Opening Remarks before sermon: On March 5, 1967 I was ordained a Baptist preacher at the Holmesville Baptist Church of Downsville, Louisiana. Today marks my 50th anniversary.
The season of Lent salvages us from the fog of boredom. How a people who worship a man who took on the devil shocks me. After all, Jesus vs. the Devil is war – all-out war. This is a fight as rough as you’ve ever seen. Everything is at stake here. This is the biblical version of Star Wars where all of creation must serve the good or come under the power of evil.
God has sent Jesus as our hope of defeating the empires. In the centuries before, God sent kings, priests, and prophets by now he has sent the son, heir of all things (Hebrews 1:1). He is the one who sustains all things by the power of his word.
This is a life-and-death struggle and the combatants are playing for keeps. This is no Spring Training game in the desert of Arizona. The battle is over who will rule and what the character of that rule will be. We need this Lenten season to provide us with the discipline to remain faithful soldiers in the fight against evil. When we lose the cosmic character of our faith, we become boring, eternally nice people. SK said boredom would be the death of the church. War is more interesting than peace because it brings suspense, terror, honor, disgrace, rage, tragedy, treachery, and even heroism within range of ordinary human beings. Now, I’m not proposing that we go to war with other nations but against the devil. I am reminding you that our Christian life is lived out in the midst of the cosmic conflict between good and evil. Lent is filled with pain, agony, and suffering so fasten your seat belts and secure your helmet and make sure you are armed with the sword of the Spirit.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.”
There’s a devil in Lent with malicious intent. He wishes us evil all the days of our lives. Open the door of Lent and there’s the Devil with a sheep-eating grin on his face inviting us to give up our humanity for the demonic. He’s an impatient devil, an insomniac, roaming the earth in the wee hours looking for weak souls to devour. “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” Or as Charlie Daniels sings, “The devil came down to Georgia looking for a soul to steal.”
I know some of you are chuckling in your mind because you no longer believe in the devil. You dispensed with those images of the red man with horns, tail, and pitch fork decades ago. Well, I don’t believe in that devil either. By the same token, Jesus is not Superman. The devil in this story is not dressed in red and Jesus is not wearing a cape with the ability to fly, leap tall buildings, and outrun speeding trains. Jesus is human, vulnerable to the temptations. This is not a comic book story. This is not superhero mumbo jumbo. This is real or it doesn’t matter.
Satan suffers from multi-personality disorder (“My name is Legion”). He’s the paranoid schizophrenic otherwise known as our culture. So it is not his power that should get our attention, but his subtle ways. We are matriculating in the school of the devil and we are not even aware of the courses we are taking and the spirit we are imbibing. When the huge middle class of America is living in fear of imagined enemies and apocalyptic nightmares, you know the devil has been holding class with his usual subtle and powerful lessons. Yesterday, I overheard a man talking on his cell phone as we both left the bank. He said, “I’ll make the deal and we don’t have to tell anyone else about it,” and I guarantee you he has no idea where he learned that strategy, but I bet you know what I’m saying.
Satan has summoned all his personalities to this gathering in the wilderness. The entire madhouse of insanity is turned loose on Jesus. Instead of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” this is the entire gaggle of cuckoos unleashed against Jesus. Satan is hard at work to “thin us and shorten us and slot us”[i] until we are diminished. It is the devil that tempts us to reduce everything to simplicity, to pat formulas, to stock answers, to snippets of Scripture (Please note that the devil also used Scripture in this battle and that should be a clear warning that some usages of Scripture are damnable and demonic). Satan instills in us “incapacities of being, crippling our God-given humanness.”
I am going to offer a concrete strategy from which we may gain the strength to increase our capacities, give us a chance to escape from the flattened, closed, reduced expressions of Christian faith.[ii] You might call it HOW TO BEAT THE DEVIL AT HIS OWN GAME. I want to help you carry out the instructions to resist the devil so he will flee from you because he finds in you a nut too tough to crack, a saint too terrible to take on, a man or woman after God’s own heart. I want you to embrace the words of St. Peter: “Resist [the devil], steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And . . . . the God of all grace . . . . will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”
The first temptation appears to attack what Satan perceived as the most immediate weakness: Jesus was hungry. Command these stones to become loaves of bread. Jesus could have started the first fast food restaurant, offered up billions of Big Macs from his first stand in the wilderness, had the largest IPO in history, and spread the idea across the globe. But Jesus didn’t come to sell bread and cheeseburgers. He came to BE THE BREAD OF LIFE. You would think that his followers would have gotten the hint in the feeding of the five thousand that it is not God’s will that anyone ever go to bed hungry. I think, that if God’s church were actually serious about being the body of Christ, we would provide bread for the world – all the world, including hungry children in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine. Eliminating hunger, now’s there’s a project the church can sink her teeth into instead of going on and on unto doomsday about homosexuality.
Jesus counterattacks with, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This is news to our culture where living by bread alone is killing us. Bread alone is a lonely, desperate way to live. There’s nothing wrong with being rich unless you forfeit your soul as the price you pay.
