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As My Old Friend Used to Say

As My Old Friend Used to Say

Mar 10, 2019

Passage: Luke 4:1-13

Preacher: The Reverend Andrew Van Kirk


In recent years I have had a second chance in life to become familiar with the book and TV series, “The Magic School Bus.” Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar. The title character, the bus, is magic; and its powers allow the students to explore all sorts of scientific concepts in hands-on ways. But like a genie beholden to its master, the bus is magic but dumb. It’s the teacher, Ms. Frizzle, who orchestrates the magic. She’s the conductor of the science symphony.

And the plot of the show always involves the students and Ms. Frizzle encountering some sort of new situation, some problem or challenge in which they have to face their fears, learn some science, and figure out what to do. And at those moments, Ms. Frizzle always has something to say. Some way of framing the problem up and offering a solution. She always says it the same way. She tells the class, “As my old [oddly named relative] used to say [corny, but applicable truth].” So like this: “As my old friend Li Brarian always says, ‘You can't judge a book by its cover.’” Or, “As my great-great-great-aunt Misty used to say, 'Never fear, the fog is bound to clear.’”

Now I don’t have a great, great, great aunt Misty who used to offer proverbs about fog and sea mist. But I do have places in my mind where I go to make sense of some new situation, some problem I’ve come across, some decision I’m facing. Some of these are family sayings or stories. Little things my parents taught me, like when something becomes so cheap it’s A.B.L. — “automatic buy level.” Or, when I’m trying to decide if I should keep something or get rid of it, I think of my great uncle L.E., who once kept a 1974 calendar he’d picked up an auto repair store because the days of the week were going to match up with the numbers of the days again in 1987, so it was still good. I try not to be L.E. about things.

Other places I turn to include Dr. Seuss, particularly Green Eggs and Ham for some reason. When I really don’t like something: as Dr. Seuss always said, “I do not like them, Sam I am.” There’s Star Wars; Obi Wan and Yoda speak to me often. “Do or do not, there is no try.” There’s scripture, but we’ll come back to that. There’s also a selection of music from the late 1980’s and 1990’s — moments where I think, “Love is, what I got,” U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” is good in all sorts of situations — where’d Kroger put the garlic today to is this project where I should really be spending my time. There’s “I Like Big...” Well, you get the idea. There’s all this stuff that we collect over the course of a lifetime that becomes the material by which we understand the world as we encounter it.

When you face a new decision, a situation you’ve never encountered before, where do you go to make sense of it? What pops into your head? The wisdom of a favorite relative? A favorite TV show? What sayings, bits of wisdom and truth serve as the basis of the confidence with which you push off into uncharted waters?

Whatever that stuff is, and mostly we collect it without thinking about it, this stuff is extraordinarily powerful, because it’s how we make sense of the world we live in. It’s the raw material we use to make decisions, to act in the world.

We all want to know how to better discern God’s will, to know what it is we’re supposed to do. Well, God gave us something to serve this purpose — it wasn’t 1990’s music, or Dr. Seuss, or even Star Wars. It was scripture. It’s to be able to come to a fork in the road in life and be able to know which way to go because you can say to yourself, channeling Ms. Frizzle, “As my old friend Paul used to say, don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Or, “As the Psalmist used to say, happy is the man who puts his trust in the Lord.”

In fact, not only did God give us scripture partly for this purpose, God’s son Jesus showed us how to use it. Let’s look at this text from Luke.

This story takes place immediately after Jesus’ baptism. The first thing he does is go off into the wilderness. And there, for forty days, he was tempted by the devil. Now listen, if you’re imagining a little guy in a red leotard with a forked tail hopping around after Jesus, you need to get that image out of your head. While I’m sure Jesus and the devil could interact face-to-face, so to speak, you need to get the devil out of his costume. He sure as heck isn’t ever going to show up in a red leotard for you. That would be too easy. The devil isn’t in costume. The devil is in the decisions. Jesus meets the devil when he has to make decisions about how to save the world.

Forget the old phrase the devil is in the details. The devil is in the decisions. That’s where he’s going to lie in wait for you and for me, just as he did for Jesus. It’s when we have to decide what to do, how to act at work, what to say to our kids — that’s there the devil is going to pop up.

For Jesus, the first decision he had to face had to do with food. Should he use his God power to turn a rock into bread and eat it, as the devil suggests? It’s got to be tempting. It be both deal with his hunger, and prove his power.

Now there are good theological reasons why Jesus can’t do this; but this is not the sermon for those. And in any case, Jesus doesn’t write a theological treatise in response. He just quotes scripture, “As my old friend Moses used to say, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Actually, he says, “It is written” — but same idea.

The devil wants to reduce Jesus’ life, and therefore his ministry, to food. Jesus knows, because he’s read Deuteronomy, that life is more than food, one lives by God.

So the devil tries again. He takes Jesus up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, which the devil will give to Jesus if he’ll but serve him. A Faustian bargain to be sure, but Jesus would be good at ruling the world. He could do it with justice and peace. Here’s his chance to stop the chaos of human history. But again, Jesus comes back, “As my old friend Moses used to say, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

One more time. The devil takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple and says, “Prove it big guy. Show us you’re the Son of God, jump off here and let the angels save you” And then, make note of this, then the devil quotes scripture.

For it is written,'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

It would be easier if the devil couldn’t use scripture too, wouldn’t it? But he knows his Bible. The devil has used scripture to justify slavery and racism. The devil has used scripture to keep women in abusive relationships and out of positions of leadership, to justify the killing of non-Christians and legitimize war. And that’s just the start of list.

We cannot cede scripture to the devil. That’s no option at all. The devil would love for us to stop reading scripture because some of it is hard. If we do that, he wins!

The only solution to the devil’s misuse of the Bible is more Bible. See Jesus, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

If the devil knows the Bible, it means we have to know it too. We have to know enough of the story, not to take the verses about slavery or women apart from greater truth that God made all of humankind in God’s image and died because he loves us all. If you’re packing heat with some good Bible knowledge, you can send the devil packing.

Being able to follow Jesus’ example and use scripture like this in your own life is transformative. To come to the fork in life’s road and say, “It’s impossible to serve both God and wealth.” To find your frustration boiling over with the person who is always craving attention and praise and to be able to say, “Truly I tell you, she has received his reward.” To resist the temptation to go along with the crowd by quoting Joshua, “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” To begin to know what to do in life, not because you’ve encountered the situation before, but because the story God wrote is the first story you turn to when interpreting your own.

This does take some effort; Jesus wasn’t able to quote Deuteronomy because he’d heard a few chunks of it read on Sunday morning over the years. You actually have to read the thing. And the season of Lent is a great time to commit to a discipline of that. You can learn a little scripture. You’re five days in but it’s not too late. You can do this: read Philippians 20 times. Or Ephesians.

One of the best things I ever did spiritually was memorize the 4th chapter of Ephesians while on retreat on weekend. Now that I know it, it’s one of the passages of scripture that comes back to me most often. Verses from that chapter fill in the answer when I come to decisions in my life — must as Deuteronomy filled in the answers for Jesus.

Making sense of the world in the phrases, commandments, and stories of the Bible is to make sense of the world the way God makes sense of it. And that’s an amazing gift. It will empower you to love him more deeply, and live according to his will.

As so, channeling Ms. Frizzle, I close with this: As my old friend Retha Bible used to say, “Knowing what is written, keeps you from gettin’ devil bitten.”