Contending with Satan

­­­­­sermon on Matthew4:1-11; Romans5:12-19; Genesis2:15-17,3:1-7

The devil almost never makes an appearance in our Sunday readings, but it’s trouble when he does show up.

It’s trouble not because the devil is such a rotten, hellish demon. Actually, much worse than that, the devil has us tricked into expecting a cartoon, imagining when he shows up it’s almost comical as the little red guy taunting us on our shoulder. That silly caricature is addressed in my favorite part of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. ( Wordy George Clooney declares, “Of course there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, but the great Satan hisself is said to be red and scaly with a bifurcated tail and carries a hayfork.” He’s contradicted by the African American guitar player who says, “Oh no. No sir. He’s white, as white as you folk.” That sense of “white as you folk” may put us on a more serious path.

Still, the conversation was prompted by the guitar player saying he’d sold his soul to the devil. When asked what the devil gave him for his soul, he replied, “he told me to play this here guitar real good” which is met with a pitying response, “oh, son, and for that you traded your everlasting soul?” He simply says, “well, I wasn’t using it.”

Again, we’re tricked into placing these conversations in terms that don’t bear much real weight. We either trivialize it as being about an apple or guitar or obscurely imagine the eternal fate of imperceptible souls hangs in the balance, which is so unclear as to become basically nonsensical.

Countering that, you may notice our Gospel reading gives no description of the devil. It doesn’t say he’s red or has horns or looks scary or any of that. Neither is this about trading a soul in a Faustian bargain of temporary benefit. In this reading the temptations, while specific to Jesus, are really basic categories. Bread, hunger, bodily wellbeing. Identity. Desiring miracles. Regard or acclaim from others, wanting to be thought well of. None of it is very big or foreign or mysterious.

Again, then, it’s probably better not to picture a monster with fiery eyes and cloven hooves but to look at folks as white as most of yourselves—indeed, to look in the mirror. See, the fiercest thing about the devil is that he is so insidious he’s working inside of us. Temptations aren’t mostly an external reality of a serpent slyly slithering up with suggestions, but are your internal processes of worry and doubt.

Indeed, this fits the term “satan” and should cause us to rework how we identify satan. The word is Hebrew for adversary or accuser. There’s a reason for the saying that your own worst enemy is yourself. We have a terrible tendency to be self-accusatory, to look down on ourselves. I’m not saying we shouldn’t set high standards, and actually making excuses for poor behavior can fit into this same mold in preempting condemnation from others and thinking we need to try looking good. Guilt can be appropriate, but mostly the guilty feeling of shame and disappointment in ourselves isn’t helpful. It doesn’t help us improve, but inhibits goodness.

That’s also embedded in the term “devil,” which literally means slanderer, for scorning God’s work, challenging its goodness, and spreading lies or skeptical insinuations. That, and not a cosmic duel, is why we identify the devil as God’s opponent. Again, I’m suggesting it’s primarily internal, happening first and foremost inside us.

I told Virginia Stumbo I was going to mention her in this sermon. She was talking about her piano playing for worship and said no matter how well she plays, if there are a couple wrong notes—and even if nobody else notices them—that’s what she dwells on. That’s not to single her out, since without exception you can relate. Such feelings are, by definition, satanic. That self-accusation and denigration, focusing on the negative is the work of satan. It’s diabolical, for example, for Virginia to claim her musical leadership for our worship services is not good enough.

To place this back in the Gospel story’s categories of temptation, we might first recognize the physical and bodily accusations, hungering for more: that I’m not attractive enough or fit enough, that I should have different hair or a different diet. There’s adversity to self in dreading the aging process, of puberty and pimples and self-perception, sure we talk about that. But also of gray hairs and wrinkles and teeth that wear out and sore backs and minds that aren’t as sharp as they used to be. We perceive those as negatives, as faults we carry in our bodies. We’re so susceptible to it that entire industries spring up and the shape of society itself feeds on our warped sense of self-awareness, our fears and insecurities, marketing cures and improvements. It’s an easy sell because we’ve already convinced ourselves we need to change.

That’s bad in itself. But worse, it slanders God’s goodness for us. Our lives bear the image of God in our very being, in our exact existence. It’s not that we’re good when we are exceptionally caring or skilled or beautiful. Even if you feel ugly, unlovable, a failure, still you are God’s good creation. It’s a false accusation against God and you to say you need something else—whether that is turning stones to bread or new clothes or a fancier car or better habits. When such desires interfere with the most basic truth of your reality, they are lies discrediting God’s goodness in your life.

