I was living with them. Barack Obama had just been elected president for the first time. My parents knew that I had voted for him and had disagreed with me, but, as per our rule about not speaking about politics in order to keep the peace in the house, we hadn’t really talked about it. I came home late one evening from somewhere to find my mother watching a news program on TV, and the question under discussion was whether it was acceptable for our government to torture prisoners of war during interrogation. The prevailing view on this particular program was that yes, it was okay. I made the mistake of violating our rule about commenting on politics and asked the question, “But at what cost to our soul as a country?” To which my mother attacked me for the way I had voted and said that I had sold my soul because I had voted for a president that was pro-choice. Or something along those lines. This is an example of why we don’t discuss politics in my family.
But, leaving the politics aside, what this exchange called into question was my identity as a Christian. And this, I believe, is a message that we hear a lot. “If you really are a Christian, then you should think this way about this issue.” “Since you are a Christian, you obviously must believe this.” As if the way we think or believe about one certain political or social issue defines who we are as a Christian! These messages that we receive, though, can indeed be harmful to us and cause us to question our Christian identity and whether God can still love us if we don’t believe or think about earthly issues in the way that other people expect us to. These are the kind of tests that the devil throws at us: to get us to question who we are and whose we are, to try to confuse us.
But here’s the good news: as Christians, we are baptized into Christ. That means, as Paul says in Romans, that we have been baptized into Christ’s death so that we might walk in newness of life. Jesus Christ has passed all of these tests of identity for us, and we find our identity in him. That means that even when we sin, even when we think we have totally messed up who we are called to be as Christians, we are covered because we are baptized into Christ’s name. We are loved and we are forgiven. So that means that, for example, Christians of good conscience can take differing views on political and social issues and still be known as Christians. Our Christian identity is not defined by our political and social views, but it is instead defined by Jesus Christ, who has claimed us as his own and who loves us.
The movie clip that I showed at the beginning is right, to a certain extent. Our soul is not our own, but belongs to God. But, it leaves something out: our body is also not our own, but that too belongs to God. Body and soul, we are God’s, and we are claimed as his own in baptism into the death of Christ. So, when we face testing in this world, we can cry out to God for help, and we can be confident that, no matter the outcome of those tests, God is with us both to support us and to forgive us, and, above all, to love us. Amen.