The Psalmist says, “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forevermore; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.”
Let us pray: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be found acceptable in your sight, O lord my strength and redeemer.
Today’s gospel deals with Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is one of the comparatively few places in the New Testament where Satan is depicted. This text gives us the means of talking about the notion of Satan, an accuser, a devil as a personification of evil. The question is can we, today, conceive of Satan in this postmodern world? Or is our modern inability to conceive of Satan another aspect of our denial of the reality of extreme and powerful evil.
A Seminary professor of mine, Dr. Willimon, shared that he wrote a book on sin, evil, and the Christian life and received a letter in response rebuffing the stance that Willimon had taken in his book. In that book, he took the conventional view that “when discussing sin and evil, the idea of the existence of a personal devil, or Satan, was not very helpful.” He wrote, “the evil is more in us, than outside of us. Besides, those who say, when they have done wrong, ‘The devil made me do it,’ are probably just trying to excuse their own sinful behavior.” The letter he received was from a woman who had been a pastor for a few years. He recalled her writing, “what you say about there being no real Satan may be true. However, as a woman pastor, I have come to believe that, if evil does not have a name, Satan, or the devil, it ought to. I came, she said, into the ministry because God called me here. I have sacrificed and worked to gain the skills to be a pastor. They are wanting to be good and to do good. For the most part, my ministry among them has been well received. But not completely. I have seen good people do some terrible things. I have witnessed a depth of cruelty, some, but not all of it directed toward me, that has shocked me. I am now willing to believe that our lives are not entirely our own, that we are in the grip of something, someone who leads us down dark paths. In short, I am more willing than you to conceive of Satan.”
Jesus, during his lifetime, was aware of evil and had witnessed a depth of cruelty that was meted out to some, but not all. He had seen how the lives of certain people were not entirely their own, they were at the beck and call of others. He had seen people without food, not that there was no food to be had – just no food for some. He had seen how easy it was for some to get ahead and prosper, in ways that were not always ethical or legal. He had seen how some were not held accountable for the devasting atrocities they had committed. Jesus was also more than willing to conceive of Satan.
We pick up the story where Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus has been baptized and as he is praying, scriptures say, the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven saying: “you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led by the Spirit in the desert, or wilderness as some translations say, “where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil and ate nothing, and at the end of them he was hungry.” In my sanctified imagination I see Jesus as tired and weary, after 40 days he is weak in body and lagging in spirit. He was just wanting to get home, eat a light meal, take a bath, get into some fresh clean clothes, go to bed, and get some sleep. I am sure the tempter saw that as well and thought this would be an opportune time to score another point against God. You see Jesus knew that there is in us and among us very strong opposition to love, health, wholeness, and peace. God had called Jesus to do the work of God here on earth. These temptations were not figments of his imagination, and he was not just overcoming his own natural inclinations after being in the desert for 40 days. Just listen to the temptations presented: turn stones to bread – the hungry hope so; take political control – the oppressed hope so; leap from the temple – those longing for proof of God’s power among us hope so. We, as people of God, are not tempted to do what we cannot do but what is within our power to do. You see there is evil within the universe that is greater than our own creations.
There was a little black girl, who lived in the south during the early 1950’s, when it was customary for Black people to ride in the back of the bus. This little girl wanted to watch the passing landscape from the windows in the front door because she was too small to watch through the windows in the regular seats and she was not allowed to kneel in the seats of the bus to look out the windows. There was no one sitting on the bench seat behind the driver, and this was the perfect place to sit or so she thought. Her Mother had told her they were to sit in the back of the bus and preceded her to the rear, but the little girl stopped and climbed up on the bench seat to look out the windows on the door. Her Mother tried to get her attention without disturbing the other white folk on the bus, but the child was not having any of that. She was enthralled by how fast the bus whizzed by the trees and bushes and homes. She was just staring out the bus door windows. Then the loud voices around her finally penetrated her fascination. Loud and angry and mean voices from big men and big women. Her Mother came up to the front to get her all the while apologizing and the little girl realized the white men and white women were yelling at her and her mother and she did not know why. When they returned home her mother spanked her and tried to explain how her actions could have meant death for the whole family. She could not understand that, how could her sitting on the bench seat cause people to kill her and her family? She did not understand. Years later recalling the incident and the times and the prevailing thought that Black people were not human, she realized that it was more than just a few loud men and women that there was a prevailing evil that called for them to serve something or someone other than God and demand death for a Black child for just sitting in the front of the bus. Evil of that magnitude has a name. The pain and anguish suffered by the victims of injustice, causes one to realize that sin and evil beyond just sin and evil is real and so horrendous we have a name for it.
Luke wants us to know that the resistance against Jesus was organized, it was subtle, and it was a genuine threat. In resisting Satan, Jesus was not just 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, evil even greater than that of our own creation. When Jesus faced these kinds of evil temptations, he had decisions to make, and he responded to the tempter by using the Scriptures that spoke to God’s purposes for life and the call to serve and worship God. In these three instances Jesus adhered to the faithfulness of the call and purpose of God. Even though Satan or the devil departed, he was not gone for good. He is to return. He has worked on Jesus alone in the wilderness, later he will work on Jesus through his disciples, his closest friends as Jesus continues the journey to the cross.
During our lifetime we will be tempted. We can agree on that. Will it be so great a temptation that we will think of it as being something greater than evil and thus name it Satan? Will it be something that attempts to rob us of our control, discipline, reason, and humanity all at once. During our time of being tempted, as Jesus was, will we stand firm and adhere to the faithfulness of the call and purpose of God? Will we recognize that there is a tempter in our midst, or will we think it is our own voice inside our head? Will we think of temptations as bad deeds or life altering actions to our identity as God’s people? Are we being tempted or being offered offers of worldly success? Will we respond as God’s people?
As we are in the midst of an unjust legal system, political greed and corruption, poverty in the midst of great wealth, gun violence, hunger, the new Jim Crow, environmental destruction, the Russian/Ukrainian war; and as we determine what our narrative is we see some people getting rich and others are becoming famous; some are suffering devasting loss and many are dying. For some of us this is evil, admittedly great evil. For others of us this goes way beyond evil to powers and principalities at work. For the human suffering is tremendous in all these acts. Have we been tempted by any of these or others that you can think of, to build up our wealth, our image, to have a better life for our family, better schools for our children if we just vote a particular way or make an introduction, or take a kickback or help a friend skip ahead, because no one will ever know? Is it something, that if we do, we will adopt a different life story?
I believe that there is something greater than evil that wants to grab our very souls, change our narrative, and separate us from God. I believe there is a force that pushes us to the walls to get us to change our life’s narrative of God, God’s call, and God’s promises. Patterns of faithfulness that we learned in worship and study of God’s word. There is something that wants to change the habits of our hearts that are attuned to loving God and neighbor.
I believe there is something bigger than you and me in the universe that does not have our interest or God’s at heart and seeks to separate us one from another. I call it Satan; you don’t have too as long as you are able to stand firm on your faith and God’s word when you are tempted with desires that show the discrepancy between the biblical promises and the actual events that go on around us. Maybe at that time, if you don’t now, you will think in terms of naming that which surpasses evil – Satan.