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.


Temptations and More

sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent        (Mark1:9-15; Genesis9:8-17)
We can start by whittling away at this Gospel reading.

We already heard vv9-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord festival in early January. A couple weeks later, we heard vv14 & 15 with the start of Jesus’ ministry and calling the first disciples. So of this Gospel reading, the only part we hadn’t heard recently was vv12 & 13. Somebody must have decided to stretch today’s story by adding on those other pieces, thinking we needed more context and content, or that you’d claim you hadn’t gotten your money’s worth at a Sunday service with only two verses of Gospel reading.

Now, the lectionary always has a story of the temptation of Jesus on the 1st Sunday in this season. At least in part that’s because our 40 days of Lent are somehow supposed to parallel the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. In years when we hear from Matthew or Luke, there’s actual content to the temptation story. Instead of Mark’s two verses, their versions go on for around a dozen verses, and also include plot and dialogue and action.

In Mark, we’re left with something like four characters with a single verb each. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn, since they have implications for you, too.

We might as well start with the Spirit, since she’s the big motivating factor in the reading. Verse 12 says, “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” Now our translation says this Spirit had descended “like a dove on him” at his baptism, but it would be better to say the Spirit is taking up residence in him. That’s not just because it’d be weird to picture Jesus walking around with a bird on his head, but more because this is what spirits do in the Gospel: they inhabit and claim you, taking over your life. Quite literally, they possess you. We’ve heard that of unclean spirits in recent weeks, but this is the clean spirit, the Holy Spirit, and those others unholy spirits.

That all makes it even more interesting that the Holy Spirit did the same thing to Jesus that he does to unclean spirits: it drove him out or cast him out. Mostly this is a word used for what Jesus did to demons, including three times in the first chapter alone. This is one of the differences that makes Mark’s version of this story so lively. In Matthew and Luke, it blandly says the Spirit led Jesus. Here in Greek, the Spirit literally “threw him out,” ekballei, like “ball” and ek like exit.

Now we can’t say exactly why we needed such a tough word of the Spirit expelling Jesus, with such oomph either away from society or out toward temptation. But it is a strong reminder for us of God’s work. If you imagined that the Spirit is only a gentle guide to lead you quietly, this says she’s a much more demanding and powerful force.

The only other time the Holy Spirit comes up in the Gospel is in giving you the words you need. Just as Jesus won’t allow you to be occupied by the negative spirits, so this holy protector and advocate comes strongly to your defense. And she seizes hold of you to operate in you for God’s good purposes. So that’s the first of our four characters and their single verbs.

Since we’re talking about the holy versus the unholy, or God’s good work and what tries to interrupt that, let’s proceed to Satan. Verse 13 begins, Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” Like the Spirit, Satan isn’t really a major character in the rest of Mark’s Gospel. In fact, the only other time Satan is identified is when Jesus rebuked him, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” But in that case, Jesus was talking to his closest disciple Peter, because Peter wanted to convince Jesus away from his mission, that he didn’t need to die on the cross. Satan is also symbolized as a bird that tries to pluck the seed of God’s Word away from us, so that our faith can’t cling to God’s promise, to grow in trust.

The word “tempted” is also rarely used in Mark’s Gospel. Each of three times is about Jesus being tested by the Pharisees, to try to get him to stumble in his teaching or to do a miracle. It’s worth noting that Jesus doing miracles on demand would be giving in to temptation. That’s because faith is about trust, and if Jesus is constantly on trial and proving himself there’s no room for trust. Just picture if you tested your loved ones every day, saying, “if you love me, prove it.” It would wreck the relationship.

Beyond that, we probably each have our own understandings of Satan or temptation, of what you recognize as evil or try to avoid for whatever reason. In Matthew and Luke, Satan tried to tempt Jesus in three different ways, which Martin Luther grouped into the headings of “the devil, the world, and your sinful self.” The sinful self are those internal, personal appetites or lusts. Maybe for you it’s candy or alcohol. Or related to sex or your looks or possessions. These may not be inherently bad, but get warped by our desires. The category of the world is pride, trying to prove yourself as better, wanting power or prestige over others.

The final, most insidious is the temptation to forsake God’s promise, to turn away from Jesus, to claim this way of suffering love is wrong. This is not doubt; doubt is trying to believe. No, this is despair, claiming you might as well stay in bed on Sunday because this doesn’t matter and there’s nothing special to be gained here. Or it is making your own categories of holiness to exclude others, of making God in your own image. Or maybe the opposite, of excluding a God who would love people like you. These are broad headings of how what we want gets corrupted and leads us away from God’s will for our lives, for our neighbors, and for the world.

For us, we know it’s a struggle we are constantly failing, which is why we need a forceful Holy Spirit, and also lots of forgiveness and grace. For Jesus, all it said was he was “tempted by Satan.” With that, we’ve managed to say a lot about just a couple words from Mark.

So let’s move on to the next cadre of characters: the wild beasts. This, again, is worth noticing as a detail specific to Mark. The wilderness isn’t just a venue for some sort of sudden death spiritual elimination round as Jesus and Satan duked it out. No, Mark says it was also a camping trip. Jesus was in communion with the other creatures.

I heard this talked about recently as if the wild animals were the next scariest thing after Satan. I don’t agree that that’s what’s going on here. It doesn’t say Jesus was fleeing from the wild beasts, but that he was with them. Neither do I expect this is a peaceable kingdom story quite yet, of the wolf and the lamb living together, hanging out with a harmless snake. It’s not a cartoon image. But it is important to notice that these creatures are part of the relationship with Jesus. They’re not left out.

Like in our 1st reading, with that beautiful ending of the flood. We could say so much about it. We picture Noah as the main character, but God is absolutely insistent that this blessing, this new covenant is for all creation. In fact, no less than five times God reiterates the promise, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth…between me and you and every living creature…all flesh.” Maybe it’s redundant not because the animals needed to hear it but because we humans need the reminder of the covenant, and that it’s about God’s work here on this earth. Jesus was with the wild beasts; they aren’t separated from what he’s up to.

It isn’t an individual gift for you, but is establishing blessing for all creation. Perhaps as you gather to be served the blood of the covenant here in the Lord’s Supper, you can also remember this. You share in this broad communion.

That brings us to the last characters in the temptation story. It says, “the angels waited on him.” Just as with the others, it is surprising for angels to show up here. Angels are normally messengers, delivering God’s word. Here they are instead serving food. You might notice that means Jesus isn’t fasting for the 40 days in this version. It’s also the same word of what Peter’s mother-in-law was able to do after Jesus healed her; she was able to go back to making snacks. The word in Greek is a familiar one: the angels were deacons. It was the typical word for serving food.

That also makes us think more of this table where we are gathered into God’s covenant. Where we commune, are united in the promise. Where we’re left to trust in Jesus’ presence with us, though it seems dubious or ridiculous, so unmiraculous. (Plain bread?!) Where we get to step out of our typical roles and practice serving each other.

There at the end of the temptation story, Jesus goes back into his mission and ministry, to regular life. Mark managed to set that stage in only two verses. For our part, we’ve really expanded on it.

So here’s a briefer recap: You arrived here, compelled by the Spirit to come. You are filled with and empowered by—or, even more strongly, possessed by—the Holy Spirit. Second, here you honestly face your own temptations. Third, it’s about understanding your vast community of neighbors on earth, and, fourth, for practicing hospitality and peace and caring. Finally, you are thrown back into daily life in the world to continue that work of serving and strengthening, of resisting evil and joining good.

Hymn: Lord Jesus, Think on Me (ELW #599)