Spitting at the Devil

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 1
March 6, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : Luke's account shows that even after Jesus had rejected the devil's offer of world power. Jesus' temptations continued all the way to the cross. As we begin Lent, we're reminded that temptations will continue through life, that we will sometimes fail and that because of Christ's faithfulness we can get back up when we fall.

Christian life begins with spitting at the devil.

Usually that's only a verbal spitting, but in the early church it was often done literally. A candidate for baptism would be told to turn to the west and spit at the devil before turning to the east, the direction of sunrise, and confessing faith in Christ.1 That's no longer done, at least in the western church, but a candidate for baptism may be asked questions that serve the same purpose. In one order for baptism, a candidate is asked if she or he renounces "the devil and all the forces that defy God," "the powers of this world that rebel against God" and "the ways of sin that draw you from God." After the response "I renounce them" to each question, the candidate makes a positive confession of the Christian faith and the baptism takes place.2

For Jesus the order of things was reversed. He had already been baptized by John, had heard a heavenly voice proclaiming him God's beloved Son and felt the Spirit come to him. Right after that the Spirit led him into the wilderness, where he would be called to renounce the devil. He would be tested -- or tempted. The Greek word used in the text can have both senses. Being tested to see if you can carry out a difficult task can also tempt you to quit because the task is too hard. And the way you respond to a temptation can show you what you're capable of.

The tempted Christ

The temptation of Christ after his baptism is the gospel reading from Matthew, Mark or Luke on this First Sunday of Lent every year. Mark's account is brief, taking only two verses.3 Matthew and Luke each tell of the same three individual temptations, but the order in which they occur differs. In both of those gospels, the devil first suggests to Jesus after he's been fasting for forty days that if he is really the Son of God (as the heavenly voice at his baptism declared), he should satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread. Jesus quickly rejects that idea with a verse of scripture. Then in Matthew's account,4 the devil suggests that Jesus could jump from the pinnacle of the temple and be saved miraculously. An offer of world power in exchange for worshiping Satan is the third and final test. Luke's version, which is our text today, switches the order of the last two temptations. Worshiping the devil is second and leaping from the temple is last.

The fact that the accounts differ isn't too surprising. We don't know the details about how traditions of Jesus' experiences after his baptism developed or the ways different evangelists used those traditions to make points that they thought important. In Matthew, the devil gives up subtlety after his first two tries. He says in essence, "I don't care about that 'Son of God' business. Call yourself what you like but worship me if you want to be given real power." There are just two choices, God or anti-God. And Jesus replies, quoting the law, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."

In Luke, on the other hand, Jesus has already made that definitive rejection before the devil takes him to Jerusalem (perhaps in a visionary experience) and places him on the pinnacle of the temple there. The tempter suggests, quoting a verse from Psalms, that if Jesus is the Son of God, he ought to be able to jump and trust that God will send angels to catch him. Jesus responds by again citing the law -- "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."5

Notice what has taken place here. With the way that Luke orders the tests, Jesus had already renounced the devil and all his works quite clearly before this third trial. But knowing how changeable and susceptible to temptations humans are, the tempter tries again. And when the next one fails too, the tempter still doesn't give up. The devil is nothing if not persistent! We're told that "he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time "! Perhaps there would be a chance to offer a more subtle temptation, or at some point Jesus might be more vulnerable.

After his testing in the wilderness, Jesus began his ministry, proclaiming the nearness of God's kingdom and calling disciples to follow him. Midway through the gospels he asks his disciples who they think that he is, and Peter answers, "You are the Messiah." And as Mark tells the story, when Jesus starts speaking to the disciples about his coming rejection, suffering and death, Peter objects and says that that can't happen. But Jesus "rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind me, Satan!'"6 Temptation has returned, with Peter playing the role of the devil and trying to divert Jesus from his calling.

What Jesus had told his disciples would happen, does happen. Religious and political leaders see him as a threat and decide to get rid of him. He is condemned to death. And at Calvary, as Jesus hangs on the cross, the religious leaders and the Roman soldiers carrying out the sentence taunt him -- "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"7 This is surely an "opportune time" for the tempter, because for Jesus to remain faithful can mean only his death. But he doesn't come down from the cross.

Our time in the wilderness

Most Christians can look back on a history of promises to trust in God and follow Jesus. Maybe that began with statements of faith and rejections of evil at baptism. We learn the Ten Commandments and the way Jesus summarized the law -- Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself.8 We know what we should believe and do, and have a good basic idea of what we shouldn't do. Hymns with lines like, "O Jesus, I have promised to serve you to the end"9 may be sung, and we intend to live in that way.

And here we are in the wilderness of Lent. That began this past Wednesday, and recital of Psalm 51 is a traditional part of many Ash Wednesday services.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin. ...10

And we know we should confess that we've sinned -- and not just once a year!

The stories of Christ's temptations right after his baptism, through his ministry and all the way to Calvary are a reminder that those who follow him will face the same kind of thing throughout life. Making a confession of faith in Christ, regardless of how well informed and sincere, isn't a permanent "Get out of jail free" card. Spitting at the devil is a good symbol, but the devil may spit back.

We can't think that we've outgrown the need to be reminded of the threats of sin and of God's promise of forgiveness in Christ. One pastor said, "I have only one sermon: 'Come sinners and look on Christ.'"11 It's a sermon that, with appropriate variations, illustrations, etc., we all need to hear.

Lent is a time of repentance and renewal, of self-discipline and growth in faith and love. Attention to prayer and the reading of scripture, giving up something that may be harmless but upon which you've become too dependent, and looking for ways to show God's love for others, are good Lenten practices. They can toughen you spiritually, like an athlete's workout, so you'll be better able to resist temptations that might lead you away from God.

But this isn't a do-it-yourself project. It is through Christ and the Spirit who led him into the wilderness to be tempted, we are given power to resist temptation. It is God from whom we receive forgiveness for Christ's sake when we do sin. We are to look "to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."12


COVID-19 and Proclaim Sermons : We are very aware of the innovations pastors are making to bring their preaching directly into homes. We want to help in every way we can. Please feel free to use Proclaim Sermons in any way you need to in your efforts. This includes copying it into emails, using it in video broadcasts or on your website ... frankly, please use it however you think will best serve your congregation.