Saturday, March 26, 2011

In their own words: The Adversary (Lent 1A)

During the season of Lent, the sermon series at McFarland UCC features characters from Jesus' story speaking for themselves. "In Their Own Words" will feature The Adversary, Nicodemus, The Woman at the Well, the Man who was Born Blind, Martha, the servant girl in the courtyard, and Peter.

The Adversary:

First of all, I need to set the record straight: I don’t do natural disasters. Not my gig. Don’t try to pin those on me. I might pop my head in after-the-fact, when things are all confusing, and stir the pot. But tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes: not my work.

That’s brute force. It’s beneath me. It’s inelegant. Give me more credit than that.

I’m more interested in letting you do the heavy lifting.

You have all the tools, you know. The raw materials.

All I do is offer some suggestions.

The plays are all yours.

Really. Let’s take a look:

Scene: A garden. A man and a woman are strolling around, not a care in the world. It’s an intimate little scene, just the two of them and some greenery, some birds singing in the background. It seemed like a nice time for a chat. Nothing pushy, I just asked some clarifying questions. “So, God said ‘no snacking on the produce?” Oh, no, she said…just this one tree is off limits. “And why would that be?,” I asked. Wasn’t God being a little possessive, not wanting them to know good and evil? Seems like a little knowledge would be a good thing.

A piece of fruit. It was a small thing. She wanted it, she really did. She just needed to justify it to herself. Let’s see…nutritious. Yep. Beautiful. Yep. Useful. Yep. They made the decision for themselves. Plucked that fruit right off the tree, because they decided it was time. She had some, and he had some, and boy, did they say it was good.

I just asked a few intelligent questions, at the right time. The consequences weren’t my problem. Everybody tries to blame it on me, as if I made them do it. Come on, now…you’ve heard about this little thing called “free will”, right? The two of them did the heavy lifting. Both of them. They made their own decisions. Nobody forced them.

Next thing you know, they were blaming one another, getting in that little spat with God, the one that got them thrown out of the garden, the one that folks have been talking about for centuries. That’s just how it played out. It was kind of fun to watch, because I got to see some of my favorite words in action. The D words: Division. Discord. Deconstruct. Demolish.

So, that’s the way I work. Those D words are my calling card. When you see and hear them happening, you know I’ve been around. When things are confusing, that’s a great time for me to drop in. Nobody really notices me at work. All I do is help people look at the world a little differently.

“You know, those Israelites, they’ll be trouble someday…”

“You know, that manager in the other office has been angling for a promotion, are you really sure you can trust them?”

“Lots of other pretty women out there…are you sure you don’t have any competition?”

“Do you think it might be a good idea to hang on to that stuff? You never know when you might need it.”

“What if that other kid wants your cookie?”

“Maybe you should take matters into your own hands.”

“Do you think you can really count on God?”

People arrive at their own conclusions. And, well, from that you get inequality. Jealousy. Mistrust. Division and discord. Sin. People using power, in an attempt to make themselves feel safe, or in control.

My favorite thing to do, is to get people to act under their own power. Like I said, brute force isn’t my gig. Free will is a wonderful thing. I ask the questions, sit back, and let it all play out.

It usually works out great. I’ve started a lot of wars that way. Blown up a lot of peace treaties. Turned protests into riots. Ended marriages. Unraveled countries and nations. Fascinating to watch. And I didn’t have to lift a finger. You all did it for me.


There was this one time, though, that things didn’t go smooth as silk.

Prophets in the wilderness are usually an easy target. They’re hungry. They’re lonely. They’re scared. They’re tired. Usually running from the world, running away from reality. Persecuted. They’re fun to play with.

So I show up, and wouldn’t you know it, none of my usual tactics work! Forty days and forty nights he was in the wilderness. The book even says it, right here: “he was famished”! I mean, really. I’m an expert in this wilderness stuff. Perfected it, with the Israelites, in that 40 years between Egypt and their Promised Land. Where’d you think the Golden Calf idea came from? “It’s been an awfully long while. Do you think Moses is ever going to come back down? Maybe the people need something to keep them occupied,” I said to Aaron. Used it again, on Elijah, got him whining and yelling at God. Managed to get John the Baptist, Mr. Locusts and Wild Honey himself, acting so loopy he lost his head.

Prophets in the wilderness – I’ve got that market cornered. A little hungry, thirsty, a little doubtful.

He was all alone out there.

It wouldn’t hurt anything if he did a little miracle or two, just for his own benefit, right?

I knew he had it in him.

“So, you’re the Son of God. You’ve got the power to turn stones into bread. Seems like now would be a good time to test that theory. What’s the point of power if you’re not going to exercise it? What’s the point of power if you die of hunger here in the wilderness?”

Not a thing. He spouts scripture back at me. “You can’t live by bread alone.”

So I had to paint a bigger picture. I took him to the temple.

“So, you’re the Son of God. Look at this. The temple, the center of the world, and here you are, above it all. Show how much God loves you…seize the moment. Jump off. That scripture you love so much promises that the angels will catch you.”

“Do not put God to the test,” he said. Argh. He knew my game. I had been testing, pushing at his defenses. Making him worry about his basic needs was the first approach. And my stones to bread maneuver struck out. Psychological needs were usually a sure-fire winner. “Just a little test, something simple, something to make him prove he loves you, that he’s never going to leave you, never going to give up on you.” And apparently, that wasn’t going to work either.

It was time to get serious. This guy was in a position to change the world, he had so much potential. So I pulled out the big one. “C’mere. Up on this mountain. Take a look. Everything you see, all these cities, and kingdoms, everything spread out before you. Think about all that power you have. Think about how much you could change, how much you could fix, how much you could make right, if all these things were in your hands.“

Did I mention that I like power plays? If he cared so little for his own welfare, then surely, this angle would work. Of course, he would be motivated by what he could do for others.

In the end, all of you, no matter how altruistic, how community-minded you think you are – are like this. Even do-gooders worship at the altar of power. Trust me. I have been watching humanity for thousands of years. You’ve been feeding me great material. Don’t think that I haven’t been paying attention. You all, secretly, want power. Admit it. You fill up the space around you, with stuff, with activity, with commitments, trying to create buffers, trying to control your world. Trying to use whatever power you can gain to shape things according to your will, your hopes, your view of the way things should be. If it’s not power to meet your own needs, it’s power for the sake of your family, or power to fix the world. It’s all about the power.

So of course, this one would be no different. He just had a lot more power to start with. That just made it more fun. So there we were on the mountaintop, and I was saying, “Just worship at the altar of power. Exercise your influence. Shape things the way you want them to turn out. That’s all. Then all this can be yours. You can fix the world. Call it, ‘the world according to Jesus.’ You can solve all the problems, make it just the way you want things to turn out. ”

What would you do, if you had that ability? Think about it for a minute. The world according to you. What would you make right? What would you change? What things would you un-do, and remake in your own image?

Go ahead. Think about it. I’ll give you a bit.


You came up with something, didn’t you?

Told you so.

Every human being I’ve ever met – except one - falls for that trick. Sin with a capital S. And the only one I’ve ever met, the only one who refused to reshape the world in their own image, was Jesus.

He turned me down in a heartbeat. Sent me away, defeated. I came back, again and again, with my offers, and he turned me down, every time. Even at the very end, he refused.

“Worship the Lord your God, and only God,” he said. Not self-sufficiency. Not happiness. Not your ability to change the world.

“Worship God, and only God,” Jesus said.

I don’t have anything that can trump that.

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