"The Devil Doesn't Come in Red Leotards," sermon by Pastor Fred
The best Halloween costume in our family growing up was, the Devil! I mean, it was elaborate for its time, which was admittedly, some time ago. Long before scary video games. Long before the Joker came to life on the screen, back when Marvel Super Heroes were only available in comic book form!
I don’t know where my mom got the Devil costume, but, it was so good, it was the only Halloween costume all of us kids took turns wearing. It was a first-generation rubber mask, truly scary with its devilish horns. And the full body costume was a fire-y red. It even had a long tail to the suit, and a pitchfork that you carried.
When my little brother was probably not even 10 years old, and I had the suit on getting ready for trick or treating, I scared the living stuffing’s out of him, when we met suddenly on the stairway! He ran the other direction, screaming and balling, and afraid for years after that. Which, of course, I felt bad about!
No one really believes in the Devil like that, anymore – do they? The Devil doesn’t come in red leotards carrying a pitchfork!
The author of our Lutheran Sundays and Seasons resource wrote, “This Lent we are called to expunge the fantastical images of the devil from our minds and think seriously about the real presence of evil in our world. We know firsthand about the sin that caused, causes, and will cause suffering to us, our loved ones, our neighbors, our global communities, and creation itself. Sin is real; suffering is real; evil is real; indeed, the devil is real. This oppressive, tangible reality is as real as the air we breathe—felt but not always seen. Greed, envy, rage, hatred, war, discrimination, and apathy are just some of the ways the devil’s forces wreak havoc upon us. These forces have one goal and one goal only: to turn us away from the will of God.” (Sundays & Seasons)
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear from one of the Synoptic Gospel Temptation-of-Jesus stories. But what strikes me today in this Temptation by the Devil, from the gospel of Matthew’s account is: We are both like Jesus, and not like Jesus.
Certainly we are like Jesus when, after fasting for a long time, he is famished. Most of us, I dare say, don’t go without our “3 squares” every day. I remember the days when it seemed like, I could eat as much as I wanted and never gain a pound – and I never missed a meal! So fasting can challenge our normal order, and perception of comfort, and taking for granted the good things we have. The meaning and value of food on the table can become much deeper, and clearer. Maybe some of you have fasted before. Maybe some grew up poor and didn’t have enough, or like more and more students, even college athletes on scholarship, you have been food-insecure and survived on Ramen noodles or gone without meals sometimes. Jesus knew hunger too, he was completely human in that way, but leaned into his belief that God’s word was more nourishing even, than daily bread.
Jesus was human like us, in that he was subject to the laws of nature too. Jumping off the top of a large building like the Temple, or a very high mountain, would be certain death. God has created us mind, body and spirit, and given us this awesome and ‘very good’ physical world. And God has formed boundaries for us that are meant to be life-giving, though they sometimes seem restrictive or unfair. We may be tempted toward speeding down the highway, especially after a drink or two, to prove our – I don’t know what, more than human capacity, glorifying ourselves in some way – but of course, that can end badly, for you, or someone else. Jesus decided not to jump – leaning into the laws of nature God set up for the world, and letting the Devil know, us followers will too.
But we are also, not like Jesus. We cannot fast for 40 days and 40 nights, I’m guessing. We cannot turn stones into loaves of bread, as the Devil assumed the Son of God could. We cannot command God’s angels to bear us up, if we’re bunging jumping and the cable snaps. We cannot glimpse, even half the kingdoms of the world that the Devil showed to Jesus. Though in our humanness we are certainly tempted to indulge in some of the ones we have seen – the love of money, the priveledge of popularity and white supremacy, the lure to eat-drink-and-be merry, for tomorrow we die!
As Gil Bailie put it so well, “…the story of the wilderness temptations shows, the essence of [Jesus]. His triumph over demonic snares in the wilderness, [which] was a triumph over the glamour of [imitating the Devil], …an achievement made possible, not by Jesus’ strength of will, but by the superior strength of another [imitative] desire: the desire “to do his Father’s will,” to become the image and likeness of the One in whose image and likeness he knew himself to have been made.” (Violence Unveiled p. 207)
We are like Jesus – and, we are not like Jesus. We are only human, not divine. But we are made in God’s image, which is another way of saying, we have the same desire of Jesus’ more perfect obedience to God. We can and do lean into our desire to imitate Jesus, who imitates God. And the more we do, not just individually, but collectively, together as the ecclesia, the church and community of followers, the more we fulfill the justice and peace of the kingdom and realm of God, and the more we bring that kingdom on earth, as well as it is in heaven.
Because the Devil is real, real in our temptation away from God’s will – and not just pious individual temptations to commit individual sins, for those can be used to pit us against each other for the benefit of the powerful and exploitation of the kingdoms of this world – but the Devil is real, as the power tempting us all to live in those ‘kingdoms of the world’ in ‘collective sin,’ like racism and sexism, like the love of money and excesses of Capitalism, like ill-begotten and unfettered power and the false holiness of war.
The Devil doesn’t come in red leotards, we know, but is subtle, more than overt. Evil often comes as temptations we already desire! We see it in the gospel story 3 times: 1) Jesus is hungry – the Devil is prepared to step in and offer a quick fix, bread, that you can purchase right here on the corner from the PayDay Lender, at 400% APR. 2) And the devil knows that Jesus loves the Temple and wants to reform a corrupt religion – wouldn’t doing amazing tricks like being saved from a high-wire act gain him so many more followers? If you but take the first step, the devil is ready to assist! 3) And Jesus, the Son of God, has been preaching the good news of the kingdom and realm of God arriving in his very person. So, how about I give you all the kingdoms of the world, if you but worship me, says the devil!
Diablos is there to give us everything we want – the easy way, in a moment. Follow me, he says, I know some shortcuts! Tired of all the rules of the world God has made for us? The devil has an array of kingdoms of this world, more glitzy and attractive, free for indulging your libertarian self-pleasure.
But the more the devil wins, the deeper in debt we become, like a millstone hung around our necks. ‘Here, come up to this mountaintop and let me show you all the oil fields around the globe. I’ll give you them all to burn up for energy, to build homes and cities and nations, and make a handful of you rich beyond your wildest dreams, Diablos said. And now, with our addiction to oil, we are on the brink of a global climate crisis.
But if we say, with Jesus, we will “worship the Lord our God, and serve God only,” we will be able to truly see, and follow in a new direction. A life-giving direction. Then, the devil will leave us, and suddenly angels will come and wait on us, begin to bind up our wounds, and open our eyes. A change is gunna come! The world is about to turn! If we live by the grace of God.
As Lenny Duncan says, we are in the midst of a theological crisis, more than an economic or social crisis. So first, we have to realize, and believe, that we are like Jesus, and, we’re not like Jesus – both at the same time. Then, we will be able to laugh at all our temptations! And we will begin to desire the kingdom of heaven.
We are created in the image of God. And God is working for our redemption already. ?What did we promise in our baptism, but ‘to renounce all the forces that defy God, all the powers of this world that rebel against God, all the ways of sin that draw us from God?’ So, let us deepen our journey these 40 days, as followers of Jesus, who is God’s anointed one.