Another Temptation Story

March 10th, 2019

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers and friends:

The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is always the account of the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness and his temptation by the Devil. It is recorded in all three Synoptic gospels. So, for those of us who have hung around the church for a while, we have probably heard this story a bunch of times. But the truth is that as “modern folks” we probably don’t really know what to do with it. The Devil and temptation – well these words and ideas have come to seem rather unreal to us. In our secularized world, for example, we have personified and domesticated the Devil.  If I were to ask you to describe what the Devil looks like what would you say? (Red, horns, spiky tale).  And this same figure is casually inserted into our speech and worn as a Halloween costume.

I was thinking about this the other day when an old song banged me on the ear in a coffee shop.  It is a song by the Charlie Daniels Band called the The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Anyone know it or remember it? Well, for those who don’t this song from the late 70’s tells the story of the Devil trying to steal the soul of a young fiddle player named Johnny. Based on a poem from 1920s called The Mountain Whippoorwill by Stephen Vincent Benet, Charlie Daniels wrote this song as the very last song on his album because, well, after they had finished recording, he and his band realized that on the whole album there was no, as he put it, “fiddle song.” Charlie Daniels plays the fiddle and he, himself, played the fiddle for both characters. And while this song was written in just a couple of days and recorded last – it caught the popular imagination, won the Grammy for the best country song and became the song that they have been remembered for…

Well, anyway, I guess I started thinking about this song because it is an example of our casual handling of the temptations we face in our day-to-day lives that, however uncomfortable we might be with the words, can still causes us great suffering. Because we are tempted every day to do things that harm ourselves, our relationships and one another. And there are principalities and powers out there that want to help us do just that. So, as I was listening to the song, I started thinking about what would lead someone to make a bet with the Devil (to me this isn’t ever a smart move because the Bible lets us know that the Devil — El Satan “the Accuser”–never plays fair and always targets our weak spots).  And then I realized, of course, that sin always leads us into these no-win situations. Now sin is another word we don’t like much, so I want to give us our definition from the Book of Common Prayer. “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” And, the BCP goes on to note that sin has power over us because it takes away our freedom and our liberty as the children of God. And I would add that it causes us to forget who and whose we are.

So, in this song, by taking the Devil’s bet, Johnny is lured into “showing” that he is a better fiddle player. And so I started thinking, how can he know? I realized that even after hearing this song many times, it had never occurred to me to try to judge who was the better fiddle player. And in the story of Johnny’s bet with the devil – well it is important to know because his soul is on the line. So, of course, as soon as I got home, I pulled the song up and made Jeremy listen to it with me. Because that is what happens to you if you are a musician in my house. My question to Jeremy was, “What do you think about Johnny’s playing? Do you think it is really good? Who is the better fiddle player?

Now I know that these are probably not questions you were expecting on the First Sunday of Lent (although I do like to remind us that the six Sundays of Lent are not part of the forty days). And honestly, this song should always play second fiddle to the question of what we are willing to lose our soul to…because although we might not know what to do with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, its placement at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry underscores its importance.  Not to mention the fact that the only person who could have shared this story is Jesus himself. Because while there were others with him at his Baptism in the River Jordan—and while there were others with him at his Transfiguration – Jesus was alone in the wilderness.  And as followers of Christ, we have to take Jesus’ word about the importance of today’s gospel story. In order to do that, it is probably a good idea for us to pause and remember that the Bible is not a novel nor are the gospels biographies or histories as we understand them. The gospels are, as L. Michael White says, “…trying to convey a message about Jesus, about his significance to the audience and thus we have to think of them as a kind of preaching, as well as storytelling. That’s what the gospel, The Good News, is really all about.”

So maybe that leads us to a question we have never asked. Why is it that Jesus shared this story with his disciples and they with us?  I would suggest two things. The first is that if anyone has ever been in a position to make a bet with the Devil, Jesus was him.  All the things that the Devil offers to Jesus in today’s gospel reading were not his to give – they were God’s and so, and the Devil knows this, Jesus could have rightfully taken or undertaken any of them. He would have “won.” That is arguably a benefit of being God’s only begotten Son.  But Jesus didn’t. Jesus not only “resists” the Devil’s temptations, he refuses to participate in this faux power game because Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, knows without a doubt exactly who he is. And because he knows, he has no need to prove it.  

The second reason this story is shared is that when it comes to protecting our souls, we need to follow Jesus’ example. When we look at the temptations that the Devil put before Jesus, although they use language that we wouldn’t necessarily use, they are the exact same temptations we face today. The devil asks Jesus to prove himself. “If you are the Son of God then….”

 How often do we think or hear the same?  If we are the children of God then shouldn’t we be successful, financially sound, healthy and well? There were faithful people in Jesus’ time who believed this, just as there are Christians among us who believe this – believe in the prosperity gospel that holds that financial blessing – wealth and physical well-being are always God’s will for Christians and that faith, the things they do and say, and their donations will therefore bring them security and prosperity—all the good things. Sadly, the logical extension of this thinking is that those who suffer illness or poverty –those who lose their job or their home are obviously not doing, saying and believing correctly or they, too, would be prospering. Of course, this belief is corrosive and impossible to maintain – because as we were reminded this Ash Wednesday we are mortal – we are all dust and to dust we shall return. We all make mistakes. We will all one day suffer. And if we believe that a proof of God’s love is found in our success, in our health, in our wealth when this is not so, we might find ourselves asking, “Where is God? Doesn’t God care?” And then the Accusers –they have won because we find ourselves feeling estranged from our loving God.  

Friends, what Jesus is showing us in today’s gospel is that striving for outward success to prove our worth is not a game for the children of God. When we are tempted to “prove” our holy heritage by pointing to our achievements and all our success, we need to remember Jesus’ example. As tempting as the offers that the secular world or the Devil puts before us might be, well what they offer, it is not theirs to give. And playing their game only shows that we believe that we are not good enough. But, we are.  We just need to remember who and whose we are. We are the children of God. God loves us and there is no need for us to “prove” it to others. St Paul would put it this way in his letter to the Romans: “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

In the song the Devil Went Down to Georgia, Johnny does enter into a bet with the Devil—and in the song, Johnny wins. But Jesus would suggest that Johnny had no need to enter into that contest to prove himself. Who was the better player? As I mentioned before it was Charlie Daniels [himself] “…who played the fiddle for both the Devil and Johnny, and it was also Daniels who dreamed up what they both would sound like. He explains, ‘The Devil’s just blowing smoke. If you listen to that, there’s just a bunch of noise. There’s no melody to it, there’s no nothing, it’s just a bunch of noise. Just confusion and stuff. And, of course, Johnny’s saying something: You can’t beat the Devil without the Lord. I didn’t have that in the song, but I should have.’ Daniels [says he] has had people tell him they felt the Devil played a better piece, and to this he says, ‘If you dissect it and listen to it, that’s the smoke and mirrors thing about the Devil. There’s just nothing there. I mean, there’s nothing. There’s no music involved.’”

 Friends, this Lent let us try to root out and resist the structures and thoughts that seek to keep us doubting our holy heritage as the sons and daughters of God. We are not here to prove our worth to others. We have been saved; we have been justified by Jesus. And I can guarantee whoever or whatever tempts us to believe otherwise is not coming to us in the name of God. And so, following Jesus’ example and resting in the love and care of God, let’s remember that what they offer is all smoke and mirrors – it is not real– and that we never need bet with something as precious as our souls. May God bless you this Lent Christian souls.