Homily, What Does the Devil Look Like?
First Sunday in Lent, Year C, 2022
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF
Today’s Lectionary Readings:
*A version of this sermon was first preached on the First Sunday in Lent in 2020 at Santa Fe Episcopal Church in San Antonio, TX.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I have a question for you this morning. What does the devil look like? Is that a surprising question? I ask because as we follow Jesus these forty days into the Lenten wilderness, I want to be on the look out. I want to be prepared. The book of First Peter says to “be watchful for your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” And if that’s the case I think it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask so that we can be watchful and ready. So what does the devil look like?
I always find it interesting to see the ways that movies portray the devil. You have the classic horned figure dressed in red with a tail and pitchfork. I’m remembering Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ where the devil was portrayed as a hooded woman with a shaved head and shaved eyebrows. Then a number of years ago now the History Channel came out with a series called The Bible. You remember this? There was a little bit of a controversy with their portrayal of the devil because he had a striking resemblance to President Barack Obama. I don’t know if that was intentional or not. But I think my favorite portrayal of the devil comes from a movie called Last Days in the Desert. The movie reimagines the story in our gospel today of Jesus being tempted in the desert. In the movie Jesus is played by Ewan McGregor and the devil is played by….Ewan McGregor. And so throughout the film you have this eerie image of Jesus being tempted in the desert while he is looking at a mirror image of himself.
I think that’s interesting for us because isn’t that how we experience our own temptation? We hear a voice in our head that sounds strikingly like our own, begging for us to feed it. And so like Jesus in this movie sometimes it feels like we have two selves. We have one self that’s just trying to do the right thing and another self that just wants to do what it wants to do. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, called these two impulses the true self and the false self.
The true self is the person God created you to be: a beloved child of God. The true self still lives with God in the garden of Eden resting in God’s love. The true self is confident in its own identity as God’s beloved child.
The false self is the self we create when we forget our true identity. The false self tries to earn its own way in the world. And win its own worth. Rather than resting in God’s love and care, the false self wanders through life looking for love in other places.
The true self has nothing to prove. The false self has everything to prove.
And so in each one of us these two selves speak. One like Christ asks us to remember our true self. The other like the devil asks us to live into our false self. So what does the devil look like? I want to be prepared.
Well, Thomas Keating, another Trappist monk, offers three primary things for which to be on the lookout. Three “programs to happiness,” as they are sometimes called.
First, we forget our true self and build our false self when we obsess over our own survival and security. When our happiness depends on making sure that we know exactly where we are going to live and how we are going to pay our bills. And we always have a plan for worst case scenarios. Anyone ever like that? Of course there’s nothing wrong with making plans so that we are safe and secure, but when our whole identity, when our very happiness depends on it, we’ve moved away from our true self where God is our home, and started living into our false self.
Second, we forget our true self and build our false self when we obsess over being in power and control. When we have to have things done our own way and we become anxious anytime someone else is in the driver’s seat. Anyone ever like that? And there’s nothing wrong with being a driver, there’s nothing wrong with being a leader and taking charge, but when our identity, when our very happiness depends on being in power and control, we’ve stepped away from our true self that trusts in the power and control of God and started living into the false self.
Third, we forget our true self and build our false self when we obsess over the affection and approval of others. When we are driven by how people see us and we become anxious about not wanting to disappoint anyone. Anyone ever like that? And of course there is nothing wrong with not wanting to disappoint others, there’s nothing wrong with wanting people to like us. But when our identity, when our very happiness depends on the way other people see us, we’ve moved away from our true self where we’ve already received the greatest affection for which we could hope, and started living into the false self.
Survival and security, power and control, and affection and approval. Deep in every temptation we face at least one of these three is a driving factor. It may not always be obvious, but watch for these three and how they show up in your life.
So now back to the text. What happens when we place Keating’s lens of these three ways onto our gospel passage today? Well, first notice these encounters with temptation take place right after Jesus’ baptism. They take place immediately after that incredible moment when Jesus was brought up out of the water and heard the voice of God saying to him, “You are my child, and I love you.” It was an incredible affirmation of his true self. “You are my child, and I love you.”
But then he’s whisked off into the desert and after fasting for forty days and forty nights he faces his first temptation—to meet his own material need—because he is famished. Survival and Security.
And then he is taken to a high mountain where he can see all of the kingdoms of the world and the devil tells him “if you just kneel down and worship me, I will give you authority over all of them.” Power and control.
And finally, he’s taken to the top of the temple where all of the important religious people are going in and out and having their important theological conversations. And Jesus knows if he throws himself down and is caught up by angels in front of them, then maybe they will all accept and love him. Maybe they will believe he truly is the child of God. Affection and approval.
In each instance, Jesus is being tempted to forget his true self, affirmed in baptism, and create a false self. Notice the devil’s words, “If you are the Son of God…” he says, “If you are the Son of God.” In other words he’s trying to get Jesus to doubt his truest self by asking him to prove his own worth.
As is so often the case in the gospels, this story about Jesus is also a story about us. Everyday we are faced with the temptation of forgetting who we really are as children of God. Everyday we are faced with the temptation of finding and proving our own worth. It’s why we get angry at one another. It’s why wars are fought. It’s why we cling so tightly to our status and position and wealth. Deep down we are scared. We are worried our lives don’t matter. And there in the wilderness the devil comes to us in many forms, but every one of them wants us to doubt the words of God. So what will we do when the devil comes? What will we do when we’re asked to prove our worth? What will we believe about who we really are?
The season of Lent is for hearing again the words of God and trusting them. Nothing else is as important as God’s words. Not survival and security. Not power and control. Not affection and approval. Nothing else is as important as God’s words to you. “You are my child, and I love you.” “You are my child, and I love you.” “You are my child, and I love you.” Believe the words of God. Amen.