Growing up I enjoyed watching Looney Tunes, cartoons that had many levels of interpretation. One of the recurring bits the cartoons used was this: a protagonist is faced with a dilemma and he doesn’t know what’s the right thing to do. As he struggles with his choice, a little angel pops up on one shoulder and a little devil pops up on the other. They both try to persuade him. “Do it,” one urges. “Don’t do it,” the other replies. It goes back and forth until the poor protagonist’s head begins to spin rapidly 360 degrees. I also remember Flip Wilson’s TV show where he played a recurring character named Geraldine. Whenever Geraldine did something naughty she’d shout: “the devil made me do it.” It was never Geraldine’s fault. She never had to take responsibility for her own actions. She was always free from guilt. After all, the devil made her do it.
Both of these elements of pop culture give us a distorted view because both treat our agency like we’re toddlers who are incapable of taking responsibility for the choices we make. It’s the evil out there somewhere that’s the real problem. In this view, left to our own devices, we’d always choose the good. With such a presumption, we can absolve ourselves all the while perceiving a world where some people are evil and some are good; and where we group ourselves in with the latter. In such a worldview, there’s no room for self-examination and repentance because evil exists apart from us. But our Christian teaching on sin tells us that’s not right. The capacity to sin and to choose evil is inside each of us. There’s some part of us that is “fallen” like Adam and Eve; that rebels against living under God’s gracious rule. As we seek to follow Jesus, we know full well that we’re still active participants in a rebellion to God’s gracious rule.
We begin Lent this week hearing of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We can misinterpret this story seeing Jesus inhabiting the role of a Spiritual Lone Ranger battling against temptation. But that’s not what the story says. The Gospel tells us “angels waited on him.” He didn’t go it alone. Occasionally, I’ve gone it alone in the wilderness, even thinking that the wilderness is a safe and attractive place to be alone. But I’m a fool to think that. The Biblical meaning of wilderness isn’t some desert oasis like Palm Springs. No, the Gospel word for wilderness means “a place of terror, a place that destroys.” So, I’m a fool to try it alone. Alone, as a sinner, I’ll consciously or subconsciously opt for death for the wilderness is quite a harsh place.
This is why the Season of Lent is a gift to each of us. Lent helps us recognize the truth about ourselves. Lent helps us name the wilderness in which we live. And in that wilderness, we know that we will struggle to be faithful to God’s call. Yet, the cross that’s placed on our foreheads at our baptisms reminds us of Jesus on whose grace we can always rely. Also at our baptisms, angels surrounded us. Some we could see and some we couldn’t see. And angels still surround us. Many of them are our fellow disciples who are on life’s pilgrimage with us. Count on them and let them count on you.
So, don’t go it alone. Sin is too powerful inside of us. Even The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Who will be your Tonto this Lent?