First Sunday of Lent 5 March 2017
(Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Psalm 32 Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11
“You Had It all Wrong, Uncle Screwtape!”
Our Lent begins with stories that take us from the garden to the desert. We begin with Adam and Eve in God’s good garden, but they, like their descendants after them, bring chaos to this garden. And there is a creature in snakeskin costume tempting this couple with the suggestions that God has not been perfectly honest with them.
By the time we get to Jesus in the desert, the tempter pretends only to be a psychologist and a Scripture scholar. But twice he questions Jesus’ senses of identity: “If you are the Son of God. . .”suggesting a way for Jesus to betray his vocation as Son of God.
But before we go further into the Gospel, I want to take you to one of the most amazing books I ever read concerning temptation.
The novel is, “The Screwtape Letters,” by C.S. Lewis. The author has created an absolutely fascinating, although diabolical, premise in this book!
Each chapter basically is a letter written to a “junior devil” teaching an inexperienced creature the art of how to create temptations that will undermine peoples’ relationship with each other and with God.
The “devil-in-training” is Wormwood. His mentor is Uncle Screwtape. Screwtape writes 31 motivational letters to Wormwood, suggesting how to create tantalizing temptations.
So he says things like, “the greatest evil is not done in filthy dens of crime. Evil is not done even in concentration camps, because that where we simply see its final result.”
“Evil,” he says, “is conceived in clean, carpeted, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”1 He’s talking about how subtle is temptation in our lives!
In another letter, he says to Wormwood, “keep people navel-gazing so they are clueless as to who they are. Keep their prayers formless because then people are easier to manipulate. Don’t let people pray too much for courage.”
The final chapter of the book is the Graduation speech given by Screwtape. It is finally time for all these “junior devils” to go out into the world on their own.
Screwtape is convinced that temptation will win out in the world. Again, there are many things in this graduation speech, but I will only mention one. He says, “the first job of a tempter is to make sure a person’s poor choice becomes a habit. Do it by repetition; and then make sure the habit becomes a principle. Make sure the creature is prepared to defend this principle. Finally, once we develop principles that we use to degrade others, we then have moved to reject our greatest enemy, which is Grace.”2 Do you understand what he is saying as the final send-off? Basically, he is saying: if you can convince people that there is no grace of God in their lives, then temptation has won! Screwtape believes they can convince people of this!
Which leads me back to the Gospel. In all three of these desert temptations, the devil offers mis-placed power, often defined as pride, selfishness, and apathy.
For me, these temptations from the desert become real in the form of apathy in light of the anti-Semitic desecrations at a cemetery in Philadelphia or at a Jewish Center in York. For me, these temptations from the desert become real when we so easily are able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger and disease. For me, these temptations from the desert become real in the moments when we allow our addictions to wealth, power, and influence over others, vanity, or inordinate need to control, to define who we are. For me, these temptations from the desert becomes real when we engage in the justification of little lies, racist jokes, criticism of a spouse or partner when she or he is not close by.
These are the moments of temptation, while seemingly mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls.
Lenten penitence engages these dark places in our lives, seeking forgiveness and freedom. It is the freedom from the fears and insecurities that seek to control every minute of our lives. It is the freedom that has its very foundation in our identity because of what takes place at the font of Holy Baptism when the water is poured and the words said—and when the oil touches our forehead and the sign of the cross is made and the words heard—you, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
Each temptation from the desert is really a test of our identity—our identity as a Child of God. And it is the ultimate test for us to believe that God’s love sets us free, and that God’s grace is stronger than any temptation we will ever encounter in our lives. The final and greatest temptation we will ever experience is not to believe in God’s grace in those times when we are feeling most famished and discouraged, and vulnerable!
So I have a final few words for Old Uncle Screwtape as I bring my sermon to its end.
My words are these: Screwtape, you were wrong in your graduation speech. You were wrong when you told your young graduating devils that the power of temptation could and would win out over the grace of God! You were wrong…..and one of your devils found that out when he met Jesus head-on in the desert.
As for us today as we begin this first week of Lent: Yes, we are sinners! Yes, we give into temptation and very often make some pretty stupid choices! Yes, we give into temptation and hurt each other much more often than we ought.
But, yes, we also trust in Grace, and in the love of Jesus Christ! We believe that we are beloved children, worthy of the love, dignity and respect that flow from the very Promise of Jesus. We live this Baptism identity, and it makes all the difference to the world. So, too bad, Uncle Screwtape, too bad, you had it all wrong!! Amen.
1. The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast. C.S. Lewis. Macmillan. New York, New York. 1961. p.x.
2. Ibid. p. 156.