Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
In our church library is book by C. S. Lewis called The Screwtape Letters, a series of imaginary letters from one of the devils chief tempters, a character named Screwtape, written to his nephew Wormwood, a kind of apprentice tempter. The letters give Screwtape’s advice on how to tempt people—how to draw people away from God and from a meaningful Christian life. In the process, in a backhanded way, we learn how to draw closer to God in our Christian life.
This morning I would like to try something similar as we read the story of Jesus’ temptation. If Wormwood had been assigned to tempt Jesus, what advice would Screwtape have given?
Scripture: Luke 4:1-2
My dear Wormwood:
So you have been promoted to special assignments. Congratulations. You’ve come a long way since your days as a junior tempter in charge of fraternities and TV evangelists. But this time you are in over your head. How in the heaven (excuse my language) did you get this assignment? It should have been given to me! Do you know who this is that you have been assigned to tempt?
I will help you the best I can, but we start with a horrible disadvantage. Your subject has just been baptized. He has just been told he is the Son of God. It will do no good trying to convince that there is no God. He is flush with a sense of God’s presence. Instead you must try to twist his faith into something more useful to us. This can be quite successful when done properly. Some of my greatest triumphs have been with religious fanatics.
I suggest starting with something simple. Your subject is hungry. He has been in the wilderness forty days with nothing to eat. Why not suggest that he turn the rocks into bread? The beauty of this suggestion is its innocence. You’re not asking him to turn his back on God or have an affair, just produce a little food for his bodily needs. What harm in that? Remind him that his own Father produced bread for the people of Israel during their forty years in the wilderness. Surely there is nothing wrong with the Son of God doing the same thing.
An advantage to this approach is that their side also recognizes human need. The Enemy, because he actually loves these human vermin, is genuinely concerned about their physical well-being. The Enemy cares whether they have enough bread to eat and a place to live and a job by which to support themselves. The trick is to make people totally absorbed with these things. First we get them obsessing about bread, and soon they can’t live without cars, cell phones, computers, wifi, vacation condominiums, and digital assistants. If you do this right, people will end up working 20, 30, or 40 years to surround themselves with possessions, only to discover that their lives are empty. And when that happens, we’ve won.
Of course, if your subject really does start feeding people, he will attract many followers. But don’t let that worry you. There is no better way to cheapen something than to sell it. Let him have crowds of followers. If they sell their allegiance for a piece of bread, that’s all they will be worth.
So get going, Wormwood. Appeal to his good intentions. Our road is paved with them.
Scripture: Luke 4:3-4
That did not go well. You started out fine: telling him to turn stones into bread. This reminded him of how God did the same thing for the people of Israel in the wilderness. But you underestimated his knowledge of the story. It is fine to make references to the Bible when you are talking to people who don’t know much about it. Then you can pick out the verses you want, quote them out of context, and your subject will never know the difference.
But you can’t do that with someone who actually studies the Bible! He saw right through you. The minute you reminded him about God giving bread to the people of Israel in the wilderness, he also remembered what God said about it, how God said, “One does not live by bread alone.”
Did you see how disastrous that was for us? There is nothing helpful to us about people making bread or earning a living if there focus is still on serving God. Things like jobs and homes and food are only useful to us if they become totally consuming of a person’s life. The minute people become aware that there is something bigger in life, we are in trouble.
Wormwood, it is time for a more direct approach. Your subject has come to be a king, right? He wants to rule the world, right? So why not give it to him?
I know what you are thinking. You are afraid that we are playing into his hands. You are afraid that if we give him authority to rule the world we are giving him just what he wants. But don’t you see? If we give him that authority, it won’t really be his. It will be ours. Tell him you will give him any help he wants to rule the world. Does he want to take a political approach? Tell him we have the best media advisors in the business. Does he prefer military action? Tell him that we’ve got a corner on the arms market. Does he want to use fear and intimidation? Fine. We can supply him with any tools he needs. As long as they are our tools, he will be bound to us, and so will everyone who follows him. If he rules with the sword, he will not be their Lord, the sword will. And if he rules by stirring up hatred toward the Romans, he will not be ruling people; hatred will. And that is exactly how we like it.
So get busy, Wormwood, and don’t forget whom you are dealing with. The Boss wants a rapid and successful conclusion to this matter. See that he gets it.
Scripture: Luke 4:5-8
Did they teach you nothing at that tempter’s school? Must I go over even the most elementary principles of seduction? The first rule of temptation is never promise too much at once. So what did you do? You showed him all the kingdoms of the world in an instant? Didn’t you realize the affect this would have? It gave him perspective. All the great tyrants of history lived under illusion that they could control the world. We nurtured that illusion by allowing them to conquer it in small bits, one country at a time. But you offered him the whole thing at once, and that’s when he saw through your temptation. He realized that the world was too big to be controlled by you or any other earthly power. He realized that the future of the world was in the hands of God alone, and at that point your illusion evaporated.
You still have one more chance, Wormwood. Your subject refuses to believe in us. Okay. Ask him how he expects anyone to believe in him. Tell him he needs to perform a sign—do something spectacular that will get people’s attention and demonstrate his power. Take him to the pinnacle of the temple and tell him to throw himself off. After all, if he’s the Son of God, won’t God protect him?
Working in our favor is the tendency of all people to want a sign. People are not satisfied to be told that they are God’s children. They want proof. They want some dramatic sign to convince them that God really exists. Nothing will suit us better than to have people trust in miracles instead of God’s word, because miracles are short-lived, and when the miracle is over people must go back to their daily lives wondering all over again if God is really there.
If your subject seems reluctant to do this, needle him about his lack of faith. Tell him that surely the Son of God should not be afraid. I have had excellent results with this approach. People will do incredibly stupid things when I convince them that their reluctance shows a lack of faith.
Of course there is always the danger that if he jumps off the temple and survives people will start believing in him. But don’t worry. When people’s faith is grounded in some unusual event, it takes their eyes off daily life. Let people believe in a God who rescues them in a time of crisis. Since most of life is not a crisis, their God will be largely irrelevant. And that, Wormwood, is how we want it.
Scripture: Luke 4:9-13
You idiot! Did I not warn you about quoting from the Bible? I know that quoting verses out of context is one of our oldest tricks. It works great in religions where there is much emotion and little clear thinking. But did you really expect him to fall for it? Quoting to him from Psalm 91 only made him think of other scripture passages, like Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” You should have seen that coming. He has been quoting the Bible the whole time. Did you really think you could twist the Bible’s meaning to someone who actually reads it?
I am sorry, Wormwood, but you have been relieved of your assignment. You are being transferred. I don’t know where exactly, but I suspect you won’t need long underwear.
As for your subject, we have missed our chance. You have inadvertently clarified his ministry. Yes, he will feed people, but he will also show them that life is more than bread. Yes, people will believe in him, but not because he dazzles them with power, rather because he sacrifice his life for them. And yes, he will rule the world, but not with the power of weapons, rather with the power of love, a power we have not yet found a way to neutralize.
Begone, Wormwood. You have no more sway over this person. We have lost him. It only remains to be seen how many more we will lose because of him.