Year B, Lent 1 February 18, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”
So I preached about money in October, sex a few of weeks ago, and I’m working on a sermon on evangelism. I think the only thing that I could preach on that would make Episcopalians more uncomfortable than those topics is the topic of our sermon on this, the First Sunday in Lent: Satan.
When was the last time you heard that word uttered in church? Anyone recall? Well, the funny thing is that it was last week, in the Examination of the Candidate in Trinidad’s Baptism. We asked “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” And then a few lines down we are asked “Do you turn to Jesus and accept Him as your Savior?” and that’s the last you’ll hear of that sort of thing. Get it taken care of at the beginning and you don’t need to worry about it again. If only that were the case.
St. Mark’s gospel is concise and sparse about most things, and Mark’s telling of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is no exception. The Holy Spirit drove Him there and “He was… tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it. No bread from stones, no command of the world, no pinnacle of the temple like in Matthew and Luke. Mark’s Satan is less specific, but is very much there.
Satan. What does that mean? Well in Hebrew the word means Adversary. That is pretty straight forward. But Satan goes by a lot of names in Scripture. The one testifying against Job is the Accuser. Isaiah uses Lucifer. The meaning of Satan evolved over the course of the Hebrew Bible, leaving off where we Christians pick up, as the prince of angels and their host who broke with God and fell were thrown out of heaven. In the New Testament, the word Satan occurs throughout, but other monikers are used: the evil one, the enemy, the ruler of this world; the god of this aeon; and, murderer from the beginning and father of lies. Holy Scripture, which gives our faith its vocabulary and narrative trajectory, includes Satan. Definitively.
In biblical theology, Satan, no matter what name is used, indicates forces in opposition to God. From the beginning, page 4 in my Bible, forces, a tendency, something has been in opposition to God. Sometimes this is talked about as evil forces being at war with the will that created everything, the Creator, God. As our tradition tells it, that war culminates in the Passion, in the horror of Jesus of Nazareth’s ascent of Golgotha. Look around at the Stations of the Cross, horrible, the devil’s work. But it happened. Great is the mystery of faith. The Cross defeated Satan in that we, all of us, are reconciled to God; we have a chance. But Satan persisted, the opposition of God continued in the New Testament record of the church and continues, and will continue until the fullness of time, when everyone and everything is reconciled to God. If you want to skip the end, Revelation 20 is interesting with Satan being cast into a lake of fire and sulfur and torment “day and night forever and ever.”
So is the discomfort is growing? I have this daunting book The Concise Sacramentum Mundi edited by the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. It is 1800 pages concise (which guess is concise relative to the 6 volume un-concise version). In the passage on “The Devil” that Rahner himself writes, he warns that when preaching or teaching on Satan to expect “skepticism from people accustomed to the scrupulous empiricism of the natural sciences.”
Fair enough. Thinking about apostate angels and tempters and “father of lies” doesn’t compute. Possession and evil spirits don’t qualify as “true” or “real” in our evidenced based world. And neither do the miracles. Or the Transfiguration we heard about last week. Or the Ascension, or Pentecost with the Holy Spirit sweeping over the faithful like a flame, or descending like a dove. Or the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. None of those equations balance either. But that is where faith comes in. Faith is a legitimate source of knowledge, as legitimate as any other source of knowledge such as logic or empiricism. That means that the insights you gain in silence, are real. It means that the consolation you feel in your heart when you know someone loves you, is true. Faith as a legitimate source of knowledge means that that union with Ultimate Reality, the Holy One of Blessing, God that you experience when you take the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ actually happens. It is a legitimate experience even though there is no metric to measure it, no sensor to record it, no peer review needed or possible.
