My sermon for this Sunday, which I preached at First Lutheran in Harvey, Illinois. I ad-libbed a fair amount into this, but this text is the core of what I preached. The readings for the first Sunday in Lent from the Revised Common Lectionary are Genesis 2:15-17 & 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11.
Good morning, sisters and brothers. Let’s talk about Satan.
Jesus calls him a liar. In fact, Jesus calls him the “Father of Lies” in John 8. So, we know all we need to know about Satan. That he is a liar.
But there are all kinds of different ways to lie. So, I think it’s fair to ask — what kind of liar is he? What kind of lies does Satan tell?
So let’s take a look at the reading in Genesis this morning. God has made this garden, this amazing place, and created this man out of mud, breathing life into him. And put him to work, to tend the garden. That’s what the man was made for, to work and keep the garden.
And the man has free run of the place, and can eat anything he wants in this amazing place. Except for one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, many clever people have asked: “Why would God do this? Why create the temptation?” And many clever people have tried to answer this, too. I want you to set that aside — the question is pointless and the answer is even more so. This story, and the Gospel, are about the human condition. And about God’s response to the human condition. Not about some imaginary, perfect world.
Okay, so God has told the man this tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is off limits. And there will be a price for eating of the tree — “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” In the Hebrew, it literally says — you shall die the death. It’s emphatic. It’s final. Death will be a consequence of eating.
How do we hear that? I’ll tell you what I see in my mind — I reach for the fruit, I grab it, I hold it my hand, maybe I smell it, and then I take a bite. And BAM! I keel over, dead. That’s how I hear “on that day you will surely die, you will die the death.”
Most likely, the man — who’s just been made, and doesn’t know very much — probably just nodded his head. You know, like a small child hearing stern words but not quite sure what they mean. I will die the death. Whatever die is. Whatever death is.
So we fast forward a bit, and suddenly a serpent — who we identify as the Devil, as Satan, as the adversary — shows up. God made a mess of animals to keep the man company, and finally he made a woman. And the serpents asks her, “So did God really tell you not to eat of that tree?”
“Yes,” she says. “We shall surely die if we do.”
This is where the Devil gets clever. “No, you won’t die. You’ll just be like God, knowing good and evil!” That’s what he says.
Now, brothers and sisters, let me ask you — did the Devil lie?
If by “on the day that you eat you shall surly die” means grab, smell, taste, die, then no, the Devil did not lie. In fact, if anything, God is a liar. Because the Devil goes on to tell the woman a very profound truth — you shall know good and evil, and in that, be like God.”
Is he right about that? The man and the woman suddenly realize they are naked, and do something about it.
But as to the consequences of eating, well, no one dies that day. In fact, the man and his wife are cast out of this garden — the man loses the very purpose for which he is created. The serpent is cursed, the woman is cursed, even the earth is cursed so that the very work man was created to do will become an unpleasant burden. None of those things God threatened or promised.
But no one dies that day.
Adam does die, after a very long life. And death becomes part of our existence. So, God did not lie. From that day on, we live, knowing we will die.
But we didn’t die that day. The Devil didn’t tell the truth, but he didn’t quite lie either. The Devil mixes lies with truth, and he speaks more to our weaknesses and expectations. Even our hopes and dreams.
Mostly, though, the Devil wants to make God out to be liar.
And this takes us to our Gospel reading today. Jesus is out in the wilderness, driven there after his baptism in the River Jordan by the Spirit of God for the very purpose of being tempted by the Devil. He’s hungry, he’s alone, and then the Devil comes to him.
“Hungry? Well, if you are Son of God, turn those stones to bread and eat your fill!”
And it must have been tempting for Jesus to do just that! Because he is the Son of God — this is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel anyone calls Jesus by that name, and it is the Devil who does it — and can do exactly what the Devil says he can do.
Use your power to solve your problems, the Devil says to Jesus.
And however Jesus answers — angrily, confidently, just barely able to restrain himself from succumbing to temptation — he tells the Devil, “no, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
So, not content with this, the Devil takes Jesus up to the top of temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off! You are so important to God that angels will come to rescue you.” And the Devil’s not content at this point to let Jesus do all the scripture quoting — the Devil can quote the Psalms too!
And I suspect Jesus looked down and thought to himself, “why not?” Who wouldn’t want to fly like that? Who wouldn’t want to tempt God? I’m going to fall – catch me!!
