The Devil Made Me Do It

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
March 13, 2011 – Lent 1A

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

When I was a boy I remember being fascinated by the way my big brother could shuffle a deck of cards by making a bridge and letting it fall. I could not wait until I was old enough – until my hands were big enough, strong enough – to shuffle cards like that. That memory makes it even more fun to watch my own children in their fascination when we play a game, and I shuffle cards.

When I think about the way the stories we have heard today are often interpreted it reminds me of a neatly shuffled deck of cards. Not just a shuffled deck of cards, but a stacked deck of cards - a stacked deck of cards that God has neatly ordered and placed before us.

I am not a gambler. My brain just doesn't work the way others do when it comes to gambling. I get the impression that there are systems and strategies that go along with a fair amount of boldness and initiative. I have to admit I admire the brash and over confident gamblers on TV. There is something attractive at a very base level in self-determinant risk taking. I can only guess that is why some people will watch a high stakes poker game for entertainment.

I will confess that we did play roulette for stuffed animals at the Festival de Mardi Gras. "Twenty-five cents to play, twenty-five cents to win!" called the barker. Two dollars later each child had a plush expression of affirmation from an unknown origin (most likely involving child labor) as I prayed for God to have mercy on my willful actions.

Those game attendants knew just what to say, "Hey Dad, let her play! Hey Mom, I'll let him win!" That snake knew just what to say, "You will not die. You'll just figure out how to do things yourself. You won't need God anymore. That's what he's scared of." So Adam and Eve (they were there together, you may have noticed) took the fruit, and the rest is, as they say, history.

A traditional, straightforward, and fairly reformed approach to these scriptures would say that this was all part of the plan, more or less. Adam and Eve made a choice that God knew they would make and opened the opportunity for the law to be given. (The following is read with a sing-song tune similar to "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly") The law was given to form the people, the people were claimed to demonstrate God's presence. They used the law for selfish gain, and Jesus came down to die for us. Some people accept it and some do not. John Calvin calls this election, and I don't know why God chose to do that – elect some to damn.

It does seem fairly simple, even elegant, to consider the idea that sin entered one way, salvation another, and that when it is all said and done Jesus will come back to clean up the mess. But there are still some cards in that deck that don't quite fall perfectly. Such a neat and tidy theodicy steps right over innocent suffering and the problem of evil. So here we go.

A week ago a tornado ripped through Rayne. Homes were destroyed and lives were shattered. Last Friday the largest earthquake in recorded history set off a tsunami with waves topping 500 miles an hour. All the while a protest over fair wages breaks out in Wisconsin and the instability of the Middle East continues – culminating in the violent oppression of the people of Libya.

The ancient Hebrews would have called these events evil, but they would have also said that they were from God's initiative. We can easily dismiss their ideas as superstition, but it wasn't that simple. Paul, a devout Jew, said that all of creation groans in labor pains as a result of human sinfulness. John Calvin referred to suffering and adversity as a means of perfecting us, challenging our faith and calling us to repentance.

Repentance, sin, faithfulness… these are not the things we think of when we turn on the news and see the violence of our world and the fury of nature. But sin is a good place to start. Sinful actions, or individual sins, are the way we usually think of the idea of sin or sinfulness. It started right there in the garden with a snake, an apple, and a woman, right? Well, sort of.

The story of Adam and Eve and the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a story describing our natural tendency to make choices based on our own desires and needs rather than God's. To sin is to turn away from God for selfish motives. Repentance literally means to turn toward God. It means to have our choices and decisions oriented by God's desires. Faithfulness, then, is the expectation that God will be God – the expectation that we will be forgiven, provided for, and sustained through every trial. It is the expectation that the troubles of this world cannot define who we are or limit our experience of God's presence. In fact it is the expectation that our troubles will only deepen our awareness of God's work of redemption in this world.

Meanwhile… suffering is still real. Evil is still real, and the Devil is still at work. I must admit that our modern notion of Satan is one of the aspects of the Christian religion that I have the most trouble with. In Hebrew traditions the Satan was a type of messenger. After the influence of the Greco-Roman Empyreal culture and the development of the early traditions of the Christian church, the idea of the Die Ablo, or over-thrower, became closely attached to the concept of the Devil. The serpent, the Satan, the Devil all became personifications of a power struggle with God rather than a description of God's activity in the midst of a creation that had rejected her Creator.

Regardless of who or what the Devil is, we know that temptation is a part of being human. In the fullness of his humanity, Jesus was tempted. He was tempted to reject his own divinity by providing for himself apart from the creation. He was tempted to reject his own divinity by placing personal security over vulnerability, and he was tempted to reject his own divinity by exchanging unlimited power for the power to control particular people and events. In the end his faithfulness held true, and he was attended to by angels.

Paul talks about the salvation that we have received through Jesus as a means of understanding and becoming the children God created us to be. We were created in the image of God – an image smeared and marred by sin. Yet through Christ we can reclaim that image. We can become a representative of God's presence. We can stop denying our own divinity and trust God to be God, even working through and with our imperfect, forgiven, and sinful selves!

I like to think of it like a prism. Light enters and is refracted and splintered into all of its possible colors and hues. Its true nature is revealed! Suffering and adversity can do that for us. Whether we are impacted directly or moved to compassion by the pain of another, trials can often become the prism through which our true light can shine.

Darkness is real. Evil is real, but it has no power except for that which we give it. Not so with God, because God's providence is stronger than our choices. God's presence pervades human suffering. And through Christ we are not limited by our choices or the events of this world.

The world saw that in the headlines from Rayne last week. Jalisa Granger, a 21-year-old mother, died in that storm by shielding her child with her own body. I have no idea of her life choices or the sinful actions or attitudes she held. I have no idea if she is a Christian. What I do know is that she was not defined by her sin. She has been defined for all the world to see on national and international headlines for her self sacrificing love.

So that leaves me with a few questions. How are we to be defined by those who hear about us and see us? What are we holding on to and why? Are we holding on to a set of attitudes and assumptions about who and what we are as a congregation? Are we holding on to practices, relationships, or possessions that define us as individuals? Are we holding on to things that we think will provide for us, keep us safe, and give us some control? Or are we being held? Are we, perhaps, more like the child who has been held in the midst of the storm and must now decide how to respond to a grace that is more profound than anything we can imagine?

Yes. I am that child. Yes. You are that child, and God is watching and waiting to see how we will respond. To God be all glory, honor and power both now and always. Amen.
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