So if faith informs us about the good stuff, we need to keep our eyes wide open about the bad stuff, too. Rahner suggests that “people today must have their attention drawn to the sinister supra-human power of evil in history.” That’s what we mean when we talk about it as a war between good and evil, between Satan’s own and God’s. It is not hard to see that in our history, in this present moment. Evil is everywhere, in many forms. This is where I’d usually offer a litany of the forms of evil, but evil is something we all recognize. Remember, evil does not need to have a will, it is results based. But it often seems willful, so we attach a personality to it. It makes it easier for humans to deal with something that seems like, well, human, than it does with an abstract concept like evil. So we invented Satan to put a name and face to the evil that permeates the world.
When suffering happens, Satan, evil caused it. Suffering is the chief fruit of evil. So we can talk of a hurricane as a natural evil, or the crimes of a deranged person unable to tell right from wrong. And there is moral evil, that is evil done by commission or omission by people who do (or should) know better. You know as well as I examples of evil in this world, from the massacre in that Broward County high school to the stories you keep deep inside yourself; they are Legion. They are Legion, and they are and have been and will continue to be on the warpath.
C.S. Lewis has a lot to say about this, about the ongoing war between Satan and the forces of Goodness, Truth and Beauty. According to Lewis, Christianity, is a “fighting religion.” He describes the world as being in the midst of a rebellion in heaven and earth, the forces of evil, Satan, allied against the forces of good, of God. And we, humans, we exist in enemy territory. That is C.S. Lewis. Satan has the upper hand on earth. Look around. That would answer a lot of “Whys?” Why is it like this? Why would someone do that? Evil is abroad in the world. I have described the church as being an outpost or an embassy of the Kingdom of God. I told that to a priest friend of mine and he added, “or a beachhead.” That sounds terrible and warlike. Well, it is. Look at human history.
For many, most of us, who live in the bubble of South Eugene, we don’t face much real strife. Most of us don’t fear for our safety very often. We will not be bombed, or step on a land mine. No one is going to take from you what you need to live, or force you out of your home. Those are encounters with evil. Someone having ill intent towards you, violent intent or action. Most of us in this room don’t experience that very often, or not at all, maybe even never have; but not everyone. Especially women. The rates of violence and threats of violence women experience is staggering. If you are in any way different from what is conventionally normal, you are at greater risk. Even if it is largely not like that here and now, or for us, for many in the world, over all of our history, the world often has been, often is a scary, hostile, and decidedly dangerous place. Evil, Satan, exists.
Why doesn’t God just flush Satan out of the world? Well, because the evil of the world, the moral evil any way, is in us. Satan lives in a little corner of each of our hearts and minds and bodies. Completely intertwined. And that is all of us. We all have the capacity to do horrendous things. What percentage of Germans went along with the Nazis? Most. Almost all of them. Maybe they weren’t excited about it, or even hated it, but they went along, the banality of evil, and sixty million people died all over the world in some of the most horrible ways conceivable. Were those Germans outliers? No. They were human. Most of us would do the same. Go along to get along, don’t rock the boat are the most basic forms of evil and we all do that all the time. God doesn’t just sweep it always because we can’t separate the evil from ourselves. It is a smudge, a stain on humanity and that stain has had time to set, it can’t just be washed out. God tried that. We heard the end of the Noah story this morning. It didn’t work, and God said that that was not going to happen again, but that there would be a new, everlasting covenant, signed with a rainbow, a covenant with all people, not just Israel. The Earth would not flood again, God would find a different way to redeem the creation, to repair the rift, to remove the stain of sin and hate rather than hit the escape button again. Enter the necessity of Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ, we have a chance. Well, it is more than a chance, it is a way. The Way. On this Way, we are shown how to be resilient in the face of evil, even horrendous evil. Greater than that, we are given a way to resist Satan, to face it head on and shine God’s healing light through our intention and action in the world. In Jesus Christ we have a chance not only to survive, but to live, and live abundantly, and help others do the same.
What does that look like? “Rest into the blessed assurance of Jesus Christ and all will be well.” Yes it will be. But how do you translate what too often are just religious platitudes to your average Tuesday morning reading the paper. Knowing that in the fullness of time all will be well, all will be well, every manner of thing will be well, that’s first. That is Christian hope. But hope is really nothing more than holy patience. And being patient takes a lot of work.
