The Devil Is In the If-Thens

The first Sunday in Lent gives us an account of Jesus being tempted by the devil. After Jesus is baptized, he fasts for forty days in the wilderness. He is tempted by the devil during this whole time, and we get a snapshot of their interchange when the forty days are over. This year I noticed an obvious point about the interaction that I’d somehow missed before. The insight is less about the content and more about the overall structure of the conversation between Jesus and the devil. How they say what they have to say is as revealing as what they say.

Have you noticed that the devil speaks in full conditional sentences?  A full conditional sentence contains two clauses – the first a dependent clause expressing the condition, and the second a main clause expressing the consequence. Wikipedia’s example of such a sentence is “If it rains, then the picnic will be canceled.” Or, “if the Hoos run the table and beat UNC at home, then they will be ACC regular season champions.”

The devil, who is not playing a game, says, “If you are the Son of God, then command this stone become bread. If you worship me, then all this power and glory will be yours. And again, if you are the Son of God, then throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and land safely.” You may have heard the saying, “the devil is in the details.” A better maxim is “the devil is in the if – thens.”

By the way, don’t get sidetracked by conceptions of the devil as all red and pitchforky. Jeff Tweedy sings, “when the devil came to me he was not red, he was chrome.” I think I know what he’s getting at, and we definitely know that scripture attests to the existence of a being, malign and misanthropic, hell bent on marring human happiness.

But even if you can’t wrap your mind around a force whose raison d’etre is to “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” as we say in the baptismal liturgy, you can at least acknowledge the grotesque fault line that runs through all people, places and things. The stabbing death of the 13- year old girl by the Virginia Tech student would be just a recent testimony to gaping disorder the world. Life is not the way it should be.

But, lets get back to the grammar of Beelzebub. What is behind the devil’s if – then phraseology? C.S. Lewis, whose still germane Screwtape Letters reveals that he knows a thing or two about the devil’s ways and wiles, say it this way. “One begins by thinking that if only something external happened; if only after the war you could get a better job, if only you could get a new house or if only your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law was no longer living with you; if something like that happened, then things would really be better.”

I hope this line of thinking is faulty, because my mother-in-law is about to move in with us. But, who doesn’t know the power of this devilish temptation? What is it for you?  Money, sex and power are the usual suspects. I’m not immune to that triune, but a few years ago I preached a sermon saying that if we just had crown molding in our living room I would be a happy, fulfilled homeowner and person.

Well, wouldn’t you know, we put crown molding in the living room. And, gosh darn it, it looks really good! And it made me happy for a month or two. Now, if we could just figure out a way to put in a master bathroom adjoining our bedroom, I’d be really happy. Apparently people in 1952, when our house was built, didn’t have master baths. They must not have been very happy people, because it is abundantly clear to me that if I had a master bath, then I would be happy.

When I was in 4th grade I wanted to be Reggie Jackson, Mr. October, the NY Yankees slugger. If I could just be Reggie I would be ok. My older, smarter brother asked, “Paul, if you were Reggie Jackson, then who would Reggie Jackson be?” This stumped me. I answered, “Um, I guess he would be me.” My brother replied, “Then how do you know you aren’t already Reggie Jackson?”  This confused me. In fact, I’m still confused. I very well may be Reggie Jackson.

What I’m saying is ridiculous, of course. I should say that there are some basics that a person does actually need in life – food and shelter and safety and love. Justice and meaning are important too. But my point about the temptation text this morning is that the devil deals in conditionality.

Some of his more searing conditional sentences are “If you were lovable, then you would be loved” or “if you had worth, then you would show your worth.”  “If you were a better parent, your children would be happy and successful.” The list goes on and on and on and on. One of the Father of Lies’ favorite go-to lines is “if God is real, then bad things would not happen to you or to the world.”

If the sentence structure of Satan is conditional, then the grammar of God is declarative.  Jesus responds to each of the devil’s temptations with a declarative statement from Scripture. “It is written”, he says three times over. One doesn’t live by bread alone, worship God only, don’t put God to the test. To each of the devil’s slippery slopes, Jesus answers back with a solid rock. The stolid durability of Jesus’ responses puts the devils If-Onlys to flight, at least for the moment. The devil would return at “an opportune time.” More later on that.

What does the conditional vs. declarative mean for you and me? Most of us, whether we know it or not, slink into church Sunday after Sunday in hopes that God will “do us a solid” as the slang saying goes, first coined in a Seinfeld episode, with Kramer asking Jerry to help him out. Life is tenuous enough, without having to walk the if-then tightrope to secure ourselves.

I can tell you what you need, because I need it too. You need a power, a love, a force that is beyond condition, beyond our deserving.  Because you fail from time to time to do the “if’s” in life, you need someone to step between the first and second clauses of the full conditional sentence. You need someone to step between cause and effect, the condition and the consequence. You need someone solid enough to take the heat of your failure.

I love what Bono says in the song God Part II. He recognizes the reality of the devil’s temptations, and the way we fail to live up to how life should be.

Don’t believe the devil – I don’t believe his book. But the truth is not the same without the lies he made up. I don’t believe in excess – success is to give. I don’t believe in riches, but you should see where I live. I, I believe in love.” Where have you fallen in your own fault line?

When you are lost in the conditionality of the devil’s temptations, and falling into your own fault line, you need someone solid to grab onto. Bono sings,  “I feel like I’m falling, like I’m spinning on a wheel. It always stops beside a name – a presence I can feel.” Jesus, the name above all names, is right there beside you.

A friend in Birmingham described her experience of the presence she could feel in the midst of her life’s conditionality. She’s been diagnosed with cancer, although she is relatively young.

Around 6:15 Friday evening, home alone and putzing in my pantry, I noticed a tightness in my lower back so I started walking toward my living room to lie down on the floor and take care of it. In the passage between the two rooms, I felt my heart crack wide open and I was overcome with love. I have no other way to explain it. I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of joy, love, being completely and fully held. by so many. In that moment I believe that I experienced the infinite possibility of love. I got myself down on the floor, on my back, arms outstretched and soaked it in. I was sobbing, not out of fear or sadness, but out of gratitude for what is coming my way.”

Jesus resists the devil’s temptations, but the devil returns to Jesus at an opportune time. That opportune time is Good Friday, when Jesus willingly plunges headlong into the fault line of the world’s sin and misery.  As Jesus dies, the devil licks his chops, thinking he has pulled a fast one on God. The Son of God dead! But, deeper magic is at work. Jesus is raised from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. He is solid enough for Mary to grab onto.

As we pray in the collect for today, Jesus is “mighty to save.” His death and resurrection declares God’s love for you once and for all. There is no if-then, no conditionality in Jesus. He declares to you, “Do not fear.” And, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”