A Wideness in God’s Mercy, II: The Intolerable Compliment
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
The Democrats don’t want Chris Wallace moderating a presidential debate because he’s one of those demons from the Fox Network. I don’t know how you feel about that, but personally I think that’s a mistake. I thought he did a pretty good job the last time, and in any case, that’s taking a page from the Trump playbook: hamstring the press.
Whatever happens with that, it’s true that before you can claim the authority of high office, you often have to defend your core principles to a hostile moderator. Even Jesus.
Luke tells us that before Jesus inaugurates his public ministry, just after his baptism, the Holy Spirit leads him into the barren wilderness to debate with the devil for 40 days.
The devil takes three shots at derailing Jesus from his sacred purpose. First the devil advises Jesus to use divine power for small, selfish purposes by turning stones into bread.
Then the devil leads Jesus up to a high place and shows him all the kingdoms of this world—Rome, Athens, Babylon, Alexandria, Byzantium—and tells him they can all be his for the small price of his soul. It is the original Faustian bargain; this must have been where Marlowe and Goethe got their idea for Doctor Faustus, right?
Finally the devil whisks Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and tempts him to throw himself off to show the admiring public an awesome display of angelic power. Three times Jesus deftly eludes the devil’s grasp like Cam Newton.
In a word, Jesus says—three times, three ways—“Worship God and God alone.” A friend of mine puts it so tersely: “Jesus chooses God.”
The devil not only quotes scripture, he plays baseball. He knows it’s three strikes and you’re out, so he slinks away “until a more opportune time,” as Luke puts it.
So how do we shake the dust off this ancient story hoary with superstition and an almost obsolete vocabulary? The Greek word for ‘devil’ is diabolos, the diabolical one. We don’t believe in the literal existence of demons and devils anymore, do we? Maybe not but does it seem sometimes as if you momentarily submit yourself to an invisible force that subverts your principles and purpose?
Have you ever lost your temper and unleashed a rude insult at your spouse or teenager? And then you had to say, later, “I am so sorry. That is not who I am. That’s not me.” Maybe you were right. Maybe it wasn’t you. When you say “That’s not me,” you are dabbling in the archaic vocabulary of principalities and powers.
In a Sunday School classroom somewhere in America recently, the teachers somehow lost control of the situation. It went from serene to traumatic in 30 seconds. It sounded like two street gangs were tangling in there. When the ushers went down to investigate, a lone child emerged from the classroom and explained, “We’re being bad, and we don’t know how to stop.”
Doesn’t it seem sometimes as if the kingdoms of this world are in thrall to an unseen sinister sovereignty? When it elected Adolph Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, Germany lost its collective mind, or better gave it away and sold its soul. North Korea, Venezuela, today. That brand of comprehensive brutality is terrestrially inexplicable.
Did anyone watch the game last night? Michigan State 75, Michigan 63. Iggy Brazdeikas, Michigan’s Lithuanian-Canadian freshman? Michigan State completely dominated the Wolverines last night, and the brash freshman fouled out, but with 20 points he was Michigan’s leading scorer, and I love the tattoo on his left arm. He’s right-handed; he lives his whole life right-handed, including dribbling the basketball, as you can see, but he shoots left-handed. On his left arm he has a snake tattoo, to remind him about the dangers of temptation. The snake from the Garden of Eden. Iggy Brazdeikas doesn’t think this vocabulary is obsolete; he lives by it.
So I hope you’ll find a way to make this evocative but ancient story God’s word for you today. All through this Lenten sermon series, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, we’re going to ask you to reclaim the church’s proprietary vocabulary—spacious, three-dimensional, technicolor vocabulary—like ‘temptation,’ ‘sin,’ ‘salvation,’ ‘atonement.’ I don’t want to make you feel bad—FOMO is a terrible thing—but you should have been here Ash Wednesday. Katie preached the most masterful sermon on repentance I’ve ever heard. She brought back into our contemporary days a word we don’t use much anymore.
I wonder if Christendom has sold its proprietary vocabulary too cheaply and we’re diminished as a result. David Read was the brilliant Scottish-American preacher at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York from 1956 until 1989. He points out that these days you seldom see a sermon title with the word ‘sin’ in it.
It’s not as if the word is unpopular. It’s everywhere except the Church. It’s all over the marquees of the more squalid establishments of our cities. Dr. Read says, “It looks as though a word the churches are avoiding, because it sounds negative and disapproving, has been picked up by the pornographers, because it sounds sexy and exciting.”
Among all the scandals today in business, government, and the military—Theranos, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, and the Vatican—you never hear anyone say “I was wrong. I sinned. I must repent. I must atone.”
You might hear about “understandable lapses in judgement.” You might hear “It is possible that with the limited information available to me at the time I made unadvisable decisions.”
But you never hear words like ‘temptation,’ ‘sin,’ ‘repentance.’ That spacious, three-dimensional vocabulary is about as fashionable as disco or The Church Lady.