But Jesus restrains himself. Quoting the Torah, he says, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
So, the Devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all of the kingdoms of the world. “All of these are yours, if you just bow down and worship me.” Now, let’s assume for a moment the kingdoms of the world are the Devil’s to give — I think they are. I don’t think the Devil is lying when he makes this offer to Jesus. He hasn’t lied to Jesus yet, not really. Not about stones and bread, not about his value to God, and not about the kingdoms of the world.
And I imagine Jesus is also tempted by this. Just think — how much suffering, how much injustice, how much evil and violence could be done away with if the Son of God ruled the world? Jesus could do it differently. Jesus knows he could do it right. Not like Caesar or any of the world’s other rulers.
But the price — worshiping Satan — is too high. And Jesus knows his Torah. “Scram, Satan! You shall worship the Lord your God and him only you shall serve!”
And with that, the Devil absconds. Whether he’s angry or not, I do not know. Did he really believe he could tempt the Son of God? I suppose that’s possible.
But the reality is he did not. The church has taught that Jesus was obedient to the will of God when Adam and his wife were not. Perfect obedience. Sure, I’ll accept that. In resisting the temptations of Satan, Jesus becomes the obedience that Adam was unable to be. As Paul writes to the church at Rome, the sin that brought death into the world is undone here.
Honestly, though, I don’t think that’s all. Because something else happens here, in each of these temptations.
What does it mean to be fed? To tempt God? To rule the world? What are our expectations? A world full of bread, so no one goes hungry. A world in which everything is a Disneyland ride, and there are no real risks because everyone’s plucked from doom just before they hit the ground. In which the world is ruled by only good and decent people, power wielded justly and fairly.
Something else happens here. Something I cannot really name. I’m not even entirely sure how to describe it. Jesus doesn’t really resist the Devil’s temptations. I mean he does, but he doesn’t.
Jesus is the Word of God. But he becomes bread — our bread — when, in that rented room at the last supper, he breaks the bread and proclaims, “this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.” He becomes the bread that feeds the world.
And what else is his long journey to Jerusalem but the tempting of God? Yes, he constantly tells his disciples that he will die, and rise three days later, and they don’t believe it until after it happens. But maybe Jesus doesn’t either, not really. What else is his agonizing prayer in Gathsemane but a plaintive and pitiful demand that this end some other way, because Jesus doesn’t want to suffer, doesn’t want to die. Because it just might not end the way God promised.
And when the the chief priests, the scribes and the elders tell the crucified and dying Christ at Golgotha, “he saved others, he cannot save himself, let him come down off that cross and we will believe in him,” perhaps Jesus even wished, and hoped, prayed, for those angels to come down and save him. Right. Now.
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? For just a moment, maybe even Jesus doubted the promise of God. Because those are words of despair, very real, complete and utter despair, of someone who had hoped and prayed and possibly even demanded this would have ended very differently. Words of someone who is about to hit the ground with no one to save him.
As for the kingdoms of the world, Jesus rules those. Each and every one of them. Not as Caesar, not as king, not a president, not as prime minister. He has no army, no police, no treasury, no constitution, has has no policy and np program. We want to give him a flag and a banner, and march triumphantly under them as they flutter and wave, but he doesn’t have those either. He rules by surrendering, he ruled by calling, he rules through love. His rule is not what we — or maybe even Jesus himself at times — expect rule to be like.
In each of these temptations, he says no to the Devil’s way of doing things — a way that makes sense to me. Feed the world? Wouldn’t we turn stones to bread if we could? Tempt God carelessly if we could? Rule the world — because we’d do it right!
Everyone of these things Jesus shows there’s a different way, his way, God’s way, to do things. And he does them. Because we cannot. I can’t be bread. I can’t tempt God knowing that my death on the cross will save the world, will right the wrong of Adam’s disobedience. And I cannot rule in humility and love. None of us can.
Jesus does these things for us. He invites us to participate in his reign, in his kingdom, his rule. In our baptism into his death and resurrection, we become part of this new way of obeying God, of being God’s people. We, each and every one of us, shares in his hunger, his resisting of temptation, his body that is bread, his death that saves the world, his rule that is humility, poverty, powerlessness and love. And this is what makes it possible for us to follow when he calls, to live as his lived, to love as he loves, to die as he died knowing that death is not the final answer. That we will rise as he rose. Because he rose, we will rise.
That life eternal — the promise of God — is real. And true. It is not a lie. Regardless of what the Devil may tell us.