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Sifting the Voices -- Matthew 4:1-11 (1st Sunday in Lent)

Artwork: “Tune In” by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity |

A Sanctified Art LLC |, used with permission

I always get nervous when the Devil shows up in a Bible story. Now, it may not be for the reasons you’d guess. I get nervous, because I worry that the larger-than-life image of the Devil that we’ve created in the popular culture will suck up all the air in the room, and that we won’t be able to find our way to some truth and good news in the text.

I’ve shared a version of this concern before. In the broader culture, we have created this image of heaven and hell, and angels and the devil that looks like this: Heaven is the place where all the good people go; it’s got pearly gates and angels playing harps. Hell is where all the bad people go, a place of eternal torment, with the devil and his pitchfork and his pointy ears. Good people go to heaven; bad people go to hell. That’s what’s out there in the popular culture.

We don’t believe that. And it has little support in the Scriptures. We don’t believe that only so-called good people go to heaven, and only so-called bad people to a place called hell. We believe in grace. We believe in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – God’s unshakeoffable love that saves us from everything that does us harm. And that grace and love aren’t some far-off promise. They are God’s new creation, the power of Resurrection, alive and at work in the world, right here, right now, and on into forever.

The notion of a “devil” isn’t in any way a major theme in Scripture. Something called satan (which means “the accuser”) appears in a few stories – our gospel reading today (the story of Job is the other big one). If anything, where this satan (this accuser) does appear, it’s more – as one writer says – as a “figure that has come to represent the personalized power of evil” – the personification of evil in the world.[1] And don’t get me wrong – we may need that. We may need to be able to put a face on evil.

What’s real – and what is a major theme of Scripture – is evil. We may not use that exact word, but we talk about it all the time. We see evil embedded and embodied in systems – in systems controlled by craven despots that start a brutal war that makes no sense at all, but that nevertheless lays waste to lives and land. We see evil in our own systems – systems of racism – built on the notion that people could be owned as property – and even when set free, then subjugated to a lesser-class of citizenship – fewer rights, less-than-equal protection of the law. We see evil in the continuing harm of those systems to this day. And, we see evil in the harm that comes from individual action and choice maybe in harm we have experienced, maybe even in harm we have done. What is a major theme of Scripture is the power of evil and our moral agency to choose evil or to choose good – there are Hebrew words repeated across the Hebrew Scriptures – yetzer ha ra or yetzer ha tov – choosing evil or choosing good.

Maryetta Anschuts notes that evil is so big and so everywhere, that maybe we do need to be able to put a face on it – to speak of a devil, a satan, a tempter. She writes that, in facing the choice between good and evil, it may be “easier to make that choice if we can put a face on temptation.”[2]

So the invitation this morning is to enter into this Scripture story however you need to. I will use “the Tempter” to describe that character in this story. Matthew calls the character tempter, satan, and devil – all three. I will use “Tempter” because that’s substantively what evil is doing in this text – tempting. If it helps to put a face on evil, then by all means hear the story like that. But if that’s not helpful to you, be free to hear the story how you need to. I guess what I’m saying is “Don’t let the devil get in the way of hearing the truth in this story.”

Now, I guess that’s just me answering one of the first questions this Scripture stirred up in me. “What’s up with this devil?” There are plenty of others. It’s a strange little story that prompts some very basic questions – like “Who is telling this story?” I mean, if this scene is just Jesus and the Tempter, who was there to witness this, who wrote it down? It’s not like the Sermon on the Mount where there were disciples listening. And I know that the gospels were never intended to be journalistic reports with precise factual detail – not in the way we now think of things. They are memories and stories – communities making sense of how they experienced Jesus.

But I could see Jesus telling this story to his disciples – something like this: “At the start it was tough. I heard this voice saying at my baptism, ‘You are my beloved son.’ But, in the wilderness, there were these voices telling me what that might mean: ‘If you’re the Son of God, make and take all the bread you want. If you’re the Son of God, take charge of the world, do as you want, whenever you want, to whomever you want.” I could hear Jesus telling the story of his struggle like that.