Neil Plantinga was once President of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. He says, "we ought to pay evildoers, including ourselves, the 'intolerable compliment' of taking them seriously as moral agents…. After all what could be more arrogant than treating other persons as if they were no more responsible than tiny children or the mentally challenged? What could be more offensive than regarding others not as players but only as spectators in human affairs?" I love the way he puts it: the Church’s spacious if ancient vocabulary pays us ‘the intolerable compliment.” It respects us as moral agents.
Where do you confront the hostile moderator called Diabolos? What’s your wilderness? Maybe it’s that conference in Vegas where you’re tempted by the greed of the gambling tables or the licentiousness of the floor shows. Maybe it’s when you’re pulling together a price quote for a customer and you’re tempted to pad the bottom line with a tidy but fraudulent profit cushion for yourself.
Maybe it’s a college campus. That can be a wilderness. It’s lonely out there. You’re on your own. There are no rules. Not anymore. It’s the wild, wild west. Have you ever walked from the Law School or the Undergraduate Library to the stadium on a football Saturday in Ann Arbor? Everyone is playing beer pong and the women have forgotten to wear clothes. It’s different from when Kathy and I were there in 1981. I know I sound like your grandfather but it’s true.
Jennifer Beste teaches theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University not far from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. When she was new to the University, they asked her to teach a class on Christian sexual ethics, and at first she was horrified and embarrassed to be talking about these things, but then it became her favorite class, because the students were obviously interested in the subject and she felt like she could make a difference in shaping Christian disciples, so recently she wrote a book called College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics.
In researching her book, she found that “most Christian millennials find the church’s teachings on sexuality negative and judgmental or simply irrelevant. When faced with the choice between remaining faithful to the church’s religious teachings or pursuing peer acceptance by endorsing the culture’s celebratory depictions of wild, drunken college parties and unattached hookups, many choose the latter.” No surprise there I guess. And after all what’s at stake? Maybe not much. It’s not like you’re selling your soul to the devil after all.
Dr. Beste asks her students to imagine meeting Jesus at a frat party. What would he be like? What would he want you to be like? If you met him, would you behave differently? Would you blush? Is that fair for Dr. Beste to ask her students? Does she sound like a scold? Do I? The Church Lady?
Garrison Keillor once received a letter from his friend Jim who had just celebrated his 40th birthday. Jim was a classics professor at a small university in a tiny town. Shortly after his 40th birthday, the dean came to the classics department and told the professors that the classical languages were dead. Jim writes, "That is something we already knew." But enrollment in the classics had diminished to almost nothing—even the Latin students, the department's cash crop, had dwindled to half. The dean would have to let most of them go.
In a small college town, there's not much for a PhD in classics to do except to teach at the college and it's a long step down to pumping gas at Sonny's Amoco. But the dean offered Jim a job in the admissions department, pushing papers and tracking student loans, twice the work for one-quarter less pay, but Jim jumped at the chance.
His only colleague in the admissions office was a young woman—bright, lovely, and lonely in that little town. Jim says, "I advised her to make friends. She made friends with me. She told me I was funny, smart, stylish, and handsome. To my family, I was daddy the old drudge—earn the money and bring it home and then give us some more. But to this quiet young woman I was valuable for myself."
There was an admissions conference in Chicago, and the young woman volunteers to drive them in her car. And so on the day before the conference, there stands Jim out in his front yard waiting for his friend to pick him up. While he is waiting, he is thinking, "A long time ago, I left my parents for my wife, because she appreciated me, and they didn't. Now 20 years later I am thinking about leaving my wife for a woman who appreciates me more.”
Jim says, "Then I looked up the street of my little town which was health to my flesh and blood, where people went to church, and voted in elections, and bought what the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts sold them, rooted for the home team, raised money for the library, and tended the parks.
“And I thought how much we depend on each other. I saw that though my sins could be secret, they would be no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families, my infidelity will somehow shake them, pollute the drinking water, and send noxious fumes up the ventilators at the elementary school.
"When we scream in senseless anger, a little eight-year-old girl several blocks away we don't even know spills gravy all over a white tablecloth. And if I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection, and someone's child will be injured.
A sixth-grade teacher will say, 'What the hell,' and eliminate South America from geography.
The minister will say, 'What the hell,' and decide not to give that sermon about feeding the poor.
The guy at the grocery store will say, 'To hell with the health department, this sausage was good yesterday, it's just as good today.'
And I decided that we all depend on each other more than we can ever know."
So that’s what Jim writes to the folks back home in Lake Wobegon after the epiphany that struck him while waiting in his front yard for his new friend to pick him up.
Jim closes his letter to the folks back home: "Say hello to everyone for me. I haven't been there for 20 years. But they are still very much with me. Tell them I'm all right."
James B. Lemler, “What Will We Choose?”, a sermon posted at Day1.org, February 25, 2007.
Kathleen Norris, “Wasted Days: Struggling with Acedia,” The Christian Century, September 23, 2008, 31.
David H. C. Read, “Our Most Rampant Sin,” in Virginia Woolf meets Charlie Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), p. 139.
Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 66-67.
Jennifer Beste, “Jesus at a College Party,” The Christian Century, February 13, 2019, p. 30.
Garrison Keillor, "Letter from Jim," from the radio show Prairie Home Companion.