The First Sunday of Lent, March 6, 2022: The Rev. Dr. Harmon Smith

Lent 1-C
6 February 2022
St. Titus, Durham

Deut 26:1-11
Rom 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

The Lord be with you…Let us pray. Gracious Father, we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, so we beg you to defend us against all adversities and evils that may happen to our bodies and souls; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Good morning. I hope you are safe and healthy; and I’m glad to preach again because I want to praise God while I’ve breath. So I offer this sermon as always to the glory of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and for
the benefit of his people.

We began the 40 days of Lent last Wednesday – and today we are invited to talk about our Lord’s temptations and his tempter. Since Lent is meant to be our time in a virtual desert – a season for us to share Jesus’ temptations by embracing various sorts of self-denial and deprivation in honor of him – in remembering our Lords’ 40 days in the wilderness, I want to say some things about this other guy – who is variously called Lucifer, Satan, or the devil. I am seldom asked about this fellow – but I think he needs talking about because he is personally present in the Bible from beginning to end, and many of us feel that a presence like his hovers over us. In fact, his name is being frequently used worldwide now to describe unprovoked aggression and death.

Our primitive ancestors undertook to account for what they perceived to be evil in their world; so early on our childish innocence is exposed to wickedness and we learn the story of how sin and the devil came into the world. I have long been intrigued by this story and I try hard to understand the truth it means to tell; and in that process, I’ve thought often of Jesus and his role. But more recently I’ve thought that we can profitably take a closer look at his antagonist.

Both Judaism and Christianity view Satan as a fallen angel who arrogantly tried to usurp the position of the Lord God Almighty. In the Bible he becomes a person, and his personality gets ‘fleshed-out’ in the OT as a vague and hazy figure; but in the NT there is much more clarity and definition of who he is and how he works.1 He first appears in the Garden of Eden as the “father of lies” who takes the form of a serpent, tempts Adam and Eve, and they disobey God. After this, during a meeting between God and Satan, God decrees that Eve’s descendants’ will bruise’ Satans’ head and that Satan will ‘strike at the heel” of her descendants (3:15).

Then a personified Satan appears in many of the NT books and this begins the process of a historical incarnated devil – as in the witches of Salem or Hitler and now perhaps Vladimir Putin. Finally, in Johns’ Revelation (23) Satan is chained for 1000 years and his downfall is announced (55:12-16). But he is not dead. He has been defeated but remains dangerous, much like a wounded animal who redoubles efforts to kill or maim.

The gospel accounts are consistent with how the early Hebrews accounted for evil in God’s good world. Lucifer, Satan, and the devil are three different names for the same angel and he’s always masculine. Diabolos (διάβολος) is the Greek word for Devil, who is the personification of a fallen angel who tried to usurp the position of the Lord God Almighty. And while Lucifer is the name of this angel when he lived in heaven, in Judaism and Christianity he is known as Satan. So Satan, Lucifer, and the devil are names
for this same angel after he became evil and was sent to earth.

Incidentally, the Hebrew word, satan, is a noun from a verb that means to obstruct or oppose; and for more etymology, ‘ha’ is the Hebrew word for ‘the’ – so ‘ha-Satan’ is ‘the adversary’ or ‘the opposer’ or “the obstructionist”. This is the title [‘ha satan’] that is bestowed on what was believed to be a real being. And the Bible says that ha satan was an angelic being who was created by God but rebelled against God before the creation of mankind. He then got cast down from heaven to earth – takes the form of a snake in the Garden of Eden and manages to seduce Eve and Adam to disobey God. And that’s how evil that originated in heaven enters the perfectly created world that God said was ‘good’.

The practical result of all this is the creation of a real being who can be blamed for every mishap and misfortune, whether human or cosmic. Phrases like “Satan caused this” or “the devil made me do it” came to life; and from then until now individual accountability dissolved as both persons and organized groups began excusing their personal behaviors as responses to the satanic episodes of others. Just look carefully at our political rhetoric these days.