I could just as easily hear a community telling this story of how they came to understand Jesus. “This Jesus we knew. He was both so very human, and also the beloved Son of God. He heard all those voices we hear – but somehow, somehow he chose another way.”

That’s where I can enter into this story – that’s where it starts to make sense to me – all those voices abroad in the world. Those voices swirling in the world – so many of them – all of them speaking so loudly at the same time – on television, and the internet, in our national political drama – be this, do that, you’re so right, they’re so wrong. Don’t you want some power, some control in this chaotic world?

Last month, I realized that I had stepped away from social media, particularly Facebook. It’s not a principled decision I made – it just happened. I’m not cancelling my account. I love being in connection – seeing what’s happening in the lives of people I love, reconnecting with old friends, sharing the tender moments in life, and the joys – I even enjoy seeing pictures of what people are having for dinner.

But there’s clearly a down side – and I think, without thinking it through, I recoiled a little. There are the ads, targeted way too personally, urging me to buy and consume. When I started researching our vacation, ads started popping up, “Don’t you need a cool new beach towel?” Creepy voices. And there are the political discussions (if you can call them that), where I acknowledge that I am not my best self. I can feel it in my body – anger flaring up, the need to shout back, to convince others. So many voices.

And it’s not just social media. It’s the news in general. MSNBC and Rachel Maddow know how to provoke me almost as much as Fox News can. Messaging, marketing, advertising coming at us from all directions – “You need to be like this. You need to have that.”

Maybe those voices on the outside start to feel internal – like those voices that try to tell us we’re not good enough, that we’re somehow less than. So many voices, so much to sift through.

Psychologists tell us that processing these voices is part of the human experience – it’s how we live in the world. Ethan Kross calls all this “chatter” in his book of the same name.[3]Chatter. As humans we are hard-wired to process information, along with our own thoughts and feelings, and shape it into a coherent narrative. Our gift of introspection, at its best, allows us to “imagine, remember, reflect... problem solve, innovate, and create.”[4] But it can also give rise to this thing he calls “chatter” – when this introspection becomes a cycle of negative thought and emotion.[5] I’ve been talking in terms of voices, plural. But Ethan Kross says it’s really just one voice – our inner voice – taking in and processing, making sense of the world around us – and shaping a coherent narrative out of which we can live healthy, helping lives.

The challenge is making sense of the chatter.

How do we sift and make sense of the voices?

How do we ground the narrative?

It’s a very human challenge.

And so maybe one starting question for us from this Scripture is just to think a bit. What are the voices you hear swirling around in the world? What’s your experience of this chatter?

Jesus hears the voice of the Tempter.[6] It’s not the first voice, or the last. Immediately before this story, Jesus is baptized, and as he comes out of the water he hears a voice from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved. In you I am well-pleased.” Immediately after this story, Jesus will proclaim in his voice, “The kingdom of heaven is near” – a brave new world, breaking forth even now, in the midst of the crumbling old order. In between those two moments, that’s when Jesus hears the Tempter’s voice.

At his baptism, Jesus hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my beloved Son,” and the next thing you know, he’s in the wilderness, fasting for forty days and forty nights – and he hears the Tempter’s voice:

· “I know you’re hungry. So if you’re the Son of God, take these stones and make and take all the bread you want.” Jesus replies, “No, a human does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God.”

· The Tempter takes him to the roof of the Temple, and says, “If you’re the Son of God, throw yourself down – you’re in control.” Jesus replies, “No, you shall not put God to the test.”

· The Tempter takes Jesus to a high mountain and says, “You can have dominion – power over all this – just say the word.” Jesus replies, “No, it is written, worship God and serve only God.”

Jesus hears these voices. They are the voices of the crumbling old order – the world of power-over and control.

Make and take all the bread you want.” That’s the voice of a culture of consumption. “It’s just you and what you need – consume and consume and consume until you’ve had your fill and them some. Don’t worry about what anyone else might need. Don’t worry about what it means to the planet.”