The second temptation asks Jesus to tempt God. If Jesus would just put on a show, think of the crowds he would attract. What a circus he could run. Jumping of a tall building and landing safely would attract the crowds. Barnum and Bailey would have been jealous. Jesus could add to his repertoire and jump the Grand Canyon on a Harley. He could walk the tight rope between two New York skyscrapers. But he died alone for you and me.
This is the kind of temptation that comes to the person who has committed himself to God, only with the secret expectation that God will now do all the work. I am amazed at how much preachers promise people about what to expect from God. It produces a spirituality that is sickening, superficial, and lazy reminiscent of the story of the priest who went golfing with the rabbi. Before putting the priest crossed himself. After nine holes, he was nine strokes ahead. The frustrated rabbi said, “Father, do you suppose it would be all right if before putting I too sort of crossed myself?” Said the priest, “Of course, rabbi. But it won’t do any good until you learn to putt.” There are so many lazy preachers and people in the churches. The problem with lazy preachers preaching off the top of their heads: the inside of their heads is empty. They expect God to do everything for them. These folks want Easter without Lent; they want a resurrection without a Cross. They want to be free to do as they please but not be disciplined by the commands of Jesus. They just sit around and wait for God to take care of them. Jesus counters: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The third temptation offers worldly power. Jesus refuses to accomplish the purposes of God with the ways of the world because the ways of the world are violent. What a clear statement that excess emphasis on nationalism, patriotism, and imperialism the works of the devil.
And Jesus answered the devil, “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” Jesus sees the temptation to grasp worldly power as idolatry. In the Devil’s service the one thing we must have is power. I watch churches scrambling for the fake political power of this world when we should have enough sense to know that we have no foundation other than Jesus Christ our Lord. If we want to have real power, let us work for peace on earth and stop beating the drums of war.
HOW CAN WE CAN RESIST THE POWER OF SATAN?
Here’s the good news: Since Jesus resisted, the church can resist. We are in good hands with Jesus. The whole cosmos is aligned to the glory of this man’s victory over the devil and in him all things will be united. It is this power that we inherit. After all, God has taken the power of goodness and made Jesus head over all things for the church (Read Ephesians 1:20-23). The devil loses. The beast-kings are defeated. Evil goes down to the abyss. We don’t have to lose; we can win. We don’t have to give in; we can go forward. We go along don’t have to go along to get along with the world because we march to the tune of Jesus.
Like David going out to face Goliath with only a slingshot and a bag of three round stones, Jesus went forth to battle the devil armed only with the Word of God. Some preacher said that an overconfident Goliath forgot to ask, “I wonder what the kid has in his bag?” And Satan mistakenly thought Jesus had come unarmed, not packing heat, no weapon, no shield for defense. Satan was dead wrong. Jesus came with the word of God. He had matriculated at the school of Torah for thirty years and the word was in him and he was the word and the word was God and God was the word and the devil never saw it coming.
Jesus uses Scripture to resist temptation. These words are more powerful than the incantations of the witches in Harry Potter, more terrible than the power of Voldemort. In fact, Scripture is the firewall that protects our identity as children of God. Scripture is the devil’s kryptonite. Against the Word of God, Satan is a wimp. As Charlie Daniels sings, “The devil bowed his head because he knew that he’d been beat.” Satan slithers away into the darkness to lick his wounds.
IF WE USE SCRIPTURE AS JESUS USED SCRIPTURE WE WILL BE LIKE PEOPLE WHO BUILT THEIR HOUSES ON SOLID ROCK. As Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves” (I Peter 1:13).
Why the people of the Word have kicked the Bible to the side of the road like yesterday’s news is a mystery to me because these are still living words of power. Jesus was sustained by the practice of reading and interpreting Scripture. Please hear me people of God. We know how to bring the devil down. We have it in our hands, minds, and heart. It’s here in the Word. Let me say it again: Read Scripture to resist the devil. Get on the horn and tell everyone how to bring this SOB down. As Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a lightning flash. I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy.”
I offer you the Scripture. With the Scripture you can reduce your incapacities and increase your capacities to be fully alive. With the Scripture you can end the endless boredoms that afflict you and the insecurities that afflict you. During this holy Lenten season, I beg you, read your Bible. Read your Bible. Your humanity may depend on it.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Collected Sermons of Walter Bruggemann, 154-158.
[ii] Much of the American church has accepted the offers of Satan that were rejected by Jesus. Like a mouse taking the cheese loaded on a trap, Satan has captured the church with the temptation of popularity and power. Those who think they are the best Christians, maybe the only true Christians, are reproducing the habits of a Christianity that still longs to be a civilizational order. They can’t resist the lust to have everything – the church and the nation – with all the benefits accruing thereunto. They have claimed to control the “handles of history.” Satan has trapped the church by translating everything into the homogeneous time of national politics devoted to the game of capitalism/corporate exchange, and he has convinced us to deny all that will not fit within this frame.