On this Valentine’s Day, when and red and pink and white hearts dot the landscape, and love is inspiring us to buy gifts and posies for our sweetheart, here in this place we will consider the passionate love of God. We also witness Jesus in a duel with the devil.
What do you think of when you hear the word, “duel” – d-u-e-l? While “duel” might seem like an old-fashioned word,
· A fight between two people that includes the use of weapons (such as guns or swords) and that usually happens while other people watch.
· A situation in which two people or groups argue or compete with each other.
· And of course, “to duel” would be the act of participating in a duel.
We find examples of duels in history, literature, and popular media. Which is probably why, when I think of a duel, it brings to mind flashing swords and fancy footwork.
Some of the greatest movie duels of all time include: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table and their nemeses go to battle using swords in various movies and plays about the legend; think of Excaliber for instance, or Camelot. Inigo Montoya does some serious swordplay in a duel against the mysterious, evil “Man in Black” in The Princess Bride movie; and, Neo duels with Agent Smith in The Matrix.
There are the duels made even more fantastic through computer graphics, like the one between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode IV, New Hope; and King Arthur versus the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you are a fan of old westerns, then the gun fight between Blondie and Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly might be the duel that comes to mind.
Finally, if you are an American history buff then perhaps, especially during this election year, you recall the infamous 1804 duel between then vice president Aaron Burr and the former secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton over political and personal issues; a duel that left Hamilton mortally wounded and Burr wanted for murder.
Throughout this season of Lent we will see a bit of “dueling” through the gospel texts. Each text will present us with a clash of wills, each clash leading to a duel of some kind. It will be up to us to determine what the clash is in each of these texts, and how it might relate to our Lenten journey.
While we may think duels are a thing of the past, as we explore these texts we will see how we engage in them still, today.
In this week’s Gospel, the duel takes place between Jesus and the Devil; the clash is over rank and its privileges. The weapons in this duel are words – scripture, to be precise, and we are the witnesses to this duel.
Jesus has been in the wilderness for some forty days and he has not eaten in all that time. While there are some who say that because of his divinity hunger had no effect on Jesus, the text itself contradicts this, for although his divinity is established, Jesus, also fully human, is described as famished.
I can’t even imagine what Jesus was experiencing. If I go four hours without eating something, my tummy starts to rumble; eight hours, and I am headachy, grumpy, and my determination to eat healthy foods is completely overwhelmed by my craving for anything that even resembles food; twelve hours, and even the leather of my shoes begins to look awfully tasty. But Jesus goes 40 days with nothing to eat.
Jesus must have been weak with hunger, and feeling vulnerable. This is the time the devil likes to engage with us the best; When we are tired, feeling vulnerable, lonely, troubled, or weak from stress or physical challenges.
In our gospel story the devil has been with Jesus all through the 40 days, testing him in all kinds of ways, trying to trip Jesus up so that he might gain the upper hand in the fight for world power and supremacy. We don’t know precisely what kinds of tests have come before, but we know that here, at the end of this wilderness time for Jesus, the devil makes one last effort, upping the ante with each test he tries.
The devil is crafty. So, while it may surprise us to realize that the devil knows scripture –it is exactly the tool he wields as a weapon before Jesus.
And so it is that this text makes explicit the argument against proof-texting – choosing verses of scripture out of context to support one’s position in an argument, rather than studying the scriptures as a whole, to see what God might be doing or calling us to do. That’s what the devil does here.
The clash over rank is inspired by the fact that Jesus is God’s Son. Twice in our text reads that the devil begins, “If you are the Son of God” - followed by a condition. A better translation of the word “if” here would be “since”, for the devil knows who Jesus is. The devil and other demons are often the first to recognize Jesus. Satan knows Jesus is indeed The Son of God.
As the Son of God, Jesus has valid claim to the highest status, in a world where status is everything. And, in the 1st century world in which this story takes place, not unlike the world in which we live, one is expected to use their status to satisfy their needs.
