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Not If

Rev. Brent Coffin
Sun, Feb 17

The First Sunday in Lent
Text: Luke 4: 1-13

Five weeks ago yesterday, my brother Dan and I drove from Jerusalem up the West Bank to the Sea of Galilee. From Jerusalem, we drove twenty miles east to the Dead Sea, then turned north on Highway 90 that runs along the Jordan River. A few miles north the river valley is fertile and green. A few miles south, the desert is barren and uninhabitable.

This is the setting for out text today. It is the transition between two worlds. Jesus has been baptized alongside many others in the River Jordan. There he received his calling: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But what does that mean, and how is he to live that out? I suppose it was such questions that prompted him to leave the Jordan Valley and go into the wilderness, alone in a space that has no boundaries, no reference points—a place of transition from the past to the unknown future. And there, in the interior struggle of his soul, Jesus encounters the devil.

Now, if I were paranoid or narcissistic, I might wonder why I’m being asked to preach on the Sunday when the featured character in the text is the devil. The truth is I did wonder. Does this suggest something about my role as your scholar-in-residence?

Perhaps it does. The devil in ancient Jewish thought is not a nihilist who wants to destroy things. The devil is a member of the heavenly court—that is, he finally works for God. And his role is to test the faithful. Testing the faithful…I love that job description! So yes, for the sake of full disclosure, let me be clear about the role I am playing this morning. I am your Devil’s Advocate in residence. And I take my job very seriously.

The devil is not a common figure in our religious imagination today. But we all know where the devil is. The devil is in the details. A piece of legislation… the church budget… a peace agreement: the devil is always in the details. So I will begin my advocacy work this morning by drawing your attention to a few significant details. And, as if we were excavating an archeological site, I will set these details carefully aside in order to get down to one small, but very important detail where I’m certain the devil is at work.

It was a major life transition—the transition from his adult calling to his public ministry—that triggered Jesus going into the wilderness. Transitions do that. When illness strikes, when a loved one dies, when we lose a job, when things grow dull and empty — we find ourselves in a kind of wilderness. Somehow the past has gone and the future has not appeared. We find ourselves unspeakably alone, beyond our resources, uncertain if we can endure it.

But then, notice the first detail in the story. What is it? Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit into the wilderness… When we’re in the wilderness, we find ourselves profoundly disoriented; we experience ourselves terrifyingly alone; we can’t sustain ourselves in this place. But the One who has sustained us in the past is with us there, and there is readying us for the future.

Religion is often portrayed as a form of buffoonery. But I especially resent how my colleague the devil has been portrayed with that pathetic tail and those ridiculous horns.

So let’s take note of the next rather obvious detail in our text. When the devil does the work of testing our convictions, it does so by the very ordinary, daily medium of interior dialogue. There’s a conversation going on, in the interiority of Jesus’ mind, just as there is in yours and mine.

So please, stop projecting my colleague onto all these silly images and media stereotypes—they’re just the devil’s distraction. Turn off the TV and listen. Listen to yourself. It’s there that a dialogue is going on, perhaps a bit messy and chaotic, but a fascinating dialogue nevertheless. (And the thrust of this dialogue is to question who we are and where we’re going.)

Ah, you’re not sure what you believe…great! Welcome to the dialogue. We’re not sure of who we are as a Progressive Protestant Community…great! Let’s open up space for the dialogue. We’re not sure how to respond to the mutually reinforcing tragedies of Israel and Palestine…of course we’re not! Let’s find a way to deepen our dialogue.

Now, I want to point out another detail where my colleague is at work. And this one will delight those of you who are Bible skeptics.

In the first two exchanges—the one about bread and the second about all the kingdoms—Jesus engages in the dialogue by quoting the Torah, the sacred scriptures of his Jewish people. It is written, he says, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses speaks these words to the people Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness: “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna (daily provision),… in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Likewise, Jesus responds to the second and third proposal by quoting the Bible.

Having heard this twice, notice how the devil shifts from calculating reason in the third round. He quotes the Bible, not once but twice. “Ah-hah, great point,” some of my sophisticated secular friends will say. “Of course, anyone can quote the Bible, and make it say whatever they want it to say. And then you get these impossible collisions between Jews, Christians and Muslims, all claiming to have their own absolute truth in their sacred book.”

But with all due respect, as your devil’s advocate, let me suggest there’s something much more profound and interesting in this detail. If we’re going to have a serious discussion about who we are and where we’re going, we need to go back to our primary sources, our biblical narratives, and draw upon them for fresh meaning. And we do so not by citing the Bible or ignoring it. We do so by engaging one another in an intellectually honest and personally authentic dialogue over what the text means for us, here and now, in this wilderness, today.

Perhaps I’m getting a little too defensive as your devil’s advocate. So let me quickly point out one last major detail we find in the substance of the dialogue.

Notice the devil poses three options to Jesus for how he might go forward and carry out his mission. What are they? There are various interpretations, but I’ll call them the economic option, the political option, and the religious option.

- Economic: use your power to turn this stone into bread; like you, millions of people are hungry; if you’re the Son of God, for god sake feed them
- Political: acknowledge the authority of the devil and exercise political power. The empire is oppressing up; Pilot’s regime is exploitive; the religious elites are silent. Fulfill your calling by building a movement and gaining political power.

