March 9, 2014

All the Kingdoms of This World and Their Splendor

Passage: Matthew 4:1-11


“Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Before he was Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games, he was Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman.  When theater critics heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman was going to be playing Willie Loman in Death of  a Salesman on Broadway in 2012, they said that he was too big and, at 44, too young to play the slight, 62-year-old Willie, but Mr. Hoffman’s portrayal was so searing it was almost unbearable to watch.  I can’t decide who is the greatest Willie Loman in recent stage history: Mr. Hoffman or Brian Dennehy, who became an accomplished Willie Loman on the Chicago stage.

Mr. Hoffman was one of the greatest actors of his generation.  Did you see Capote, or Doubt?

The last person Philip Seymour Hoffman reached out to the night he died of a drug overdose was his good friend David Bar Katz.  Mr. Hoffman sent him a text message inviting Mr. Bar Katz over to his apartment in Greenwich Village to watch the Knicks game.  Later, Mr. Bar Katz was one of two people to find him dead.

The National Enquirer famously and erroneously reported that Mr. Bar Katz and Mr. Hoffman were not only lovers but also fellow drug users, but it was not true.  Mr. Bar Katz says Mr. Hoffman never once used drugs in his presence.  In fact, says Mr. Bar Katz, “Phil once said to me, ‘Addiction is when you do the thing you really, really most don’t want to be doing.’”[1] Mr. Hoffman knew heroin was deadly and dangerous and might one day kill him, but he shot up anyway.

“Addiction is when you do the thing you really, really, don’t want to be doing.”  But evil is rarely that bald and stark and transparent, is it?  Evil is so insidious not because it’s so obviously bad but because it cleverly masquerades as The Good.  That’s how it slithers surreptitiously into our sensibilities.  Evil is at its worst when it is almost but not quite The Good.

Take our scripture lesson for this morning.  I want you to notice that both the Source and the Substance of Temptation are in or near The Good.  First the Source.  How does Jesus get out there in the desert by himself? He’s just coming from his thrilling baptism in the Jordan, one of the spiritual climaxes of his entire ministry; he won’t experience another high point like this until The Transfiguration near the end of his short life; it will be pretty much tears, toil, and trouble until then.

And just after his baptism, Matthew tells us, it is The Spirit who leads him out into the desolate desert. Mark tells us in fact that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, like a cowboy with a herd of cattle.  It is God who leads Jesus into his temptations.  It is God who wants to test Jesus’ mettle; it is GOD who wants to see if Jesus has the character and courage to resist unseemly allegiances.

And once Jesus is out in the desolate desert by himself, whom does he meet there?  He meets The Devil.  In Greek, The Devil is Diabolos, The Diabolical One.  He’s frightening, to be sure, but we have to remember that in the Bible, The Devil, The Diabolical One, always works for God.    In the Bible, the Devil is one of God’s lieutenants.  It’s only AFTER the Bible that the Devil acquires horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.  IN the Bible, the Devil works for God; it’s his job to uncover false allegiances and inferior character in the human race.

He’s like that detective Mariska Hartigay on Law and Order: SVU; she looks for trouble and brings it to justice; so does The Devil.  More properly, in God’s government, the Devil is the District Attorney; in God’s government, the DA’s job is to prosecute crime.

In Matthew’s story, the Devil is the Agent Provocateur.  I love saying that: Agent Provocateur, French for government spy sent to infiltrate the ranks of the opposition to uncover perfidy.  Now, don’t Google Agent Provocateur when you get home, because the first thing that comes up on Google is a chain of provocative establishments that sells sleepwear for women, and not flannel pajamas.  I swear I didn’t know that until I was doing sermon research.

So much for The Source of Jesus’ Three Temptations; it’s either God Godself, or God’s lieutenant. What about The Substance?  Notice that it’s not naked badness that tempts Jesus, but good things–almost but not quite.  Bread, Security, and Power are the Three Temptations.

Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days.  You understand, don’t you, that that’s why Lent is 40 days long?   Lent is meant to be our own small recapitulation of Jesus’ wrestling with demons in the wilderness.  Jesus is in the desert for 40 days and he hasn’t eaten a thing the whole time, so Jesus is hungry, and the devil comes to him with a simple, straightforward, and apparently harmless suggestion: Turn these stones into bread.  “Do a miracle, Jesus.  Don’t be hungry.”

What’s wrong with that? In this world where they eat mudcakes to fill empty bellies in Haiti, don’t you wish Jesus would turn more stones into bread?  And after all, God turns stones into bread every summer in the wheatfields of Kansas.  Every summer by the miracle of photosynthesis, God takes crushed rock and sunshine and minerals and rain water and turns that ancient stardust into golden loaves.  It takes six months, and here the Devil is just asking Jesus–God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God–to take a shortcut.  “Just do it faster, Jesus.”  Turns these stones into loaves.  But Jesus refuses, because he knows that shortcuts are not the way to get to God.

And look where Diabolos takes Jesus next: to the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple, the holiest single coordinate on Jesus’ spiritual map.  “Hurl yourself at the earth,” says the Devil to Jesus, “Hurl yourself from this high place and watch the angels come scurrying out to save you from yourself.  Tempt providence.  Watch God come running to your aid.”

