Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Better or Best”
Matthew 4: 1-11
Lenten Vespers at
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Just one little question for you this evening: do you believe in the devil?
Call him what you wish, Satan, Lucifer, the Evil One—you pick the name. Do you believe in the devil, the one who, according to the gospel accounts, tempted Jesus in the wilderness?
Let me quit playing sophomoric games with you. I believe in the devil.
Now, not for a minute do I think this wily one has a tail, dresses up in a red suit, and totes a pitchfork. The devil—at least the one I believe in—is far craftier than that. The devil I believe in is a devious virtuoso.
I fear we do not give the devil his due. He weaves his diabolical magic with a technique almost impossible to detect or, at least, to call evil. The devil loves to get us believing we are doing so well when, in fact, we are up to our necks in evil. Martin Luther claimed the Satan does his most malicious work when we think all is going swimmingly.
Soon after Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan by John and God had announced from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” just when Jesus had the world at his fingertips, the devil pounced.
Again, give the devil his due: he had done his homework. The only way he could get close to Jesus was by making a few proposals too good to resist. The devil wove his wicked web by offering Jesus an opportunity to solve the world’s worst problems; all Jesus had to do was make a few paltry concessions.
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil played to Jesus’ loving side, the side yearning to feed every hungry soul in the world. If you could feed just one starving baby with a distended belly—or even a few—just by doing a little dance with the devil, wouldn’t you mull over the proposal?
Satan tempted Jesus to be spectacular as well. The whole world could belong to Jesus if only he bowed ever so slightly Satan’s way…just slightly mind you, not so terribly far.
The devil is ingeniously shrewd: he tempts us with choosing between better or best, not between worst or best. The devil tempts us to make a little compromise here, a tiny concession there, nothing particularly offensive and, in sacrificing the best, this world might just be a better place in the process.
The earliest Christians were wary of the colossal dangers of opting for better rather than best. The emperor asked them to offer just a pinch of incense on his altar and he promised all would well—just a smidgeon; no one would ever know the difference or care that you had bowed just a little Caesar’s way instead of God’s and you would soon forget the ugly compromise you made anyway.
I promise you, the devil is coming our way if he hasn’t already. The devil knows how fond we are of power and prestige and yes, of doing the right thing even if for the wrong reasons. All this, of course, to care for the world—nothing unsavory or vulgar. Churches often measure success by the friends we have in high places: we know the price exacted, the silence we must observe, and yet rubbing elbows with such lofty folks is so intoxicating that the price of not speaking the truth seems well worth it.
Better or best…You know the choices; you face them every day. A little compromise here, a slight bow to evil there—nothing much and all for the good of the cause—kind of like jumping off the temple top in order to save the world. Not too much to ask, wouldn’t you agree?
Being a child of God is almost always costly unless, of course, we opt to just get along. We can make believe there are two sides to every issue, never making a decision that is costly and never siding with the downtrodden if it might upset a solitary soul.
Jesus’ wilderness journey was a painful one that led straight up Calvary’s hill to the cross. He could have saved himself but that would have been opting for better rather than best; he could have received the adulation of adoring throngs by playing footsies with a few brawny politicians and a handful of smooth operating, compromising religious officials. Jesus would have none of it. He refused to turn his back on the outcasts—you and me, declining to make concessions to the devil in the process.
We are now on a forty-day journey called Lent. We will face countless opportunities to choose better or best. We can say that jobs matter all the while letting poisonous gases suffocate God’s good earth; we can say that tough cuts must be made to the poorest so that the ravenous appetites of the deadly military are fed in the name, of course, of peace.
The real Lenten journey occurs, not just for forty days, but throughout our lifetime. It is an arduous sojourn. We stumble and fall, scrape our knees and bloody our noses. God understands how hard it is and God welcomes us home every time we have been satisfied with better rather than best. And at that very moment when God embraces us, we know what is best, God’s son dying for us even when we have tried and failed.