Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
After his baptism, there was no celebration, no cake, no candles. Instead, ‘Jesus, was led by the Spirit into a place of isolation and death (Matthew 4:1). He goes into the wilderness alone, without fanfare, or survival gear. He goes without a map or an extra pair of sandals. After forty days Jesus is vulnerable. When you are famished, everything looks like food. Starving people will eat dirt and rocks. Weak and starving, Jesus entered a lethal hall of mirrors where he is tormented by an articulate Torah-toting, scripture quoting Devil. Satan tried to make Jesus misuse his power. Jesus passed the test.
Later, Jesus will turn a couple fish and five barley loaves into a feast for 5000 but now, he refuses to use that same power to feed himself. Later, Jesus will walk on water, calm the Sea, and pass through the violent mob in Nazareth. But now, he refuses to jump from the top of the temple. Later, a taunting mob will repeat the same challenge from the foot of the cross. ‘If you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from that cross, so that we may believe in you’ (Matthew 27:40). But Jesus won’t jump from the top of the temple, neither will he come down from the cross. Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited (Philippians 2:6). In his battle with the Devil, Jesus stands with the hungry, the suffering, and the powerless. Jesus shows us power perfected in weakness. What’s more, Jesus shows us how to wield that power like a lamb, to defeat the Devil and his empty promises.
This Lent, we have challenged ourselves to question common Christian assumptions. We re-examen the things we thought we knew already about our faith that may keep us from encounter with the full promise of the gospel. We began our Lenten pilgrimage today while prayerfully walking around the sanctuary. I ask you to walk with me now and consider together—what in the world is scripture talking about when it talks about the Devil?
We progressive church folk don’t spend much time on this topic. We are monotheists. Satan cannot, therefore, cannot be some type of demi-god. We believe in science and a naturalistic approach to understanding the wonder of God’s world. Satan, therefore, cannot be a supernatural power that afflicts us in defiance of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. So, what are we missing?
Scripture calls Satan the accuser, the adversary, and the anti-Jesus (or anti-Christ). Rather than a scary, pitchfork wielding man with horns, the Devil in scripture is the name given to whatever is working in us and among us against the kingdom of God. Satan is that unseen, impersonal force operating in the world perpetually pulling us into shadow. Moreover, scripture warns, Satan is seductive. The Devil appears to us as an Angel of Light. That’s what Lucifer means, after all. Lucifer means Angel of Light.
Some non-spooky metaphors are helpful here. Author Richard Beck suggests, “Think of an ant colony. No single ant has the blueprint of the ant colony in its head… If you were to ask the ants, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ They’d be stumped. No single ant is the Wizard of Oz running the show behind a curtain… Instead, the Wizard is everywhere, an unseen organizing force at work in every microscopic interaction between the ants, organizing and directing their behavior. The ants die. But the Wizard lives on…
Or think of a cloud. A cloud is a structure that emerges from a collection of individual water molecules. Clouds can’t be reduced to those water molecules, but clouds, once they exist, can begin to drive those water molecules into becoming thunderstorms and hurricanes…
Similar things happen in human societies, forces sweep through human history on large and small scales. Like water molecules, people are sucked into shadowy vortexes, a moral tempest, a thunderstorm. Consider the rise of Nazism leading up to WWII. Once Nazism gained traction, it became a moral thunderstorm in human affairs, sucking more and more air molecules into the vortex. Nazism became the Wizard. Nazism took on a life of its own. In fact, Hitler has been dead for over seventy years and Nazism still plagues the world.” (Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch, Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, 2016, Fortress Press, pp 63-64.)
“Critics of spiritual warfare have got it backwards when they say that talking about demons will cause you to demonize other human beings. The truth is that it’s the exact opposite: it’s our refusal to talk about demons that causes us to demonize other human beings” (Beck, p. 59). When living our faith is reduced to a political struggle for justice it’s tempted toward violence between the good guys and bad guys which only makes the cycle of violence spin faster.
Consider all the little things that add up to create systemic racism or damage to the environment, or promote gun violence, or drug abuse, or you fill in the blank. Little ants doing little things, ants trying to do the right thing or ants just obliviously going about their business. We’d like to grab an ant and yell, “Hey, who’s in charge here!” But the ant can’t say. It’s folly to gather up good ants to gang up on the bad ants. Ant on ant violence only brings a smile to the face of the Wizard, who is working, all the while, behind the scene.
“Spiritual warfare is resistance to empire, to the political and economic manifestations of Babylon in our own time and place” (Beck, p. 24). Because we are called to love, our goal is liberating human beings from slavery to malevolent powers and principalities at work in the world. To rescue them from the Wizard. Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of wickedness.
That’s why church, Beck says, must be ground zero for spiritual warfare. This is what Word and Sacrament, and our Lenten disciplines are essential help us achieve. When we are alone, loving the world through Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we love everyone. In community, however, our inability to love is exposed, along with our inability to get along with some people. Our hearts and minds must first be freed by encounter with the life and mind of the risen Christ to become the beloved community and to create conditions for the justice we seek.
For the first thousand years, people of the church proclaimed the good news, not as an answer to the problem of original sin, but rather as Christ’s victory over the Devil. This understanding stands in sharp contrast with the view we all grew up with about a punishing God who would punish us all for our sins except for Jesus’ gracious intervention on the cross. Beloved, it is time to let go of that thinking forever. One way to do that is by learning once again how to take seriously the bible’s teaching about the Devil. In Jesus Christ, we have salvation not because he changed the mind of a punishing God, but because Christ has defeated the power of an angry Devil. We can know that God loves each of us infinitely and unconditionally. (Those of you familiar with C.S. Lewis’ famous fable, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” can think about how Aslan defeated the White Witch.)
Here, at the Table, and the Font, in hearing the Word, and through song, prayer and mutual service, we are being equipped to love God and to love neighbor. Loving our neighbor is the complete full expression of what it means to love God and drive out the Devil. Jesus breaks the power of the Devil that holds us in bondage. With Christ, in Christ, we are being clothed with the armor of Christ. In this way, Jesus frees us to live and love powerfully, fearlessly, and fully incarnating the kingdom of heaven in our own frail flesh and blood. In the wilderness, on the cross, and the empty tomb, Christ, our victor, flings wide the prison doors where Satan held us captive. Now we are called and equipped to join Jesus in the spiritual fight against the Devil that haunts and plagues this world.