Things are not going to fix themselves. Satan is relentless, like weeds in a garden. You can’t let up, you must be vigilant or you will never find those strawberries before the mice do. But evil is not the surf. It is not the flow of water to the sea. Or will of life, weeds and otherwise, that will always push and push, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” and every other living thing. Evil is not inevitable, not unstoppable or insurmountable. That’s God.
So what do we do in this world covered, as it is, with Satan’s fingerprints? Be patient. Being patient is not capitulation, it is strategic posturing. Be mindful of the world around you. Where does evil lurk in your corner of the world? Who around you is suffering? Why? What can you do about it? A lot of us despair when we consume news, so much evil so evident in so many places! Joan Halifax, a noted Zen Roshi, speaks of empathetic distress; the dissonance that occurs in our heart when we encounter suffering that we have no agency to do anything about it. There is enough of that in our own homes to occupy us for lifetimes, beware seeking it around the globe. Wendell Berry is very clear that the notion of Think Globally, Act Locally is impossible, dangerous. Human beings can’t think globally. Trying to has gotten us where we are today. We need to think local, act local, and deal with what you can deal with, and for most of us, that is our neighbors in our own neighborhoods, and first and foremost, ourselves.
So be active. Where you see suffering, don’t turn away. Do what you can. Nothing inspires hope in the world more than helping someone. (And hope gives Satan chronic indigestion). Works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal, are definitive remedies for the evil of the world. Try on volunteering at 2nd Sunday Breakfast this Lent. Go to the next Egan training. Our own Hospitality Village and Home Starter Kit ministries need your effort! So does our Sunday school.
Be mindful of what you are capable of. We had a class on clergy sexual abuse when I was at Divinity School, and the professor said something like, “Well, I know no one here will ever do anything like this, but…” Wrong. We are all capable of the very worst, and the very worst happens too often because you weren’t aware of the possibility of it happening. A clear and open mind is a formidable opponent to evil. Be mindful.
Be mindful of your mind. Do you let your mind take you where it wants, or do you exercise some control? Jesus talks about sinning with our thoughts. Moral evil starts there: in a wandering mind. Thoughts come, all sorts of thoughts, ugly ones, sometimes. Violent thoughts, licentious ones, they happen in everyone’s mind, but you don’t have to engage them. Don’t play with them, or give them your conscious attention. When I hear a confession, I hear it, it comes in, but when absolution is given, I put it aside. I remember it, but I don’t, I actively don’t think about it or engage it because that is not my business, I am a vessel of the church. You are not your mind. You are more than your mind. You have control. (And if or when you don’t, pray – that’s a way to give control back to God.)
When I look out into the world, be it our train-wreck of a political landscape or state of the environment, or the fact that hundreds of people will be freezing tonight, maybe dying right outside these doors because we, I don’t care enough to really do something about it, I get very frustrated, and in that frustration I can get very angry. Very angry. Anger can be righteous, Jesus was angry, but it can also be toxic. It can rot away our good will and get us all murky about means and ends or throwing up arms in helpless disgust and stomping away. Another way to say it is that it makes straight the path for Satan into your heart. I am trying, really trying to be less angry and intentionally more sad; less vengeful and intentionally more heartbroken, and oddly, being sadder and heartbroken, I am feeling more hopeful. Maybe I am just feeling more. Isn’t that what Jesus is teaching when He tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Meeting hate with hate, violence with violence, evil with evil Satan with the satanic just brings more hate and violence and evil and Satan into a world already overflowing with all of that. We need less of that, and more love, for love is the foundation of the Kingdom of God.
Satan is the anthropomorphization of evil. It puts a human-like face and a human-like will on a quite human tendency, defying or flat our opposing the will of God. It is real. It is pervasive. It causes immeasurable suffering. And in Jesus Christ, its days are numbered. As we journey through Lent together, be mindful of where the Adversary tempts you, and remember the other Way Jesus offers in His love and Sacrifice for you. AMEN