A Houstonian dies and goes to hell. While down there the devil notices that the Houstonian doesn’t seem to be suffering like the rest of the inhabitants. The devil checks the gauges and sees that it is 95 degrees with 80% humidity in hell. So, the devil asks the Houstonian why he is so content. The Houstonian replies, “I like it here. The temperature is just like Houston in June.”
Well, the Devil isn’t happy with that response, so he turns the temperature to 100 degrees and the humidity to 90%. And yet, the only change in the Houstonian’s manner is that he unbuttons his shirt collar. Otherwise, he’s as happy as before. The Devil quizzes the Houstonian again, and the man responds, “This is even better. It’s like Houston in July.”
The devil, now visibly upset, decides to make the Houstonian really suffer. He jacks the thermostat up to 105 degrees and the humidity to 100%. But he finds the Houstonian sitting in a lounge chair with his shirt off, no less content than before. “I feel right at home,” the man says, “Like Houston in August”.
Finally, the devil realizes he’s been going about his work all wrong. He returns to the thermostat and turns the temperature down to a sub-freezing 25 degrees. The devil, himself shivering, can see his own breath. Snow begins to fall, and icicles appear all around. Hell freezes over. “Let’s see what the Houstonian has to say about this!” the devil thinks to himself. But just then the Houstonian comes running up to the devil, jumping up and down for joy, yelling, “The Texans have finally won the Super Bowl!”
What does the devil look like to you? Do you think of the devil at all, either literally or metaphorically? If not, give yourself permission to do so this morning. What does the devil look like to you?
In medieval religious art, the devil is a personified demon, complete with horns, a pointed tale, and flaming weaponry with which to poke and prod sinners into the bowels of hell. He is the Halloween devil of our childhood nightmares, with red eyes and pointed teeth.
For St. Antony of the Desert, who lived in the third and fourth century A.D., the devil appears as a sensual woman dressed in gauzy, flowing red robes. She is almost unbelievably beautiful. She is the epitome of desire, and she distracts Antony, shall we say, from his prayers.
In the 1987 American gothic film “Angel Heart,” the devil is Robert DeNiro, in a three-piece suit with a well-manicured beard. He is a businessman who manipulates people’s actions behind the scenes until they perform the most atrocious acts, all so that he can, in the end, take possession of their souls.
In Genesis this morning, according to Christian tradition, the devil is depicted as the slithering serpent who silently approaches Eve, the serpent who has inspired literary characters from Kaa in Disney’s Jungle Book to the forked-tongue members of Slytherin House in the Harry Potter series.
The demon, the seductress, the manipulator, the snake. All common images of the devil. But what does the devil look like to you?
I will say, to me the devil looks like no one. Oh, I believe in the devil, have no doubt. It’s difficult to do the work of a priest for very long and not sense that there is some active presence in this world attempting to thwart the good purposes of God. But I have no visual sense of what the devil might look like. I am left disappointed by devilish depictions in art, literature, or film, because they always seem to me a bit cartoonish. Putting a face on the devil seems, somehow, dangerously to underestimate that power whose very mission is to draw us away from God.
Notice today that Matthew’s Gospel does not describe the devil’s appearance at all. Matthew cares not, apparently, for how the devil looks. He focuses only and entirely on what the devil does. And I know of no better description of how the devil operates than the one offered by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia over seventy-five years ago. La Guardia said, “The Devil is easy to identify. He appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.”
Now, pause again and think about the devil. Forget the demon, the seductress, the manipulator, the snake. Set aside our sophisticated, modern perspective that says our understanding of the universe leaves no room for devils. Instead, ask yourself this question: When has it been that you moved away from the good that you feel, deep in your soul, God desires for you? When have you foolishly stepped off the precipice into existential danger? When have you justified to yourself a decision that you know you shouldn’t make, or an action you know you shouldn’t take? When have you convinced yourself that you were entitled to something that, in a moment of greater and more honest clarity, you knew was not for you? When have I?
If you can stand to bear that pit in your stomach for a moment more, consider those instances alongside La Guardia’s description of the devil: “The Devil is easy to identify. He appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.”
The snake slithers up to Eve and suggests to her that God’s counsel is unreliable. God only restricts Adam and Eve from eating the fruit, the serpent claims, to prevent them from becoming Gods. The fruit is good for them, the serpent says.
And Eve, who has never had reason to doubt God’s good for her, who knows she shouldn’t listen to the serpent’s forked tongue, entertains the serpent’s request and eats the fruit. Oh, the eyes of the proverbial first humans are opened to the reality of evil. But to their horror, they realize that now they also can choose evil over good, and they find that the voice of the serpent returns whenever they are tired and vulnerable, encouraging them to do just that. It is the universal human story. We are Adam and Eve, everyday.
Jesus own encounter with the devil in Matthew today follows La Guardia’s pattern exactly, and Jesus’ response is the only healthful model for our own. Jesus is 1.) hungry, 2.) physically vulnerable, and 3.) achingly alone, and the devil makes reasonable suggestions to alleviate all three maladies. In his fatigue, Jesus could, as we often do, lean on the devil’s reasonable requests. But Jesus leans the other way, on the hope that God has for him. He believes that God’s love for him runs deeper than his fatigue, and he trusts that God’s love sustains him even when that sustenance isn’t obvious. Jesus leans toward God in his moment of greatest vulnerability, away from the devil’s whispers, and when the devil subsides, the angels charge in to minister to him.
We have entered the season of Lent, and it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Lent is a time in which observant Christians seek to engage in self-reflection and examination, to renew our spiritual lives and cleave more closely to God. On the other hand, our Lenten observance often by design includes denying ourselves those very things that, in other seasons of the year, buoy our sense of well-being and comfort. Consequently, in Lent we can find ourselves more vulnerable than usual, more tired. And “the devil appears when you’re terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn’t grant.” In those moments, our sustenance and salvation is to draw our model and our strength from Jesus, and to lean toward God, who desires only the good for us, and whose watchful angels hover nearby.