- Spiritual: these are frightening times; people are vulnerable; they are looking to God for special protection. If you are the Son of God, demonstrate that God will protect God’s people from harm.

As your devil’s advocate, let me ask you, for the sake of argument: What’s really wrong with these options? I mean really. Think about an economic strategy: People don’t live by bread alone, but they cannot live without it. Won’t Jesus use his power to perform “economic” miracles to feed thousands? And, isn’t a good economic strategy needed to secure the future of our church. And what is essentially wrong with a political strategy? Sure, it’s tempting to believe that politics is the domain of the devil. But is that really so? After all, it’s the devil himself who says so; and I can’t believe half of what he says. And a spiritual strategy for going forward: why would mere human beings devote themselves to living a faith when they didn’t trust in the ultimate protection of God?

So what’s going on here, for Jesus? What is such a profound temptation that he needs to work it through in order to go forward? We come to the last, small detail where the devil resides.

The way I’ve interpreted the temptations text, it all sounds rather pleasant. Jesus is searching for the way forward. He’s engaged in an interior dialogue of meaning and purpose. The dialogue is drawing on the sources of his identity. And he’s thinking through a number of options, none of which may be intrinsically wrong. What, then, is his struggle all about?

Indeed, the devil is in the details. And there’s one small but significant detail that we need to consider. When a biblical text repeats a word or a phrase a number of times, it’s signaling something of particular importance. Do you notice the word? If…

- IF you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread…
- IF you will worship me, these kingdoms will all be yours…
- IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…

Do you sense the tremendous, seductive power of the IF?
- Jesus, IF you have been called to manifest the reign of God, THEN prove it!
- IF you’re going to succeed, THEN acquire the power to make it happen!
- IF you’re ministry is going to be effective, THEN show people how it will make them special, different, invulnerable—not like everybody else!
- IF your call is in question, THEN, Jesus, it becomes all about you. Prove it.
- It’s not about manifesting the Kingdom of God among us. It’s about YOU. Prove yourself!

Once the ‘IF’ takes ahold of us, it creates a spiritual logic that will not let us go. The psychologist Brene Brown describes it this way:
- I’ll be worthy IF…I lose weight, find the right relationship…
- I’ll be worthy WHEN…I graduate, become partner, get tenured…
- I’ll be worthy BECAUSE…I’ve said yes to another commitment or cultivated more time for meditation…

This is the IF/THEN logic of self-justification. We need to become something else to be who we are meant to be. But the damning truth is we never get there. We keep sailing toward some distant shore we think is the promised land, only to find when we get there it is just the same old place. The gnawing IF is subtle, but it’s a bottomless pit. It leaves us with a hunger we can never fill.

How, then, did Jesus resist the IF in his own interior life? How do we deal with the subtle, seductive whisper of the IF in our interior lives?

Dan and I had a wonderful guide in Israel, named Koren Eisner. Koren opened our eyes again and again by explaining the linguistic meanings beneath the surface of things. One word in particular was striking—the Hebrew word aharit. It means the future as in "Aharit HaYamim" or the end of days. But aharit also means “what lies behind” or “what came before”. In other words, said Koren, Jews are like a person rowing a boat: they find their way into the future by looking back to the past.

So, I imagine, did Jesus in the wilderness. He looked from the barren desert back. Back to the valley up north. Back to the moment of his calling after his baptism. He remembered the core truth that was behind him. That he chose not to be alone, but in solidarity with men and women of all backgrounds and stripes. And out of his solidarity with other human beings, he heard his calling: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Notice there is no IF. It’s not conditional.
- Not ‘IF’ you are my Child; THEN…
- Not ‘IF’ you are the Beloved; THEN…
- Not IF I am well pleased with you, THEN.
- No, not ‘IF”. YOU ARE THE BELOVED. And every time you hear the IF, fight it with this simple truth. And the future will unfold in due course.

So too with us. Our brother Jesus was baptized in solidarity with others, not alone; and therefore God’s unconditional word is not only to him, but through him it is God’s unconditional word to us. It’s as simple as this:
- The One who dwells beyond you in infinite mystery intimately relates to you as a Mother to her beautiful son, a father to his precious daughter;
- You ARE beloved; I AM beloved; we ARE ALL beloved.
- So listen. Listen. And when you hear the subtle and seductive IF taking ahold, go back to this fundamental truth. It’s the only way forward.

We are free, of course, to be the devil’s advocate to one another. It’s important that we are. We need to struggle over our identity as a Progressive Protestant Community; we need to question who we are and where we are heading. And each of us needs to listen to the wonderful, chaotic, ongoing dialogue within our own souls, not just when we find ourselves in the wilderness.

But as we do, let us be aware of the devil in that detail IF:
- If what you do makes a measurable difference, then your life will be worthwhile; NO, you are beloved, so live it.
- If we adopt the right stance on social justice issues, then we will witness to our faith; NO, we are beloved; let’s do our best to live it.
- IF we change in this way or that, then we’ll truly become The Beloved Community we’re meant to be. NO. We are the beloved community.

The way forward, brothers and sisters, is to go back to our fundamental truth. It is the hinge on which the Gospel swings. It is the reason we exist in the 21st Century. It is the gift we can never prove to ourselves. It’s God’s gift, and our response.

So please hear me now. I am not speaking as a devil’s advocate. This is the truth on which we stand…in good days and bad…in living and dying:

NO IF’s, AND’s or BUT’s.

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