Sunday, February 25, 2007

Remember Satan? - Luke 4:1-12

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 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.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

I suspect that many of you drove by the church sign this week or came in this morning and looked at the sermon title in your bulletin and couldn’t believe what you were seeing. For those of you who are not worshiping with us here in the sanctuary, the title of today’s sermon is “Remember Satan?” I received an email from Brad Farrington, campus minister at the Wesley Foundation, jokingly letting me know that good United Methodist pastors don’t preach sermons about Satan. I replied back that the jury was still out as to whether or not I qualify as a “good” United Methodist pastor.

As I studied and prepared the sermon this week, I kept thinking of “Church Lady” – Dana Carvey’s character from Saturday Night Live. You all remember her response to anything she didn’t particularly agree with – “Could it be Satan?”

Think of the way Satan has come to be portrayed in our culture. He’s that little guy with a pitchfork in red pajamas who sits on your left shoulder. He always tells you the exact opposite of the character who sits on your right shoulder, the one with white pajamas and a halo. He’s the one to whom you sell your soul for fame or fortune, or power and prestige; the one who always leads us willfully into bad and evil things.

We see these caricatures, and most of us know they’re not accurate. We’re thinking, rational people, and these understandings of evil don’t line up with our experience or anyone else’s. We now have reasonable explanations for what people used to give Satan credit for. What used to be demonic possession can now be described as acute schizophrenia. What used to be sin is now unrealized potential. What used to be evil is now simply the absence of good. And because we’ve been able to deconstruct the roles that Satan used to fill, it’s easy for us to deconstruct Satan as well.

At this point, roughly half of you are rolling your eyes, thinking I can’t be serious, and am about to launch into some hyper-conservative rant that will put the fear of God into you and have you constantly looking over your shoulder to see if the devil is sneaking up on you. But, roughly another half of you are afraid I’m about to launch into some hyper-liberal rant that will completely deconstruct any notion of personified evil and tell you the devil is nothing more than a projection of our imagination, a name for our deepest fears, or perhaps a bit of undigested meat.

However, most of you who know me well know that I don’t tend to gravitate toward one pole or the other. Indeed, I find both of these extremes to miss the point, and will attempt to articulate a new way for us to look at Satan, evil, and temptation that is faithful to the text, the Christian experience, and our God-given faculties. May we pray.

Our text this morning tells us Jesus was led into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. It doesn’t say he struggled with psychological issues, deep-seeded fears, or social projections. But, nor does it say the devil was wearing red pajamas, carrying a pitch fork, and walked up to Jesus and said, “Hi, my name’s Beelzebub. I’ve scheduled a 2:30 temptation, and if it’s all right, I’d like to proceed with that now.”

Granted, it would certainly be easier if temptation were readily identifiable. If the guy in red pajamas and the pitchfork shows up, we could simply say, “Oh, that’s Satan, and I’d better not listen to him.” If temptation always came wrapped in tape that said, “WARNING – TEMPTATION INSIDE” we’d know not to follow it.

However, as none of us has ever seen such a character or opened such a package, we can too easily begin to believe that there is no Satan. But I believe one of the greatest lies the devil ever told us was that he doesn’t exist. The idea of personified evil was really nothing more than psychological projection, we convince ourselves. The modern world has a long history of reducing religious faith to nothing more than psychological or social projection, and we in the church have done just that. If Satan is only a projection of our evil tendencies then why is not God only a projection of our good tendencies?

Here’s the thing: Satan, the devil, evil – whatever name you use – doesn’t look like we expect it to. We’d like to see the world in completely black and white terms, but there are more shades of gray than I care to count. Evil is so hard to identify because it looks an awful lot like the good it’s mixed in with. The Bible says that Satan often “masquerades as an angel of light.” Evil likes to hide itself in with the good. So Scott Peck, in his book about evil (People of the Lie) says that one good place to look for evil is at church, not because church is inherently evil, it’s just that church is where evil attempts to hide itself among the good.

Not too long ago, there was a woman who did not care for the pastor who had been appointed to her church. She ran into him in the grocery store, and after idle chit-chat about the weather, he mentioned that he’d missed seeing her in worship lately. She said she just hadn’t really felt like going lately. The pastor simply said, “That’s the devil getting to you.” The woman looked up, and said, “You know, you’re right. And he walks down the center aisle of that church every Sunday morning in a black robe.”