Throw yourself off the Temple – you’ll be fine.” That’s the voice of a culture of control. “In this world of danger and peril – control things – you have the power.”

And, “All this can be yours.” That’s the voice of a culture of empire, domination, and power-over. It’s the voice that says, “Use your power-over to subdue and possess – take this land no matter who inhabits it; take these bodies even though they are fully human. Subdue. Suppress. Dominate.”

Jesus hears these voices, these voices of the crumbling old order – and yet another voice rises up over them all – the one he just heard, its echo still in his ear: “You are the Son of God. You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” You see that’s really what’s at stake here. The Tempter’s voice is saying again and again, “If you’re the Son of God, do this do that.” What is at stake here is what it means to be the son of God, the beloved child of God. What’s at stake here is Jesus’s identity. With that voice in mind – “You are the beloved child of God” – Jesus listens to the Tempter’s voice – the voices of the crumbling old order, and Jesus says, “No.”[7]

· No to all the bread he could consume – maybe knowing that someday he will need to feed 5,000.

· No to control and dominion over the natural world – maybe knowing that someday he will need to walk on water, and calm a storm, and bring sight to those who cannot see.

· No, to domination over all he surveys – maybe with clear vision of a world that lies ahead, through and then beyond the cross.

Jesus sifts through these voices: No, no, no. The voice he chooses here, the voice that will keep reverberating through the gospel is this: “You are my beloved child.” That’s the story Jesus chooses to live and tell. And then in his own voice, Jesus says: “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

In his book, Ethan Kross suggests a number of practices or tools to help sift through all the chatter – to find and clarify our inner voice. I won’t go into them all. But one stood out. He suggests that we say our own name.[8] When the chatter is roiling around, he suggests speaking to ourselves in the third person – saying our name. One example he uses: Malala in her autobiography, when she confronts the Taliban at one point says to herself, “Malala, what are you going to do?”[9] They’ve studied this – stepping into the midst of the chatter and saying your own name – and it actually helps sift through the chatter – it gives us a bit of healthy distance, and it grounds our sifting in our identity.

Now, I don’t think I’m saying that’s precisely what Jesus does here. But something resonates. In the midst of competing voices, there’s this sense of saying who we are, claiming who we are – and claiming what that means. I keep thinking about the Ash Wednesday service – and that moment every year, when we receive ashes, and someone says our name, and then, “From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.” And then, “You are a beloved child of God.” That moment is about who we are – our identity in God’s eyes, in God’s heart – our identity in Jesus Christ.

Weaving all that together – what if we tried this, in this first week of Lent. Think some this week of the voices you hear swirling in the world. The chatter. In the midst of all that chatter – as we ask, “Which voice? Center the voice that says this: “Say your name. You are a beloved child of God.” Claim that identity for yourself, and then for each person you see.

One of my best friends in seminary – our next-door neighbor actually – Sharon Latour – some of you may remember her – she was active in the Presbytery, served several churches, and passed away a few years ago – Sharon used to say that for her: Sin was forgetting that we are God’s own beloved. Grace is God reminding us of that all the time. And repentance is remembering that truth and living into it. You are God’s own beloved child.

You see, this Gospel story really is not about the devil. This story is ultimately about Jesus – who he is – and where he stands. And, it’s about us – two audacious truths about us – In Jesus Christ, we are fully human, AND, we are beloved children of God. You, me, everyone we meet. As we sift through the voices, may that be the one that reverberates in the life we live and in the story we tell.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] See M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.163. [2] Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.46. [3] Ethan Kross, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (New York, NY: Crown/Random House, 2021) [4] Id. [5] Id. [6] For background on this text and generally on the Gospel of Matthew, see M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976), pp.73-77; Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz and Robert A. Bryant, Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). [7] Cf. Waetjen, p.75 (“His response indicates that as the Son of God he prefers to understand himself as a human being who endures – not by a self-contained and self-serving exercises of power – but by an interdependent relationship with the Creator.”). [8] See Kross, pp.66-86. [9] See id. p.66.


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