Next is the identity piece. For Jesus, to some degree it was a challenge to prove himself as the Son of God. Those satanic trials against our self-understanding come to us in feelings we should be better spouses or parents, should make better use of our talents or education or free-time, should have more impact on the world or else that we can’t possibly change anything.

Besides disparaging our identity, there are also the idealized versions, of Jesus being tempted he deserves a miracle, should be able to insist that angels catch him when he falls, is worth not suffering and dying. We’re not immune to those devilish accusations, either, when we claim we’re better and make excuses and look for loopholes, as if the rules don’t apply to us, with self-justifications to protect against others. It’s an odd double vision, that we both see ourselves in the mirror as fragile and broken, but also with rose-colored glasses that overlook our problems and harmfulness. We judge ourselves too harshly and too leniently, and neither is fair or real or how God would identify us.

The third aspect of Jesus’ temptation over the kingdoms is where internal reality meets external appraisal. We want to be thought well of. We want acclaim. We want assurance we’re doing the right thing. We want to move up in our positions and want the roles with more prestige, more power, more payment as proof we’re doing it right. A friend of mine used to ask how long I needed to be associate pastor before I could be a senior pastor, and even as I was trying to explain it away and express my contentment, I was dealing with the accusations of rank and worth.

The prototypical story of Adam and Eve in Genesis also portrays conflict in having to encounter others. They became convinced they needed something more—more knowledge, more esteem and authority, being more God-like, even convinced they needed more clothes. Though our excerpt doesn’t go on today, we know they wound up in blame, trying to maintain their own sense of innocence by accusing each other: the man accusing the woman, the woman accusing the serpent, each passing the buck and in short order exhibiting the breakdown of relationships with God, neighbor, and creation.

That Genesis story has often been envisioned as the source of original sin. Now, I know that’s not a popular notion. But it’s not about trying to verify how sinful a baby is already when it’s born. Rather, it describes how inescapable these problems are. Just notice how through the centuries this story has been used against women, as if they shoulder more responsibility and as if Eve herself were guiltier of a worse crime. But this isn’t about gender bias. As original sin, such prejudices simply portray the truth of our bondage, or—in the words of our confession—that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.

What then? What of this captivity? What can we do about being enslaved to satanic tendencies, accusing ourselves, turning away from God-given goodness, as fault-finders who stumble into wrongs, bound up in sinful culture with implications for generations to come? Can we escape such a curse?

Although it may seem most obvious, it’s not primarily about resisting temptation. Don’t presume the story of Jesus in the wilderness begins our Lent as a model for you also spending 40 days contending against the diabolical in your life. Rather, let it stand at the start of a season of baptismal renewal once again to offer you assurance that he has overcome for you, has triumphed over satan, over sin, over our systems of shame and blame. In Jesus, you may know that God’s goodness cannot ultimately be undone. That is the source of your identity and your possibilities. Opposing powers are doomed to failure. Jesus conquers the corrupting influence. In the stunning view of our thick Romans reading, as certain as our imperfections, as sure as sin, as clear as the fact that we will all die, still more prevalent is God’s grace for you. Even more rampant than what tries to subvert God’s goodness, the victory belongs to Jesus. As much as you seem captive to evils—either as you commit them or are threatened to be crushed by them, either way being subjected to them—yet the reading proclaims they can’t maintain their control over you. “Much more surely,” it says, grace and God’s gift of right relationship “exercise dominion” through Jesus. The relationship can’t go wrong, since he makes it right—with God, with neighbor, with creation. Since he is Lord, since God’s goodness will persist, no amount of sin, no satanic temptations, no failure, nothing you imagine you lack can define you. They can’t own you. You belong to Christ. Your life is entirely his, now and forever.


Judas, Easter life, and your place here

7th Sunday of Easter (17May15)

John17:6-19; Acts1:15-26; 1John5:9-13

Near the end of this Easter season of resurrection life and new beginnings, we drag back into the midst death and destruction and tragic endings.

Maybe it takes this long to be up for it. On Easter Sunday everything is bright, golden celebration (if not totally erasing death’s confusions). As the season progresses, dwelling deeper in newness of life, living into it, we can risk asking with Thomas about scars and lingering nail wounds, and how Jesus is made known in breaking the bread, and about those who aren’t part of this flock, and what we should be doing to stay connected to Jesus in the meantime.

With all of that, with seven weeks of Easter under our belts, we can finally muster the courage to be able to consider the worst, to look back to the night in which Jesus was betrayed, at last now to confront Judas and to ask who is excluded, left out, condemned, who doesn’t receive the good news of Easter.

