Sermon for Sunday, March 10, 2019 || Lent 1C || Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
I always think of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis when I read the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent, particularly this year when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation as told by the Gospel writer Luke. In the book, C.S. Lewis pens a couple dozen imaginative letters from Screwtape, a Senior Tempter in the devil’s bureaucracy, to his nephew Wormwood, who is in charge of tempting one particular man. The letters present an incisive look at the moral and spiritual life through the lens of that which might lead such a life astray. The book is wildly creative and written so well that sometimes you find yourself agreeing with Screwtape and then realize you got suckered in by the temptation. This book is just so good.
Today’s Gospel makes me think of The Screwtape Letters because I can just see in my mind’s eye the infernal bureaucracy coming up with the devil’s game plan to tempt Jesus. Just imagine all the memos and strategy documents and white papers and TPS reports written by the Opposition Research Department down Below during the six weeks Jesus was fasting in the wilderness.
They develop a foolproof game plan, and the game begins. In its first possession, the devil goes for the hunger offense. No good. Jesus is still full of the Holy Spirit. Possession two: throw fame, power, and authority right at Jesus. Still no good. Jesus is already Lord of all those kingdoms and that kind of influence doesn’t faze him one bit. Only one possession left for the now desperate devil. The devil throws the game plan out the window and snags a copy of the Enemy’s playbook!
(That playbook is the Bible, by the way, and the enemy is God from the devil’s perspective…just so we’re clear.)
The devil places Jesus at the top of the temple and tells him to jump – after all (and here the devil thumbs to Psalm 91 and adjusts its reading glasses) “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Imagine how desperate the devil must have been to quote the Bible at Jesus to try to get Jesus to sin.
But think about that for a minute. Jesus wins all three possessions of the temptation game by drawing strength from the lessons of Holy Scripture. But the devil steals Jesus’ tactic for the final possession. Psalm 91 is a beautiful poem about trusting in God, and yet the devil twists the words of the psalm to its own demonic devices.
In other words, the forces of evil can quote scripture, too. And that should give us pause. A quick review of history shows a sobering pattern. The Bible has been used to justify pretty much every despicable act Christians have ever committed. We’re talking big, world-breaking sins like chattel slavery and imperialism and climate change denial. The Bible has been deployed to harm Jews and repress women and legitimate unjust governmental practices. The list goes on and on.
I use the word “deploy” on purpose because the devil twists scripture by weaponizing the Bible, by turning the Bible into munitions. That’s the difference between Jesus’ use of scripture and the devil’s. Jesus quotes scripture during the temptations to remind himself how to live, to keep his perspective on the abundant grace of God. Jesus does not affix a trigger and barrel to his Bible and shoot verse bullets at the devil; Jesus simply calls scripture up from his heart to guide himself along the right path.
But when the devil gets its hands on Bible, the truth of the scripture gets eviscerated by the devil’s agenda. Indeed, the devil conveniently leaves out all the other verses of Psalm 91, one of which says this: “He shall say to the LORD: You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”
You can see how the twisting happens. I’ve been guilty of it myself. I have an agenda, a point to prove, an axe to grind, an argument to win. So I go looking for verses that support my agenda. And you know what? The Bible is big enough and diverse enough in writer, era, region, genre, perspective that I will more than likely be able to find what I’m looking for. Even if I have to pinch half a verse from here and staple it to a pair of verses from there and expunge them all from their greater context. I will be able to find something to chamber in my Bible gun.
And that’s what makes the whole enterprise of Biblical interpretation so fraught. So much weapons-grade interpretation has been milled from the Bible that finding the expansive truth of the love and justice of God in the midst of all the munitions is such a daunting task. But it’s an important task, because the overarching truth the Bible points to will save the world. The truth of the love and justice of God will set us free from all the divisions and disparities that plague us. And we can seek that truth not by coming to the Bible with an axe to grind, but by coming with open eyes and open hearts. For we surely will find what we’re looking for in the Bible. But then we might miss what’s looking for us.
This Lent, I invite you to read the Bible with no agenda beyond an openness to the truth this myriad collection of long ago writings contains. Read the Bible and breathe in the words of ancient women and men who had powerful and life-changing encounters with God, encounters which transformed their lives and altered the way they looked at the world. Read the Bible and be enlivened because God still encounters people today and studying the Bible makes us more aware of how God is moving. Read the Bible and discern how God is inviting us to change so that we can resonate more fully with the truth of God’s love and justice.
During the service on Ash Wednesday, before the imposition of ashes, the minister says these words: “Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.” The minister offers a short history of this custom and then says this: “I invite you…in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
This holy Word is still alive in the world. Too often the Word is used as a weapon. But we don’t have to fall into that devilish trap. We don’t have to succumb to the infernal game plan. As St. Paul reminds us today: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” With God’s help, let’s make our words speak the truth of God’s love and justice.
Banner: Max McLean as Screwtape in the stage adaptation. Leah and I got to see his show in Boston several years ago, and it was FANTASTIC!