But for us to talk about Satan may sound odd because we are here specifically to worship God. In addition, many of us think of the USA as a Christian nation in which ca. 2/3ds (65% ) of our population claims to follow Jesus. So to talk about Satan may distract us. We believe we are a nation founded on trust in God and religious liberty. Then in 2001 the Supreme Court handed down a historic rule: viz., that any religious group is free operate after-school programs in public school buildings; and there are now ca. 5000 ‘Good News Christian schools’ programs nationwide. Recently the Satanic Temple in Moline, Illinois, opened an after-school program called “Satan’s Club”; and, of course, Christian parents began protesting, even though the Satanic Temple says its followers don’t believe in a literal devil. But a literal devil or no, evil is ubiquitous; and people need to give it a name because we cannot deal with a nameless spirit.

So reflecting on today’s gospel, it’s not a stretch to think that while our encounters with evil are more subtle and not as grand as those Jesus confronted, they are nontheless very real for us. That reality seems especially clear in Luke’s pericope. When Jesus is weakened by hunger at the end of his fast, he gets subjected by the devils’ three grand temptations.

Jesus is reported to have talked with the devil 6 times in the NT2, mostly in Matthew; and most biblical scholars agree that these episodes of Jesus talking with the devil are strong evidence that Satan was not fictitious but a real, existential part of Jesus’ experience. So, if Satan was real for Jesus, can he also be real for us? Should he be real for us? What are we to make of the relevance to our own lives of the temptation narratives in the synoptic gospels?

This is the seque to today. According to recent data, the majority of US Christians in ‘mainline’ churches do not believe that the devil actually exists and that he therefore did not confront Jesus with these temptations. They say that God’s victory over Satan occurred on Jesus’ Cross where death itself was defeated. On the other hand, according to an AP-AOL poll, up to 97% of ‘conservative’ Christians believe that angels exists – and that Satan is a fallen angel; he is real and he exists. Perhaps because the concept of a devil is so anachronistic – so primitive – so unenlightened – most of us in ‘mainline’ churches have ‘allegorized’ these temptations to suppose they exist only in the minds of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and maybe even in the mind of Jesus as well. As a consequence, Satan or the devil has been relegated to the realm of fiction and horror films – and the fact of evil has been caricatured as a Frankenstein monster.

But the Judean wilderness still lends historical credibility to Luke’s account; I’ve been there. Much of it is treeless – and covered with sharp-edged and brittle stones that are a lot like granite or flint. Walking about, you can see soft, flat stones scattered on the ground that can actually can look like loaves of bread baking on the wilderness floor. Sometimes they’re even in piles – as if a baker had just pulled them out of an oven and made them ready to eat. The site of them reminded me of how fasting – even briefly for a medical exam – is really uncomfortable and may even cause the occasional hallucination or optical illusion. So I can imagine that as Jesus fasted for 40 days, with his hunger gnawing at him, everything about him might have reminded him of food. And I can see how Jesus’ 1st temptation was to turn those soft, flat, round stones into bread and satisfy his personal need for food.

Reflecting on his temptation, some have suggested that it’s alright to put our own needs first – especially when taking care of our own needs is a precondition for looking after the needs of others. Every care-giver knows that this is a real human temptation because it makes such good common sense to say that we’re no good for others if we don’t take care of ourselves. I’ve said that myself. But however true that may be, it can elide into something self-serving; and this first temptation is the sobering object lesson for us that our purposes for ourselves do not trump God’s purposes for us. We need to get out of our own way so that we can be in God’s way. Jesus knew that we do not live by bread alone – that there is more to faith than food – and that people’s lives are not sustained by bread alone but by the blessings that come from the Word of the Lord.

Then the 2nd temptation may be the most insidious of all. What a beguiling and tantalizing offer – to be given all the kingdoms of the world – more than Alexander the Great – more than anybody had ever had – if only he would venerate and reverence the devil. The timing is perfect. I can imagine a young person in a similar situation. Much as Jesus has just been baptized – not yet preached his first sermon – or cast out a demon or healed a leper or cleansed a temple or raised a body from the dead – this young person has just been hired, but hasn’t sold the first item. He’s a virtual nobody being offered everything – and now, suddenly, he is made an offer that is really hard to refuse. The whole world could be his without any of the horrible future that lies ahead of him. Just think – Jesus won’t have to deal with poor or sick people – no wrangling with customers – or vestries or high priests – no unruly crowds to endure – and best of all, no painful death on a cross. “If you will worship me, all this will be yours. What do you say?” “Ah, not a chance – no way – no shortcuts – no quibbling – it is written that we must worship the Lord your God and serve only him”.