After all, Judas comes up in two of our readings today. And, even though the lectionary for our 1st reading would’ve skipped the hardest verses, and the very point of the reading was to exclude him from the group of believers, still we need to understand the vital question of how he fits in.

In the gospel, Jesus refers to Judas as “the one destined to be lost.” A more direct translation would be as “the son of destruction” or might be paraphrased for us as “the biggest loser.” As the son of death, Judas there might be contrasted with Jesus the Son of God.

Yet for all of his infamy, the guy isn’t really a major character in the story. During Jesus’ life, Judas was just in the mix with the other 12 disciples. And after Good Friday he’s mostly not in the picture anymore.

But that disappearance presents a hard question for us as we gather here. While we may not place ourselves exactly in the same camp as Judas, at some point we have to ask: if he could blow it and get himself excluded or damned, eternally separated from God’s goodness, destined for destruction, well what would it take to lose our place? Just how much unlike Judas are we?

For that, we may ask what makes Judas so bad, what corrupted him. Maybe he betrayed Jesus because he wanted the 30 pieces of silver, he was greedy. Or it may be he didn’t agree with everything Jesus was doing. (Judas was critical of Jesus’ ministry once and it’s often assumed that he wanted Jesus to be a mighty military messiah.) Evaluating ourselves by those standards, we can indeed be greedy and make poor choices for really a trifling amount of gain. We also turn away from Jesus’ mission and want power and dig in our heels when things don’t go our way.

There’s one other description of why Judas betrayed Jesus: the devil made him do it. To me, that’s more terrifying because it’s so helpless. It isn’t about willpower or making wise decisions, but is entirely out of our control. We can fail hugely and suffer the consequences just because we get trapped in evil. We’re captive to sin. We’ll return to the question of how permanent that trap is, how much our wrongs imprison us or separate us from Jesus.

To continue with the story, though, Judas agrees to betray Jesus, and does it with a kiss. That alone could fill a sermon, on how our affection is warped and perverted to accomplish the opposite of love, how we can be two-faced, how when we get the closest is when we can do the most damage.

After that kiss, Judas mostly disappears. When Jesus is handed over to Pontius Pilate in Matthew’s Gospel, Judas repents and tries to return the silver. Of course, they don’t want to take it back. So Matthew says Judas goes and hangs himself.

Acts instead has this peculiar story of Judas using the money to buy a field and tripping and having his guts burst out. The ugly scene portrays a sense that our problems are visited back on us, with a further notion that the curse spreads, to those around us and even infects the land. That’s probably both fair and nasty.

That there are these two different stories of Judas’ death I believe means the Bible writers were trying to deal with this hard subject in all of its disappointing awkwardness, trying to come up with explanations: Would his friends and fellow followers of Jesus have ever been able to welcome Judas back after he handed over to death their teacher and our Lord? If he wasn’t part of the community any more, what would’ve become of him? Would he have found a different leader to follow? Would he have lived out his days lonely and sorrowful? Did he suffer more directly for the wrongs he perpetrated?

Christian history has inflated this to ghastly proportions, degrading Judas to be the worst person who ever lived, worthy of punishment only secondary to the devil. In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is in the lowest pit of hell, suffering the fate of being eternally clawed at and gnawed at by the devil’s sharp teeth, stuck headfirst in one slobbering, painful mouth of the grand demon. That image is literally being trapped in sin forever, without escape and no end in sight.

Not only does that raise bleak prospects for considering our own sins and failings and associations with evil. It’s also a pretty miserable destiny for one who, we’d have to admit, brought to completion the story of salvation. After all, without Judas, would Jesus have been arrested? And without that, then no crucifixion, and no resurrection! Without Judas doing wrong, Jesus cannot overcome wrong. Without the sin, would there be forgiveness?

That’s not to praise Judas, but to recognize first that he isn’t simply excluded from our story. He’s not like Voldemort as he-who-must-not-be-named in Harry Potter. He’s not like Haman, the villain in the book of Esther, whose name is shouted over and drowned out whenever that book is read in Jewish assemblies. Even if the Bible writers tried to write him off, Judas remains part of our story, and in that way part of our community. Even if we’re not ready to confront it, still Judas shows up weekly as part of our gathering in the reminder of the words “On the night in which he was betrayed…” a meal which, after all, was given to Judas and is given to us precisely for the forgiveness of sins.

