“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…’” Throw yourself down.
In this time of Lent, which we as the body of Christ have just entered into, we consider many things– especially the things which we account as being unnecessary for us, the excesses of life, or even temptations which we want to throw off from us. How easy would it be if we could wrestle away certain things from our lives and from our world we believe to cause harm, the things which distract, and the things which are evil.
I give you a story from the mid-18th century in which evil, and the physical wrestling of it even, happened not more than an hour north of us.
In the year 1740, the devil came to Massachusetts. Well, by all accounts, the devil had been here a good deal of time, but in that year the Rev. George Whitfield, a renegade itinerant Anglican preacher known as the man at the center of America’s first great awakening of faith, preached in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
His hearers recount an interesting morning, a day in which the devil and Whitefield joined in a physical battle. It was widely believed by townsfolk in Ipswich that the devil lurked within the great glass mirror which was fixed to the wall behind the pulpit. He would often peer out into the congregation from that mirror to distract the congregants from listening to the preaching done from the looming pulpit above their heads.
It was said that when George Whitfield came to Ipswich the forcefulness and great weight of his sermon preyed so inwardly on the devil that he leapt out bodily from behind the mirror, and ran about the church. Such a crowd had gathered, and the devil’s twisted, ancient, winged, singed body darted in between the old box pews and shambled out from the church. Whitefield took to the outside of the church to continue his fiery preaching denouncing the devil and all his ways. The church then, as the new one today does, surmounts a large rocky hill. Whitefield kept preaching and the devil in fits of rage would lunge at members of the massive crowd now forming on the bedrock surrounding the church. Finally it was said that Whitefield and the devil came to blows and that the preacher and the old tempter himself shambled up to the very top–the pinnacle of the steeple–fighting all the way, at which point George Whitefield threw the devil from the steeple and the devil landed on his pointed feet on the rocks below in a loud clap and a burst of smoke. He then took off to the woods and was not seen again in that town.
After Sabbath had ended, some present for Whitefield’s sermon re-visited the spot where they had seen the great man wrestle the devil from them. Upon re-visiting the spot and allowing their eyes to wander down to the bedrock below their feet they spied something quite strange and untoward.
A black and pointed single footprint. Doubtless the very imprint made by Satan himself when he landed on the rocks below the steeple.
Last year my girlfriend Emily and I went to visit this spot, quite intrigued I must say, with this old piece of local folklore which I had known about for some time. We went in search of the “devil’s footprint” as it is now called. Sure enough, on that cloudy April day we looked down and saw it, black, pointed, and seemingly seared into the very rocks. A convincing footprint for sure.
The crowds said Whitefield had thrown the devil down. Thrown him down. In the Gospel of Matthew we are told the devil says to Jesus from the pinnacle, throw yourself down. Throw yourself down.
We have now entered, as a people of Christ, into the seriousness and starkness of Lent. We are in the midst of a time and of a particular mindset which considers our own excesses, and our own temptations. The passage in Matthew is referred to as The Temptation of Jesus.
Our Lord, as we affirm, is fully human and fully divine, and in this passage we see those seemingly irreconcilable characteristics, fully human and fully divine, play out dramatically together. The fullness of humanity and the fullness of divinity meet together. We are told that Jesus, at the end of his forty days and forty nights of journeying into the wilderness, and after fasting, is famished.
Jesus had been baptized by John in the River Jordan over a month before, and God, in the form of a dove and a great voice, affirmed, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ otherworldly nature had shown forth in the waters that day, and now he found himself led by the Spirit to be alone, presumably in the presence of God his Father, and one would think he was rather in his own head–alone with a different mindset. He is famished, delirious, perhaps wishing he had not been so willing to listen to the Spirit’s call to go into the wilderness, into a place where there, lurking within, were temptations of all kinds, evils of all sorts, and that old deluder himself, the devil. Contrary to what the good people of Ipswich believed in 1740, the ancients believed evil dwelled in the desert in the wilderness, and not behind a mirror in their Church– that demons and Satan held sway there. Perhaps this was on Jesus’ brain upon entering into the desert. Maybe it was that He knew, to a small extent, that something wicked would meet him, or come at him there in that place, and it did.
