First Sunday in Lent
March 6, 2022
There’s a new fad, a new cultural tradition that takes place around Christmas time. It’s called “Elf on the Shelf.” Essentially, a small doll elf is placed in the home between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This little elf watches the children in that particular home to keep an eye out, to report back to Santa about who is naughty and who is nice. But this little elf, well, he’s a bit of a trickster himself. Overnight, the elf on the shelf will often pull off some pranks; maybe the elf will steal money out of the coin jar; maybe the elf will throw things in the toilet; maybe the elf will hide somewhere in the house. And like I said, this little elf is supposed to be spying on the children, reporting back on what you do. But he’s also setting the example of being naughty. It’s not like this elf is doing good things, he’s doing bad things while also used a tool to keep children from doing bad things. You can hear it, right? “Well, Johnny, if you were such a good little boy you would share with your sister.” “Well, Susie, if you were such a good little girl you would turn off your iPad.” Think about this – we have placed a little doll in our homes, telling our children that this prankster is watching everything they do and will be ratting them out to Santa Claus. I know I’m a cynic, but I think it’s a bit creepy.
So when people ask me what I think about the devil or Satan, I usually say, “Satan is like Elf on the Shelf.” Go with me here. A prankster, a trickster, is watching our every move. Reporting on us, ratting us out. We live in fear that this being, this thing is spying on us all the time. Messing with our heads. Accusing us when we do something wrong. That’s what Satan means, it means “accuser.”
You hear it, right? The devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The devil says, “If you are the Son of God” throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple. That’s important. The devil is acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God. That is not up for debate. It’s not that the devil is trying to get Jesus to prove that he is the Son of God. It’s that the devil is trying to get Jesus to think twice about what he is called to do. You can almost hear that sinister voice, whispering in Jesus’ ear – “since you are the Son of God, why not use that power? Since you are who you are, why don’t you want to be rich and famous?” This whole story is not about if Jesus is the Son of God, it’s about how Jesus is going to be the Son of God.
I know that good, honest Episcopalians like ourselves don’t talk much about the devil. On a whole, I think that is a good thing. If all we do is focus on avoiding the devil, then we miss out on the love of God. If we all are trying to do is please some little elf doll on a shelf, then we miss out on the grace and mercy of Christmas. But today, I want to talk a bit more about the devil. Because even us good, honest Episcopalians have some things to learn.
Now, I don’t claim to know much about the devil, nor do I want to know, but we can pick up some things here in this gospel lesson. The devil, the tempter, the accuser, it seems, wants to mess with our heads. That’s the voice that Jesus hears. “Since you are the Son of God…” And it’s those voices, it’s negative voices like that that we hear in our spiritual journeys. Speaking personally, the greatest moments of spiritual clarity, the greatest moments of love from God always seem to be followed by some sort of self-criticism. Some sort of self-doubt and shame. This is what I have found in the spiritual journey with God. The closer I want to be to Jesus, the more I open myself up to the darkness.
That’s precisely what happens here in the Gospel of Luke. Pay attention to this, Jesus goes out to be tempted by the devil immediately after he is baptized. He’s filled with the Holy Spirit. Temptation isn’t when Jesus is down on his luck or when things are tough. Temptation happens when things are going well, when Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit. I would imagine that there have been times when things were going really, really well in your life, until they weren’t. Until those negative voices started chirping at you. That is what is going on with Jesus, and I think it’s what happens to us.
Now, I want to note that many of the things they might have called demon possession or demonic in the first century are what we would call mental illness or psychiatric distress today. That all is very important. Psychologists and psychiatrists are massively important. We need them. Because those issues need to be handled by professionals. And if you are experiencing anything like this – from general anxiety and depression to psychosis and mood disorders – you should seek professional help. I want you to hear me say that. Not everything bad happening to you is because of the devil. Sometimes those negative voices, the dysfunctional thinking, the chemical imbalances in our brains lead us to some dark places. That’s not your fault. Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean that you can “pray away” all that hard stuff. Of course, prayer helps anybody and everybody. But I do think that God wishes us to be healthy and whole; so getting help from a psychologist or psychiatrist when you need it is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with admitting weakness and seeking help. Consider this paragraph of my sermon the disclaimer.
But, if the witness of the New Testament is correct, and I’m inclined to believe that it is, then there are other things that happen to us that are from a tempter, an accuser, a more sinister power. This does not mean that I think the devil goes about in ragged clothing, with horns, and a pitchfork. But I do think that the accuser, the evil one, wants to tempt us, wants to confuse us, wants to mess with our heads. The accuser gets us chasing our own tail, going around and around in circles so that we can’t ever break free to live in love with God. That’s exactly why we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
As you begin your journey of Lent over the course of these forty days, as you seek a closer relationship with God, as you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, just know that temptation will lurk. Be ready for that sinister voice that tries to lure you away from the love of God. Be ready for someone to want to rat you out, to accuse you, to plant some dark thoughts into your head. As you get closer and closer to God, be ready for the temptations to become even stronger, even greater. This does not mean you are a bad Christian. This does not mean that you are falling away. Rather, the very fact that you are being tempted might just mean that you are on the right path and that someone is trying to lead you away from it, trying to lead you away from God. Be ready to hear that voice, “Since you are such a good Christian…” “Since you are trying to get closer to God…” “Since you want to be a disciple…” I’m not telling you that the devil is around every corner. I’m not telling you that you can blame everything on some demon. But I am telling you that you are a precious, beloved child of God. And the powers of darkness would prefer that you hate instead of love; they prefer self-criticism to self-confidence; the powers of darkness prefer competition to cooperation; they prefer warfare, destruction, and chaos over peace and justice. You are a follower of Jesus, so just know that this temptation will come. Keep your eyes on the prize. Set your goal on Jesus. Walk in love as Christ loves you. And “be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” 1 Peter 5:8-9a