Security.  Putting your faith in God’s good Providence: What’s wrong with that?  But again Jesus refuses because he knows that while it’s ALMOST the good, it’s another shortcut.  Jesus knows that he will have to test God’s good Providence for the next three years of loneliness, trouble, challenge, and persecution.  He will endure taunt and ostracism and betrayal and duplicity and mendacity and six hours on Golgotha and three days in the grave before he knows for sure whether God will secure his fragile existence.  This is another shortcut.

And then finally the Devil whisks Jesus to a very high mountain and shows him “all the kingdoms of this world and their splendor,” and says, “Bend your knee and all this can be yours.  Come on, Jesus, you know your destiny is to be King and Lord of All Creation in the end; why wait?  Do it now.  Exercise the plucky, persuasive, potent, Putinesque power of the plenipotentiary.”

What’s wrong with that?  Don’t we want Jesus and not the Devil to be in charge of “all the kingdoms of this world and their splendor”?  But for a third time, Jesus refuses, because he knows that this kind of power is almost but not quite The Good, and it is another shortcut. He knows that he must win the world not with a crown, but with a cross; not from a very high mountain, but from a very low, skull-shaped heap of rocks called Golgotha.    Jesus knows that God’s way is not the love of power, but the power of love.

So in both Source and Substance, the Three Temptations are very close to Goodness–almost but not quite.  They’re all shortcuts, and shortcuts are not God’s way.  Evil is so seductive and insidious not because it is so obviously bad, but because it is very close to The Best.

So Confirmands: are you listening?  I have two requests.  First of all, I hope you’ll forgive my generation for sometimes setting a poor example.  We’ve always striven for The Good, but sometimes we’ve taken shortcuts.  Elementary school teachers erase wrong answers on standardized tests so their classroom scores look better; that’s a shortcut to the good thing of well-educated children.

Investors concoct empty Ponzi schemes to get rich quick; Wikipedia lists 43 multi-million- or multi-billion-dollar Ponzi schemes in the twenty-first century alone, and it’s only 13 years old; that’s a shortcut to the good of building genuine wealth.   American states short their pension funds to underwrite current spending, gifting the present generation with an extravagant lifestyle and saddling future generations with obligations their forbears squandered away.

Even the American pastime is not immune to these shortcuts.  In 1992, the senior shortstop on the baseball team at Westminster Christian High School in Miami hit for a batting average of .505, had 9 home runs, and stole 35 bases in 35 tries in just 33 games.  During his senior year at Westminster in Miami, there would be as many as 100 Major League Baseball scouts watching him play.

When he graduated, the Seattle Mariners took him as the first pick in the first round in the 1993 draft and offered him a signing bonus of $1 million.  He was 17 years old.

His name is Alex Rodriguez.  After seven years with the Mariners, the Texas Rangers offered him a ten-year contract worth $252 million.  Three years later, the New York Yankees offered him another ten-year contract worth $275 million.

He’s been an All-Star twelve times and Most Valuable Player three times, and has two Gold Gloves.  He was the youngest player to hit 300 Home Runs, the youngest player to hit 400 Home Runs, the youngest player to hit 500 Home Runs, and the youngest player to hit 600 Home Runs.

He’s hit 654 Home Runs altogether, and until very recently was all but certain to hit more Home Runs in his career than anybody else in baseball, including Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds.

Alex Rodriguez works like a dog.  His athletic prowess is both God-given and hard-earned.  He has always wanted to be the greatest baseball player in the history of the game, and that’s a good thing, but not if you sell your soul to the devil to get it.  He would have been greatest shortstop in the history of the game without cheating.

So that’s the first thing I’m asking you: forgive your elders for failing to set a better example by taking shortcuts to glory.  The second thing I’m asking you is: try to do better than we.  When an unseen force offers you “all the kingdoms of this world and their splendor” if you will just bend your knee, if you will just sell your soul, just say ‘no.’

Over in my old neighborhood, metro New York, high school juniors are tempted to pay smarter kids to take their SAT exams for them, so they will get into a prestigious university.  Over in my old neighborhood, young people are tempted to bathe their brains in a blissful brew of dangerous chemicals.  Over in my old neighborhood, high school kids are tempted to shun weaker, odder kids to massage their own egos.  Be better than we: just say no.  There are no shortcuts to a life with God.

Alan Jones and Penelope Duckworth share an ancient legend in which the devil tries to get into heaven by pretending to be the risen Christ.  Disguised and decked out in light and splendor, he arrives at the gates of heaven with a band of demons dressed as angels of light.  He shouts out the words of the psalm, “Lift up your heads, O ye gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.”

The angels in heaven are delighted and respond with the psalm’s refrain, “Who is the King of glory?”  Satan boldly opens his arms and says, “It is I!”  But in doing so, he shows that there are no marks on his hands.  The angels see that he is an imposter and the gates of heaven slam shut against him.[2]  No shortcuts.  No scars, no glory.  It’s as simple–and difficult–as that.


            [1]Jim Dwyer, “Truth and a Prize Emerge From Lies About Hoffman,” The New York Times, Feb. 25, 2014.


[2] Alan Jones, Passion for Pilgrimage (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 150.  Quoted by Penelope Duckworth in I Am: Teaching Sermons on The Incarnation, ed. by Ronald J. Allen, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), p. 90.