When the tempter came to him, when the devil met him there, he asked, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Son of God. Is it no wonder that the devil is the only figure in all of the Gospel of Matthew, who, as the Oxford Annotated Bible asserts, “…makes the most comprehensive Christological designation for Jesus”? That is to say it is actually the devil himself who names Jesus for who he is. The Son of God. Fully human, fully divine.
I say that it is no wonder the devil is the one to do this, for the Gospel of Matthew is almost obsessed with the battle between good and evil, angels on the one hand, and demons on the other.
Matthew is concerned with temptation and with the juxtaposition between evils of all kind and the power and grace of God.
The images, perhaps most striking of all in this text, are of those moments when the devil brings Jesus into the Holy City, far before his triumphant entry into that City Jerusalem, and the devil brings him to the holiest of places and asks him to commit an act Jesus knows is wrong, and for him to put his trust in the creature before him, the devil.
Scholars suggest that the pinnacle Jesus was brought to by Satan was the most southeastern corner of the temple in Jerusalem. Below it was a very steep drop which would plunge any person into the Kidron Valley. This valley lay between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. There below, as it is today, were cemeteries. The Jews call it the “Valley of Jehoshaphat”, that is to say, the Valley where God will Judge.
Throw yourself down.
Then the devil quotes Scripture: “throw yourself down; for it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’”. He’s quoting Psalm 91.
Here Jesus, and we too, are confronted with something major. He is told to put his whole trust in God, who will keep him from bodily harm. In a way I believe that this text prefigures what will happen on the cross, and what we as the body of Christ in the world today will consider and think about on Good Friday and on Easter, at the end of our time in Lent.
How could the Son of God, someone who is fully human and fully divine, not save himself on the cross? Was it his willingness even unto death? Was it his inability to throw off the evils of this world? He spoke truth in the face of the profoundness of human wickedness and human wickedness played a key role in his bodily death.
At the end of Matthew we hear the crowds who deride Jesus on the cross asking him, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross”. Come down from the cross. Throw yourself down. I see a connection here. The connection between the devil’s want for Jesus to die and the crowd’s asking of a similar question, and of their inability to see the situation for what it truly was. Jesus’ inability or unwillingness to come down from the cross had everything to do with who he was. Being fully human, after all as we know, has its limitations.
Jesus says to the devil, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:13, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. The sort of faith which the devil is advocating for, one may say a myopic faith, and a faith which, at its base rests on a literal interpretation of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 91, that this sort of faith can lead to extremism and to death even.
Jesus knows he may have come to bodily harm or even death if he indeed had thrown himself down to the valley below, and that in his act of such faith, as the devil advocates for, he would actually be dishonoring God, he would be putting God to the test.
What are we to make of this, as a people of God moving through Lent for the next weeks?
Sometimes we have to say, “Away with you, Satan”. Sometimes we have to claim that knowledge that we have as a people of God, and realize things are not all right at all times for us, and that in our humanness we are glanced by evil often. How easy it would be for us to wrestle evil, or the devil from our midst, and throw him off of us. Perhaps that is what the good people of Ipswich saw that day in 1740. Perhaps they, like us, were a people who knew all-to-well their own limitations and their own distractions which hid God from their sight. Perhaps Whitefield, for them, was a man who claimed that phrase, “Away with you, Satan!” Perhaps in the words they heard that day something was awoken which allowed for them to see, for the first time, the visceral realities of evil, and how simply in the acknowledging of it, it can be thrown away from them.
In this life we have been asked to throw ourselves down and we will continue to be asked to do so. In such temptations that fall upon us our hope is in God alone. Our hope is in God alone who gives us the power and the grace to understand not only our own limitations, but the incredible grace to see our situation for what it really is. The devil couldn’t see Jesus’’ situation for what it was. The devil thought of Jesus, and perhaps thinks of us too, as a people who are fully unaware of our limitations. Yet we know better. If we know them, if we know our own limitations and if we name Satan when it is in our midst, we are able to throw evil and temptation down. We are able to throw it off of us and trample it.
Even if its footprint remains as a visceral reminder of its reality, evil is often just that, something seared and unmoving. Something fixed which does not know of the great weight pressing inwardly on the hearts of humankind from God who brought us into life and calls us to a new life daily.
When evil is thrown down it leaves but a ridged footprint. When we throw it off of us we ascend into new life, ever changing, ever growing life.