That also reminds us God can work wonderful things out of our worst actions. Certainly we label current events that hopeful way: that sin or tragedy may yet be turned to something good, that a benefit may even come through death.

Much more, though, here you know your existence is centered by a God in Jesus who brings new life out of death, who confronts sin with forgiveness, who reciprocates to the kiss of betrayal with a kiss of peace. To all that would threaten to exclude you from community and dismember you from this body, Christ Jesus re-members you into being here.

So this isn’t just a hypothetical question for Judas, of whether God could possibly forgive him or if he irreparably destroyed his place among the church crowd. No, this is a word for you. A word of forgiveness, of restoration, of remembering, of bringing you into new life, even if it means restoring ruptured pieces from the old life.

That association with Judas is important for us, vital for us to recognize. See, we often picture ourselves as the do-gooders, as those trying to do the right thing, as so helpful. Flip through our hymnal and the words pile up about how we feed the hungry or care for the distressed, about how we bring light to dark places.

But this is even more important for the other side. This is a word for when you know you’ve done wrong, when you’re the one needing help, when you’re not good enough, when you’re in the dark (which, after all, is at too many points in life and at its end). It’s for when you can’t be or aren’t part of this assembly, when you’re excluded from church. It’s a word for when you’re lonely and feeling abandoned and in danger, when things just won’t go right, when you’re in what sure feels like hell and that damned Satan is gnawing on you.

Here is this vitally essential word for you once again: there is no curse, no wrong that can separate you from the love of God, from the blessing and life of Jesus our Lord. Our faith proclaims that Jesus has toppled the gates of hell. In these very words I proclaim to you, he has freed you from the shackles of your sin and throws away the key. He fills your dead lungs with the Spirit of new life.

In one fun mark of the reversal that you yourself will proclaim, instead of guts bursting out as a sign of punishment, notice that in our hymn we’ll be singing that is “shouts of holy joy [that] outburst.” That’s the only way for it to be. After all, Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done (ELW #366)


Traps and Captivation, of Empire and of God

Sermon for 19Oct14

Matthew 22:15-22; Isaiah 45:1-7


Sneaky, evasive Jesus has a tendency to answer questions with a question, when opponents are trying to trap him, but also to make us think for ourselves. Today it’s not a question, but more of a riddle, and you have to say it just sounds better in the King James Version: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

They ask Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the empire. It’s a trap. If he says don’t pay, the Romans would arrest him for provoking rebellion. But if he says yes, pay, his people would be upset he’s encouraging the oppressive occupying powers. He can’t say yes and can’t say no. He’s trapped.

But sneaky Jesus flips the trap, catching them in their own snare. We’ll see more of that in a moment. First, though, we’ll try resolving the riddle. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s,” we’ve usually figured there are two separate categories, and Jesus leaves it to us to discern which goes in what box. So we start compartmentalizing, breaking it down, maybe first that ultimate devotion should go to God and not to our government or whatever.

Money comes in a second layer of the divisions, with less direct certainty. We have generally determined that it’s okay to pay taxes, that they don’t interfere too deeply with our faith. We may grumble, but also see them as worthwhile. In fact, we should recognize they may serve consistent with what we do in faith, for example in programs of social uplift and concern for the least—very clearly a biblical ethic. As an example, picture school lunches resolving hunger and caring for vulnerable children, a Jesus-y kind of project, which just so happens to be run well by government.

That’s an important reminder for us. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar or to God, it’s not just a matter of two columns on a budget sheet, one or the other. Some of it we simply cannot divide. Jesus is not drawing a distinction between sacred and secular. It’s not a separation of church and state. God is not relegated only to the realm of what happens at a church or with a religious logo affixed to it.

Obviously, God’s work is immensely bigger than those small categories. Our Isaiah reading declares that God’s work was being accomplished by the Persian king Cyrus, even though he didn’t know God and didn’t know he was doing serving that role. It even names this foreign ruler as God’s Messiah. Wow! Similarly today, God is not waiting for faith-based organizations with faith-healers to treat Ebola patients in Liberia, but is certainly striving through health care workers regardless of religion. So just because it’s government doesn’t mean it’s opposed to God’s good work.

Of course, the reverse may be true, too. Tax dollars may also get used contradictory to our beliefs. It’s in the debates about how abortion services are or aren’t funded. It could be in a question of subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It is in centuries of Christian conscientious objection to paying the portion of federal taxes which funds violence and military and war, by some measures almost 50% of the total.

