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Job 1.6-12

Matthew 4.1-11

Speak of the Devil

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

One afternoon, as Martin Luther sat down to his studies, a pungent and offensive odor began to fill his room.  As it grew stronger, Luther began to tremble and became convinced that his mortal soul was in terrible danger.  Not sure what was coming over him, Luther lifted the inkwell from his desk, sent it sailing across the room in the direction the odor seemed to be coming from, and as it crashed against the wall, the scent disappeared.

John Milton was in dire financial straits.  He had had some success as a poet, but he was unable to reach a large enough audience to meet his expenses.  He consulted with a person you and I would call an agent today, and together they conceived a blockbuster of an idea:  an epic poem featuring one of the more minor characters of the Bible, and building an entire mythology around him.  Milton was successful and his reputation as a poet was secured.

In one of their best-known songs, the Rolling Stones introduce us to “a man of wealth and fame,” who has touched the course of history at such disparate locations as Golgotha, Sarajevo, Dallas and My Lai.  “Pleased to meet you,” he taunts us, “hope you guess my name.”

Actually, he has many names.  He is known as Satan, Lucifer, the Tempter, the Adversary, Beelzebub, the Price of Darkness, and, of course, the Devil.  Journalist Kenneth Woodward once called him “the most familiar figure in Christian lore,” second only to Jesus himself, which is more than a little ironic, considering how rare and infrequent his appearances in the Bible really are.  And we all probably have our own mental images, or ideas, of what the devil might be like.  Luther met the devil as the repugnant odor which filled his study, distracted him from his devotion and filled him with a sense of dread.  Milton envisioned him as a fallen angel whose tale of woe comprises the better part of Paradise Lost, one of the world’s best-known pieces of literature.  The Rolling Stones discerned his presence at the crossroads of some of history’s greatest tragedies.  As different as our own individual ideas about the devil are, at least we can agree that he is someone to be avoided at all costs.

And we do have different ideas about Satan.  Many consider him to be God’s nemesis and arch-rival, an analogous adversary who matches God’s every good work with an equal and opposite work of evil, with the rest of us little more than pieces on a chessboard.  That’s the vision we glean from the opening chapter of the book of Job as Pat read it – we’ll talk about that in a minute.  Some prefer to think of him – and forgive me for saying “him,” but this is not a character who cries out for inclusive language – some prefer to think of him as the personification of an otherwise impersonal power of evil which fills creation, not unlike Star Wars’ the Dark Side.  Some see him as the vivid, winged and horned red-tailed demon who sits on our shoulders whispering wonderfully tantalizing temptations into the ears of our conscience.  There is a variety of ways to view the evil one, but what fascinates me is how few of our ideas of the devil are shaped by the Bible.  If we look closely at our own individualized and personal notions of Satan and his dominion, most of us will discover the origins of our perceptions not in the Old or New Testaments, but in places like Paradise Lost, or Dante’s Inferno – whether we have actually read them or not.  And this is so because in spite of everything that has been written or said or handed down through the ages, the Bible itself simply does not have a lot to say about “the Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him…”

For example, most of us presume that we first meet Satan in Eden, when first Eve, then Adam, were convinced that one little bite of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that one bite of the proverbial apple, would not hurt them.  But a closer look at the story reveals that, while Adam and Eve were definitely tempted to do something God had warned them against, the connection between the serpent and Satan is the product of tradition rather than of the book of Genesis.  For that matter, most of the Old Testament gives us not just different, but inconsistent ideas of who the devil is and what it is he  does.  In Leviticus and II Chronicles, the devil is described, literally, as “the hairy one,” bringing to mind the image of a kid, or a goat.  In Deuteronomy and Psalms he is called “the Destroyer.”  Even in Job, where the prevailing image of Satan is most substantively supported, he appears as one among “the offspring of God,” or as Pat read, one of “the heavenly beings,” that is, among the subordinates of the divine, and he is called “the Accuser.”  It is worth noting that before he can lift a finger to bring any evil or affliction to pass, he needs to secure God’s permission.  The two are not equals.  In verse 11 he says to God, “Stretch out your hand now, and touch all that [Job] has, and he will curse you to your face.” To which God replies, “Very well, all that he has is in your power, only do not stretch out your hand against him.”

