When I served in Delaware the churches in town held a joint Ash Wednesday service. One year, the host congregation’s organist had to cancel at the last minute and no one else could provide a musician on short notice, so the host pastor said, “Don’t worry! I have the entire United Methodist Hymnal on my iTunes!” Whatever. He plugged his phone into the sound system, and appointed someone to start the hymns in the right places. I was co-presiding at communion, and the time came for the Offertory Hymn. The assembly stood. The plates, the bread, and wine came forward. From the speakers, I heard a violin play the unmistakable opening strains of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” This was not the hymn listed in the bulletin. I just started laughing. My co-presider, Karin, tried to pull me together. “Tim! Tim! Timothy!” I had to wave her off; I had to laugh it out. And I said: “I never thought of Lent as an epic fiddle contest between Jesus and the Devil.” Probably because it isn’t.
I don’t just mean literally. Obviously, there’s no fiddle in today’s gospel. I mean the popular theology in the song doesn’t mesh with what’s going on in the gospel. In the song—if you don’t know—the Devil steals souls. (Apparently has a quota. Not sure what happens if he doesn’t meet his goal for the month.) He challenges Jonny the fiddler to a fiddle contest. Win, you get a golden fiddle; lose, I get your soul. And Jonny beats him. This reflects a popular understanding of the Devil. The Devil wants permanent, irrevocable ownership of your invisible, ethereal self, and while it is not safe to take his bets those who are extremely awesome can beat him at his own game. That is not the way our texts portray temptation.
Look at the typical scene: Genesis 3. In our NRSV, the serpent says to Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The serpent is not being honest. He’s getting Eve to think about what other rules God may spring on her, making her resent the one little, “Don’t eat THAT piece of fruit.” But there is more to his question. It is an uncompleted phrase in Hebrew, something like, “Even though God said: ‘You are not to eat from any of the trees in the garden…!’” Biblical scholar Everett Fox notes it is a rhetorical device in Hebrew, that leaves the reader or listener to complete the speaker’s thought. Usually it is an oath or a threat. When you talk this way, you’re promising or threatening something. We see why the Devil is called “crafty.” It is just vague enough that if you try to call him on either a threat or a promise, he can say, “Hey, I didn’t say that!” But there is a threat: “If you don’t listen to me, you will starve. You’ll be God’s slave.” And there is a promise: “I can hook you up with all the forbidden fruit.”
The Devil presents Eve with a false dilemma, in which one of the choices is to do nothing. That popular notion of the Devil tempting us and our having the godly option of saying, “No thanks,” won’t work. Eve cannot just do nothing, because that is one of the choices the serpent gives her: do nothing, starve as God’s slave. Eve has to do something. Eve tries to fact-check the serpent—no, it’s just the one tree—but she has already bought into the false dilemma. At this point, I’m not even sure it matters which option Adam and Eve choose. The Devil’s goal was to ruin the relationship between human beings and God. Once Eve accepts the false dilemma, she has let the Devil define the relationship with God. (And just for the record, Adam’s doing the same thing. Genesis says he was with her. She is doing the talking for the couple.) This is not a case of Adam and Eve losing a fair high risk bet and now the Devil possesses their immortal souls. Adam and Eve have hurt their relationship with God, they’ve hurt each other, they’ve hurt themselves, all because they bought into the false dilemma.
The false dilemma shackles God. It limits God. One of my favorite lines in the Bible is when Eve is fact-checking the Devil, and she says, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it.’” God didn’t say anything about touching the fruit or the tree. She just added a rule! She just limited God’s relationship with people. We do this all the time: create false dilemmas that limit God. We can either be safe, or allow immigrants to enter our country. We can either make money, or protect the environment. We can either have a good community and a good life in our city, or we can house everybody. This is not the Garden of Eden, but it is the patch of garden God gives us, and these false dilemmas are ways the Devil gets us to limit God’s relationship with us. I’m not speaking from some naivete that ignores real resources, real limits, real people. I am acutely aware there are not enough hours in the day to do what I want to do.
What I am saying is, God raises Jesus from the dead. Dead dead. He’s not resting. And this is not like Frankenstein where we resuscitate him within a short period. Jesus is starting to turn when God remakes him. I think of my Grandma Gibson, whose remains could fit in a highball glass. God says, “I’m gonna raise her.” And I say, “Everything about her is gone. This is just some of the carbon.” And God says, “Look around. Do you see this? I did this. I can raise her from ashes. I’m good.” In Christ, God opens possibilities that we want to shut.
Last week, the possibilities were endless, as Jesus glowed on the Mount of Transfiguration. This week, the Devil tries to limit them. Jesus defeats the Devil. He defeats the Devil not by beating him at his own game, but by identifying the false dilemma, and refusing to allow it to define his relationship with God. First temptation. “Since you are the Son of God, make those rocks turn into bread.” Basically, “Eat or die.” If Jesus says, “No, I won’t eat,” he’s already accepted the false dilemma. Jesus doesn’t say, “No”; he replies, “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” That’s not merely a refusal to make bread; it is a call to listen to words coming from the mouth of God, not from the mouth of the Devil. In a sense, Jesus says, “Yeah, I am supposed to listen to God, not you.”
Second temptation. “Since you’re the Son of God, throw yourself down. The scripture (which you so skillfully recited) says God’s angels will pick you up.” Again, if Jesus says, “No,” he accepts the false dilemma. So he says, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” This is not merely a refusal to jump, with a handy scriptural citation attached to it; Jesus says, “You’re trying to get me to limit God to a magician who helps me do tricks and makes me look good.” Third temptation. “I can give you all the kingdoms of the world, even some special ones God doesn’t want you to know about. Just kneel and worship me.” Jesus responds, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Again, it is not simply, “No,” because that would accept the Devil’s false dilemma: “You’re either a king or you aren’t.” Jesus says, “You don’t get to decide how God is going to run things. Now, get lost.” Jesus identifies the false dilemmas, and puts the focus back on God.
There is only one real dilemma a Christian faces: “Follow God or do not follow God.” That’s it. The rest limits God. The Devil says we can either be safe or allow immigration. Well, God says, Love your neighbor. Current residents and immigrants are both neighbors. “That’s a lot of people, God. Am I really supposed to love all of them?” Look around. I made all of it. Right? The Devil says we can either make money or protect the environment. Well, God says Fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over every living thing and Till my garden, keep it, take good care of it for me and for your children. “Wait, you mean we’ve gotta do both?” Jesus says, You know, I can glow. I can just turn it on and off, like a light switch. I can do both of these things, too. The Devil says we can either have a good, prosperous city or we can house and care for everyone. Well, the Holiness Code says You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great. “God, one of them has got to be the bad guy.” Jesus says, You know I am going to raise your grandma from that little cup of ashes, right?
And he will. It’s the Day of Resurrection. I know it is Lent, and it is Sunday. The day Christ rose from the dead. The day of possibility. The day the grave split open as easily as Jesus called out the Devil for his false dilemmas. The day that Jesus lives. The day that Jesus calls to us: “I know it looks impossible, but my dad and the Holy Spirit and I made the place; it’s gonna work. Follow me.”