That points also to the sneaky Jesus reversing the trap to ensnare those malicious, conniving opponents. It begins when Jesus says, “Show me the coin that is used for the tax.” See, this tax was due from everybody under the empire and it had to be paid with Roman money. But notice Jesus doesn’t rifle through the loose change in his pockets to pull one out. He asks them for it, and they produce a denarius. And Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that, and whose title?”

If they were onto him at this point, there’d be a long, dumb pause: “uhhhhh…the emperor.” See, simply using this coin was forcing you to swear allegiance to the emperor, to Caesar. Right on its face, it gave him the title “son of god.” By using that coin, by having it to show off, the so-called religious authorities demonstrate their hypocrisy. They claim to be devoted to God. Daily in worship and prayer they would’ve proclaimed, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6). Well, they might have had those words in their hearts, but in their pockets they were holding onto a second so-called god, his face engraved on the coin.

That shows the shape of the debate is not about politics so much as theological worldview. In telling them to render to Caesar, Jesus might mean “purge yourself of that filthy heretical coin.” In some regard, while bearing that image, it is dominating their lives, that is their lord, and so they aren’t bearing the image of the Lord their God. It highlights their bondage to their enemy, the occupying army, that we can’t escape the systems that ensnare our lives. Again, rather than a question of religion versus government, a larger issue here is two competing powers, for the empire’s kind of control or God’s kingdom in this world.

Even though our bills don’t call George Washington the son of god, this makes it hit home. If our dollars claim that “in God we trust,” how much do they really do that, and when do they render us captive to another force?

For us, we may figure it’s appropriate to begin trying to resolve the riddle by making this word from Jesus into a lesson on how you use money, especially as we prepare to share our financial pledges next Sunday, encouraging you to give more to church, that you should render more to God, return more of what you’ve been given. Yet what does that mean? Is it giving 2% of your income instead of 1%? Or giving 10% and reaching a tithe, can you think you’ve done enough?

After all, God has given you 100%.   It may be right and good to ask what you give at church, yet if we’re working with this passage that tells you to render to God what is God’s, how do you pay back 100% of all that you have and are? Putting tokens in the offering plate wouldn’t cut it. Maybe we return gratitude and praise, that if we’re given a beautiful autumn day, we remember constantly to thank God. Maybe we ask about our vocations, of how we’re using our time and skills to press toward the goals of Jesus. Yet as vital as those efforts are, they also reveal it’s not just the hypocritical opponents in the reading today who fall short in their loyalty and devotion. It’s all of us.

One more example: We hear about foreign Cyrus doing the work of God without even knowing it. The opposite comes on Good Friday, when Jesus has a conversation with the Governor Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar. The conversation emphasizes our point, that not just his property or palace, but even his position of power has come from God. If he’d rendered to God and not to Caesar, Pilate would’ve pursued very different path. Maybe he would’ve stopped the crucifixion of Jesus.

Yet even in that, God’s work was done. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know the fullness of God’s compassion and God’s abundant and amazing forgiveness and the work of God for life that just will not stop.

I’m going to conclude by suggesting you are hypocrites, but you are faithful hypocrites. You are sinners, but you are simultaneously saints and sinners. You render to God, but you also render to Caesar and the corrupt powers of this world. Even more, you are rendered by those powers. They render you helpless or trapped, in bondage, captive to sin. You are stuck supporting systems you’d prefer not to, trapped by taxes you don’t want to pay, ensnared by a consumer lifestyle, captive to carbon emissions by which you cause climate change, to prejudices and racisms you may not even always realize exist. For your life and for the good of others, it is indeed a terribly important choice to struggle against those oppressive forces that are rendering you an agent of evil, or of Caesar, opposing God.

But also know you are rendered an agent of God. The God who has given you 100% of your blessings and sustains you through every breath will continue striving for you, and with you. God doesn’t wait for you to perfect yourself, won’t repay you for your actions, never renders evil for evil, but always will be the God of life. You don’t get more just when you’ve proven you can do the right thing. It’s not taken away from you when you do wrong. God in Christ receives when you’re at your most considerate and devoted and doing your best, but God in Christ will just as much pursue blessing when you’re malicious and miserable and selfish and broke and broken.

Even when you’ve squandered 100% and given it to exactly the wrong place, the God of our whole universe is still working with that total. You can’t take anything away from God. God recycles and recreates you from the ashes of your past, from dead ends and even rising out of death. This is the true power. You are entrapped by Jesus, held captive and kept tightly in God’s love. It doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet. When God looks at your face, all that shows is the image of Jesus.

Hymn: Take My Life, That I May Be (ELW #583)