Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
The devil is a very compassionate, knowledgeable and reasonable man, the prince of hell disguised as an angel of light. The scary part is that there is so much truth in it. Sometimes evil is easily identified, such as when people are murdered in their workplaces because of their political beliefs, ethnicity and religion. But more often than not, evil presents itself in the guise of an angel of light, much like Satan was when tempting Jesus. You don’t have to starve—just turn the stones to bread. You want the people to believe who you are—throw yourself off the temple, the angels will catch you, and the people will be dazzled. You want to be lord of creation, I will give it all to you if you worship me. Subtle, crafty, on the surface, quite logical, but the price exacted is the human soul.
Trying to find history in the account of Jesus’ temptation by Satan is an exercise in futility. It may well be history but it is not biography, it is theology, and theology is about truth more than fact. Matthew’s account of the temptation is his theological interpretation of what happened when Jesus was baptized by John. It confirms him as the Son of God, as the Messiah who is locked in the cosmic struggle with evil for the very life of the world. Evil is not vanquished as he overcomes his temptations—that happens on the cross. But even Satan knows who Jesus is. He sets up the temptations with, since you are the Son of God…. Even so, Satan is not the one in charge here. As the Holy Spirit presided over his baptism, the Spirit also led Jesus into the confrontation with Satan. It is the will of the Father that the Son be tested by hunger, by the lust for power, by idolatry. Satan is but the instrument of temptation.
As modern day Western skeptics, it is easy for us to dismiss this story of a real devil as the primitive musings of unsophisticated people. I am not here to debate with you the validity of personifying evil. I am here to tell you that evil is real, and whether it takes the form of a breathing creature who whispers in our ears or not, the power of this story resides in the deep Truth that it conveys. And there is a difference between fact and Truth. Those who cannot accept that Satan is as real as Jesus will dismiss this story as fiction and miss its truth. Those who can only consider evil in the form of Satan and his minions will appeal to the accuracy of its details and also miss its truth. This is a story of faith and obedience and the sovereignty of God. It is about singularity of purpose and an undivided heart. Jesus’ words about not being able to serve two masters are true, for it is so easy to be tempted down rabbit trails. Rabbit trails that seem so harmless, so reasonable, so, even good, on the surface, but which exact the human soul.
Of course we wonder what relevance this story about Jesus and the devil has in our lives. I have certainly never had a conversation with a visible devil, and I would bet very few in this room have. Nor have I ever been whisked about from place to place like on some cosmic Star Trek transporter as Jesus was. The nature of my temptations are far removed from those he faced, which were rather peculiar to him. Yet there is a common denominator in the underlying Truth of what the scripture teaches us today. The basic temptation of all human life, Jesus’ and mine and all of us, is to treat God as less than God. We are constantly being tested in our trust that God holds us and empowers us and, in fact, does deliver us from evil. I can’t turn stones into bread but I can doubt that God will provide what I need when I am starving for something fundamental to my life. You will not see me leaping off the tower of this church building but I have often plunged ahead blindly, not sure God would see me through a crisis. We don’t bow before pagan representations of petty gods, but we engage in idolatry nevertheless when we allow the ways of the world to seduce us from living godly lives. All of these things point to how extraordinarily difficult it is to worship and serve only God and God alone.
The year 2012 as close to a wilderness experience for me as anyplace I have ever been. My ministry in Wichita, Kansas had ended and the severance money had run out. There were no immediate job prospects and I was unable to sell my home in Concordia, Kansas. I know how blessed I am that I have a mother who took me in, because not everyone in my situation has such loving and supportive family. But it was difficult and I languished for six months until I was hired to preach and visit folks in a tiny church in Hollister, Missouri. That helped, but it was not enough money or enough work to fill the emptiness in my soul I began to question my call to the ministry. Maybe God was finished with me. Perhaps I had not pleased him and I was being discarded. I was the first runner-up in two positions, which meant I remained functionally unemployed. And so I languished. I preach a good sermon about life unfolding in the fullness of God’s time, but I didn’t believe it for myself. I preach a good sermon about the amazing providence of God in the life of all believers but I didn’t count on it for myself. I did not lose my faith in the idea of God but I lost my way as I felt abandoned and isolated. Satan was poking me in the ribs, daring me to jump off a cliff and land on my knees before the throne of evil. How easy it is to go down the rabbit trails when our faith is being tested.
But God is good and it is the pleasure of our Father in heaven to give us what we need. I applied for around 65 church positions, but the one I finally received, from the Webster Presbyterian Church, came from a contact I made in Springfield, MO where I lived with my mom. In looking back over that year, there were many personal reasons—for her sake and for mine—that God sent me there. But I would never have made that contact had I not finally trusted that God was not finished with me or punishing me. I would not have come back to Houston which I consider home if I had not done the hard work of writing my papers and making contacts, and finally boldly asking God to send to Webster.
It is inherent in the human condition to settle for the devil we know because that seems safer than walking out in faith when we cannot see where the path is headed. God will never forsake us. When we feel forsaken, it is because we have forsaken God for the devil we know. Jesus fought that very battle and he won it, not only for his own sake but for the life of the world. He fights the battle with us, but we still have to do the hard work and believe that he is there. By the will of God, the Father and Mother of us all, through the grace of Jesus Christ and savior, by the power of the Holy Spirit, our guide and defender, we do not have to sell our souls to live in this world. And that is Good News Indeed.
To God be the glory.
~ Interim Pastor Helen Rose Moore