The final temptation was enticement to show-off by defying gravity – no subtlety about that. We know this temptation, too – and the cost of it. God had promised to protect his Son – so go ahead – jump off the pinnacle of the temple and let his angels catch you. The crowds will go bonkers – and if you survive, you will have more people following you than you could gather in a lifetime of less flamboyant performances. In a word, this third temptation was to turn Jesus’ vocation into a circus-like sideshow. Every test of this sort simply wants us to prove that God is on our side – so just throw yourself off the temple, and show us that the angels will save you. But Jesus quotes Deut 6:16 – where Moses tells the children of Israel that “you must not put the Lord your God to the test” because Jesus knew that one must trust God, not test him.

Despite the threat in the last line in today’s gospel – “when the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” – we know that God’s mercy is inexhaustible and that we are never separated from his loving embrace. It’s the simple declaration “I am” that domiciles the temptation to self-sufficiency, to self-authenticating, and autonomy; and Jesus is emphatic in saying “I am because God is”. That means within Gods’ covenant with us that is displayed in our Lords’ life, death, and resurrection, we have no use for a personified Satan. We test our faith all the time, and with some maturity many of us come to know that we are not autonomous and independent – but creatures who need a love that will not let us go, that no devil can overcome, that no evil can neutralize. So we learn that God steadfastly holds onto us – even in those times when we are tempted to do other than what we believe is right and just and good.

Remember that the practical result of all this is the creation of a real being who can be blamed for every mishap and misfortune, whether human or cosmic. If I believed in a real Satan, I would attribute to him the tendency to blame God or someone else for every tragic misadventure I experience. But I don’t. I will say that I think a kind of satanic spirit encourages us to impute evil to God or somebody else when I am too egocentric to take personal responsibility. I believe that evil and wickedness and corruption and sinfulness and malevolence and pernicious behavior are real and always waiting for an opportune time; but I also believe that the good Lord loves us despite our desultory faith and never releases us from his unmerited friendship. We are always tugged in both directions. Is that your personal experience as well?

Lent is a wonderful opportunity to think about our temptations and pray for strength to overcome them. Jesus’ three temptations are invitations to self-assertiveness, to unbelief, to power. In them he is tempted to exalt himself – to to be self-aggrandizing – to put pride of power in himself before the Father’s vocation for him. Because we are not strong enough to resist all of the temptations that confront us, I encourage you name the things that separate you from God and your neighbor – and resolve, with God’s help, to remedy them.

We don’t practice auricular confession much these days. Our liturgical prayers of confession are beautiful – but they deal too much in generalities. And that’s a temptation we should avoid by pausing long enough to identify our personal devils and temptations because we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. So when we pray the prayer of confession today, I’m asking Deacon Sarah to pause after “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent”, and allow us do that.

That practice of naming sins will make our confession specific and give us a peace that surpasses all understanding. So vaya con Dios – go with God – and claim the blessing of Gods’ forgiveness for your particular sins.

Now visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. So be it.

[1] to turn stones into bread, and prove that he is Son of God –
[2] to worship the devil and claim all the kingdoms of the world –
[3] and to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and thereby prove that he is the Son of God. Then to each of these temptations Jesus responds by recalling a portion of Hebrew scripture:
[1] as for turning stones into bread, he cites Deut 8:3 where it is writt that “people cannot live on bread alone, but that they live on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”;
[2] to the temptation to worship the devil, Jesus recalls the Ex. 20:3 version of the 10 Commandments – “You must have no other god besides me” – and Deut. 6:13, where Moses says that “You are to fear the Lord your God, and serve him only”;
[3] and, finally, when asked to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, He reminds the devil of Deut. 6:16,
where Moses’ instruction is “You must not put the Lord your God to the test”.

1 See Mk 3:22; Jno 12:31; Eph 2:2; II; Cor 4:4; Mt 4:3; II Thess 3:5′ II Thess 3:8-9; Lk 11:18; Mt 12:26; Mt 13:19; Eph 6:16; II Cor 6:15; II Cor 11:3; Rev 2:9.
2 Mt 4:10; Jno 8:44; Mk 5:7-8; Lk 10:19; Mt 4:7; Mt 25:1.

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