What do you think the devil looks like?
It’s a question to ponder because in today’s Gospel reading, we get no physical description of the devil—a.ka. the tempter or Satan or (as the name means in Hebrew) “the adversary.” How did this adversary appear to Jesus? What did he look like?
I certainly don’t know…perhaps it was in classic form—that big scary guy with horns, a pitchfork and cloven feet.
But, thanks to Hollywood, we have so many other options to choose from. I mean, the devil must be a fun role to play, every actor loves the villain, right? So you’ve got all these great actors who’ve played some version of him: Vincent Price, Robert De Niro, Max Von Sydow, Al Pacino, Peter Fonda, Rodney Dangerfield, even the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley.
Now we may point to that other reading today reading, the one from Genesis, after all, isn’t the serpent just the devil in disguise? The devil is a snake we’d think. It’s the one that appears to us and leads us astray.
But it’s not so simple as that. Putting aside the question of the history, we know that the image of the snake, the serpent, was a potent one for ancient people. Every culture had its own spin, some very different than that snake in the Garden. Take the symbol you see on the side of an ambulance. A snake, or maybe two snakes, twisted around a staff. This is an ancient Greek symbol, one that points to the Greek god of medicine and healing.
But for the Hebrew people, the image of the serpent was the opposite of life-giving. It was a malevolent force, a force that opposed God. It telegraphed to the listeners of the story that this was bad news.
Imagine listening to this story of Adam and Eve around the campfire in the deserts of ancient Israel—the moment the storyteller would mention the serpent, your pulse would raise, and you’d be at the edge of your seat, maybe you’d grip the person sitting next to you. You’d know that something bad is about to happen…just like we do in the movie theater when the music turns grim and that creepy demonic child appears at the end of the hallway.
No matter what form the sinister takes in our storytelling, no matter what the character looks like, it’s a very human thing to want to put a face on evil. There is indeed “something captivating about seeing evil incarnate on the big screen [or] in the pages of a novel.” It helps us “to name [evil], [to] visualize, vilify and separate us from ‘it’ in order to engage ‘it’ as an opponent in battle.”
So, Jesus meets “it”—this faceless opponent—in the wilderness, and he is tempted three times:
“Jesus, if you’re so hungry, turn these stones to bread. Satisfy your own needs. Take the easy way out of sacrifice.”
“Jesus, if you are the Son of God—prove it. Make God protect you. Throw yourself off this ledge; make a spectacle of it.”
“Jesus, you can have everything. Think how easy it will be—how much good you could do—on your terms. You can be in charge.”
But in each case, Jesus looks away from himself—away from the adversary. He resists, turning to face God. One pastor explains it like this: “Jesus submits to the Father. And his ministry is to listen to the word of God, and [on] hearing it, to obey and follow.”
We often face these same three temptations—the temptation to believe we alone can provide for all our needs; the temptation to make a show of our own righteousness; the temptation to accumulate power and dominate others.
But unlike Jesus, we don’t get to argue with the incarnate devil. Our greatest temptations come from within the wilderness of our own hearts.
Why do we try to put a face on evil? Perhaps it is because we glimpse the adversary inside all of us.
Lent is a time to dig into the shadows of our being and root out the adversary—not because of guilt or shame, but out of faith and hope. It is 40 days of reflection and preparation—“a summons to live anew.” It is a time to prayerfully reevaluate our paths, to renew our relationships and to rediscover our values.
We see from this story how Jesus overcame temptation, how he rebuffed the devil, how God has the final word. And through the cross, we see how God achieves final victory over sin and death. As people of God, we share in God’s triumph. With Jesus as our model, we too can reject temptation. Through the word of God, we too can overpower evil.
So, what does the devil look like? Not like what we’ve seen on the screen or in books. The devil probably looks a little too much like us.
But this Lent, I challenge you to look around you and see hope. See the stories of hope when people turn away that tempter within. When we kick bad habits, when people overcome addictions.
That fear that we have, that fear of the tempter, is often a fear of the unknown, of the stranger. See God’s love reflected in the faces of your neighbors. Of the people sitting beside you right now. Of those people you encounter on your way home.
See grace in the waters of that font. Know that through your baptism, you are claimed as a child of God. See victory in that cross. In that very baptism, you are marked with the cross, sealed with the cross of Christ forever.
The tempter, the Devil, the evil one, all the forces that defy God, death itself…they hold no power over you. Don’t be afraid.
Hope, love, grace, and victory—it gives us the power to go into the wilderness, to meet the adversary, to face temptation, and to overcome.