But Jesus realities clash with the realities of the world and this devil. Rather than using his status and power as the Son of God to answer the devil’s taunts or fill his need, Jesus’ realities are shaped by God’s claim on him - “You are my Son, the Beloved One; in you I delighted.”
Jesus’ realities are divine; they are defined by God’s love for the world. Jesus’ realities determine that because he is the Son of God:
· he will not be tested;
· he will not follow the devil’s agenda;
· and he will not use his status to serve himself;
· He will use his status instead, to serve the world.
Because of the passionate love that God holds for all of creation, God sent Jesus to save us from our sin; to transform hearts of stone into servant hearts; to love, serve, feed, care for, and embrace all people, especially those who are generally cast aside and left out because they have no status in the eyes of the world.
God sent Jesus to turn the world on its ear in the battle for the redemption of humankind. The devil wants Jesus to betray his mission and his divinity by operating as the world operates – to care for his own needs first.
Next, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, feeding him the lie that if Jesus would just worship him, the devil would reward him with this real estate. Jesus is clear in his response – there is only one LORD God, and worship and honor belong solely to God.
Finally, the climax of the story: Jesus is led up to the highest point in Jerusalem – the pinnacle of the temple. From there he could see as far as the eye can see. The devil gives Jesus one last test – since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. Let’s see your angels come flying to your assistance. Let’s see them catch and preserve you from danger. Let’s see God come to your aid as the scriptures have promised.
The devil isn’t just testing Jesus, he is also taunting and testing God. The devil figures that if God is watching, surely he will send his angels to save Jesus. The devil’s argument is that God HAS to save Jesus: To prove Jesus’ identity; to confirm his divinity; to preserve Jesus’ mission on earth.
The thing that the devil doesn’t get is that God does not have to do anything. He has already declared the identity and divinity of Jesus, to the disciples. Jesus denies the devil’s final test. While God does not have to do anything, Jesus will not do anything the devil asks.
It is God’s agenda that Jesus will follow, and not the other way around.
It is God’s agenda that we follow, too, not our agenda for God. God’s agenda shapes the journey and ministry of Christ. God’s agenda is to save humankind from sin and death; to turn the status quo upside down; God’s agenda includes lifting up the lowly and bring down the mighty and the haughty. God calls all of us to follow this agenda too.
Jesus is about doing God’s will and the devil doesn’t like that, is threatened by it, and will do anything to defeat it in the world. In order to tap into God’s strength and to align himself with God’s agenda, Jesus prays. We see Jesus praying a lot, in fact. Including before and after challenges and tests along his way.
During the season of Lent, we acknowledge, more than at any other time, that a duel is taking place here, in our world, in our lives, and in our hearts. We feel it when we turn our backs on the homeless person on the street. We feel it when we do things we shouldn’t in order to gain status for ourselves, and we feel it when we don’t do the things we know we should, because it is inconvenient or unpopular.
This duel between rank and its privileges still rages on. It rages on the streets as we face temptation to ignore the will of God that all people be fed, educated, and allowed to work in meaningful jobs. The duel persists as many forms of injustice pervade the landscape. The duel rages as we struggle to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the refugee and rule the world with justice, faithfully serving God in our encounters with humankind. The duel underlies our stewardship decisions; how should we spend our wealth; how do we use our resources; how might we speak of or treat other people?
Ultimately, Jesus demonstrates his confidence in God’s will. Jesus shows us what it is like to trust in God, as he remains focused on his mission of salvation for the whole world. As we embark on our Lenten journey, let us pray for the courage, strength, and confidence to follow Jesus, To turn to prayer and discernment as the weapons to better fight the duel between the kingdom work we are called to and the testing we face in the midst of our journey. Let us thank God for the passionate love that caused him to send us Jesus, the Son of God, the Beloved and perfect foil for the devil’s plot to claim us.