Now, I feel the need to offer a brief parenthesis here, because I hear this the way most of you probably did:  Wait a minute, did God just give the devil permission to torment Job?  The loss of his house, his family, his livelihood, all on the basis of a divine wager?  All I’m going to say is No.  The opening and closing chapters of Job are much later additions to the book, and distort the story in unbelievable and frankly completely incompatible ways.  You can tell they don’t belong when you notice the entire book is written in verse, except for the opening and closing chapters, which were pasted onto the text many years, likely many centuries, after the original.  All I’ll say for now is, I owe you a sermon on the book of Job.  But the reason I asked Pat to read a passage that really doesn’t even belong in the Bible is to demonstrate that Satan or the Accuser is subordinate to the almighty, not an equal-but-evil being.  End of parenthesis.  For now.

But let me back away from citing chapter and verse and look at the larger picture.  If you ask me about my own understanding of this character we have come to call the devil, it is this:  by whatever name we want to call it, the devil is the result of humanity’s desire to put a face on the reality of evil, of temptation, of our own proclivity to choose what is not good for us, what is divisive, what is selfish, and what is wrong.  After all, if God is in some sense a person, so then must God’s opposite be.  This is how the idea of the devil has evolved and captured human imagination through the centuries.  But I don’t believe it, and I don’t believe the Bible supports it.

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a good illustration of this, I think.  This brief story from Matthew is packed with theology, and multiple books have been written about it.  But to my mind, the story is not really about the tempter, and only partly about Jesus, while it says a good deal about us.  What is it that tempts humanity?  What lures us to take our eyes off the world around us except to think it revolves around ourselves?  Are we seduced by the world’s physical and material comforts?  Do we yearn for more and better and bigger?  Jesus’ retort is, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  Or are we the type who wants to make God responsible for the state of our own faithfulness – or lack thereof?   Have we ever thought or said, “If only God would do this, I would believe?”  God, if only you would bring about world peace, and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood to humanity, if only you could cure hunger and illness and war and poverty, then I could believe that you are really God?”  And when we say this, we are forgetting that God has already equipped us to work for peace, and harmony, to address hunger and homelessness and disease.  In other words, we’re asking God to do our work for us.  But Jesus’ reply to the tempter is “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Our God is not contingent on the strength of our own belief.  Or are we looking for approval and adulation, do we strive for the affirmation of others, do we get an endorphin rush when our Instagram post gets lots of likes?  “All of these I will give you if you fall down and worship me” – if we worship and place our sense of value and self-worth in something or someone who is not God?  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone.   And the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

The way I read the stories is that the devil, by whatever name we call it, is a shorthanded way of referring to the power of evil, of temptation, of selfishness, of denying or ignoring the place of God in human life.  Or, we are so overwhelmed by the enormity of evil, that we can only comprehend it if we scale it down to size.    So we give it a name and a face, and, if you will, a pair of horns and a pointy tail, as a kind of shorthand for the times we make poor choices or hurt or neglect each other, or hurt or neglect ourselves, as a way of assigning responsibility to a third agent.  Remember the story of Eden:  the man sought to avoid responsibility by blaming the woman, and the woman sought to avoid responsibility by blaming the serpent.  To oversimplify things a bit, and to quote the great theologian of the last century, comedian Flip Wilson, “The Devil made me do it” covers a multitude of our own sins while it conveniently lets us off the hook.

Does that mean our minister doesn’t believe in the devil?  I think there’s a better way of looking at it:  our minister believes that we need to understand our responsibility for our own actions, to take the true measure the times we fail to be kind and just and thoughtful and loving and faithful, so that we are better able to appreciate the multiple successes and victories you and I daily enjoy through the grace and mercy and love of God.

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