I know she meant this comment as an insult, and I know her pastor took it as one, but I believe this woman has also unknowingly articulated a profound understanding of evil. Evil is most at home when it hides among the good. It is easy for us to say that evil has no face, has no name, has no personality if we have never been able to see it. But the truth is, we probably come face-to-face with it every day, and are so accustomed to it we don’t even see it.

It is easy for most of us – people who have never encountered real injustice or cruelty, people who are reasonably well-fed, and in good health and comfortable – to dismiss the idea of Satan as outmoded, na├»ve and unnecessary.

But I am unwilling to completely deconstruct Satan, or the devil, or evil, or whatever name you choose to use. It is no kindness, to tell someone who has been encountered by real evil, that evil is only some warped projection of our human psyche, a result of improper education or poor childrearing practices. The pain and anguish suffered by the victims of injustice, sin, and evil are real, but we only add to that pain when we tell those victims to buck up, snap out of it, or take their medication. When we treat the problem of evil as some sort of internal, personal problem, we’re telling people that whatever suffering they endure is their own fault.

Here’s the thing: if Satan is nothing more than a projection of the evil within us, then God is nothing more than a projection of the good within us. The reason this breaks down is because we have all experienced forces outside of ourselves and outside of our control. If evil and good are nothing more than psychological projections, then how on earth does a projection of our imaginations have such power over us?

When Luke says that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he wants us to know that evil, even when it encounters the Son of God, has a face, a personality. It is organized, it is subtle, and it even quotes Scripture just as well as Jesus does. In resisting temptation, Jesus refuses to grant evil sovereignty over the will of God. Satan knew who Jesus was, and he knew what God was capable of doing. But he was interested in turning the power of God into a sideshow that he could turn on and off at whim. He wanted God to display power simply for his own entertainment, and at his command. And the moment that were to happen, God is no longer God. He becomes a charlatan and a magician performing party tricks, and Satan is the one who calls the shots as to when those tricks happen.

That’s the temptation many of us face, as well. The devil doesn’t tempt us to abandon our belief in God – that’s too easy – we’re not going to fall for that. The word for devil in Greek – diabolos – literally means “one who throws things around,” or “stirs things up,” of confuses things.” He doesn’t want us to abandon our belief in God, he just wants us to believe the wrong things about God. He tempts us to believe that God is a magician who performs at our party, or a genie who pops out of our bottle, and who does any number of tricks at the time we designate. One of the greatest temptations in life is to want God to prove himself to us on our command. But, according to Will Willimon in a lecture he delivered on Monday, “God seldom behaves according to our desires, our wishes, our wants.” Try as we do to squeeze God into a box of our own making, God is not an errand boy to be summoned at our whim.

But even more, as Jesus resisted temptation, he overcame a genuine threat. He was not overcoming his own natural inclinations; Jesus was confronting and defeating the principalities and powers: the evil not just within the human heart, but the evil within the whole universe, an evil that is even greater than our own creation.

We all come today, facing a variety of temptations, and perhaps find ourselves stuck in patterns of sin we’d rather not face. Many of us are struggling with these things alone, having bought into the lie that there is no devil, and so the source of our difficulty must be down somewhere within us. What is that thing? What is it that weighs you down so heavily? What prevents you from experiencing the new life and freedom promised in Jesus Christ? What baggage are you carrying around with you – that thing that has plagued you for years, that thing you’d be ashamed if anyone ever found out about. You don’t have to carry it anymore, for as Jesus stood against his own temptations, he also wishes to stand against your temptation and lift your burden. As big as evil can be, Jesus is still bigger and more powerful.

Hear the good news this first Sunday in Lent: whatever you’re up against, you don’t have to stand against it alone. This community of faith – this extension of the body of Christ – stands with you. Whatever you face, whatever wilderness you find yourself in this morning. Jesus, who knows what its like to look evil squarely in the eye, stands with you. Though temptation is real, Satan does not have the last word, and through Jesus Christ, we are more than conquerors, thanks be to God.

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