First Sunday of Lent Luke 14:1-13 and parallels
Today is Satan Sunday in the life of the church. The first Sunday of Lent is always Satan Sunday. By that I mean to say that certain days of the church year that have definite themes. For example, the first Sunday of Advent always focuses on the end of the world. The second Sunday of Advent always focuses on John the Baptist. The fourth Sunday of Advent always focuses on the Virgin Mary. On Reformation Sunday, we always mention Martin Luther. On Passion Sunday, we always read the Passion Story of Jesus’ suffering. … Well, today is the first Sunday of Lent and for eighteen centuries, the first Sunday of Lent always focuses on the temptation story of Jesus. In this story, Jesus was out in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. One year we read the story from the Gospel of Matthew; the next year from Mark; the next year from Luke. The story is always the same, year in and year out. In Lent 2, 3, 4, and 5, there is no definite and clear theme to the Sundays, but there is in Lent 1. So today is Satan Sunday in the life of the church, and we focus on the theme of the power of evil at work in this world.
For all you young people in grades 5-9 who are taking notes on the sermon, the title of the sermon is SATAN SUNDAY, and the text is from Luke 4. Then put a large letter X through the words, SATAN SUNDAY.
The first theme of the sermon for today is this: we need to be aware of the power of evil at work in this world. This power of evil is trying to ruin your life, mess up your life, screw up your life, foul up your life, make you miserable, and make me miserable. You can call this power of evil by any name that you want. You can call him devil, Satan, Be-Beelzebub, or Lucifer. You may not like the biblical language like devil, Satan and Lucifer, so you may use contemporary language like the power of evil, The Force e.g. in the movie Star Wars, or The Shadow e.g. in the psychology of Carl Jung. Call Satan by any name you will, but there is a power of evil at work in this world. The purpose of evil is to harm and kill people. The purpose of evil is harming and killing children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and neighbors and strangers. He kills them one at a time like in a car accident, thousands at a time like in an earthquake or millions at a time like in starvation or six million at a time like in the Holocaust. The power of evil can strike suddenly like in a car accident or slowly like with cancer or starvation. But its purpose is always the same: to ruin and destroy people’s lives.
Many people don’t believe in the power of evil and they blame God for all the bad things that happen. Some people here in this room today believe that this is a neutral world or benign world or a safe world. This is especially true of my eighth and ninth grade confirmands. That is, they always want to blame God for all the evil that exists in this world. These confirmands blame God for cancer and heart attacks and starvation, and ignore the power of evil that is very much at work in this civilization of ours.
Point two of the sermon, for you young people taking notes, is that the power of evil attacks us from both “inside and outside.” I want to talk about both. The Bible teaches that the power of evil lives inside of us, and it is called “the flesh.” Flesh, in the Bible, does not refer to the color of our skin nor to our fleshy body. Flesh is the Biblical term for our mind, our bodies, our emotions. These are all flesh. The spirit of evil is within us, within our flesh. … Centuries later, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud referred to these inner impulses of the flesh as the ID. Human beings have an ID, an Ego and Superego. Please all imagine a witch’s cauldron during the witch’s trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Imagine a large black kettle with evil stuff boiling inside that kettle. In all human beings, there is this black kettle of rage. Freud calls it the death instinct. All human beings have this inclination to death, to destroy our life and those around us. We have foolish impulses to drive into an oncoming car or jump off a bridge. These temptations towards death come from deep within our death instincts. We do all sorts of stupid things to ourselves and people around us, and these impulses are fed by the death instinct, the ID. … A short time later, this inside of us was called the Shadow by Carl Jung. All human beings have this shadow side, this dark side, this inclination to evil. … For me, the best expression of this comes from C. S. Lewis in his book, SURPRISED BY JOY, when he uses the following words to describe what is inside of him: “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambition, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatred. Their name is legion.” Legion, there are thousands of them. I love this quote because it describes me and you so accurately: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” Those lines were hard to memorize but I now know them … All of these scholars describe temptation as this power of evil that lives inside of us.
This power of evil always attacks us in our weaknesses. There are certain people who know your weaknesses better than others such as a husband or wife. My wife knows where I am vulnerable and I know where she is vulnerable. Let me tell you: Satan also knows where we are vulnerable, and the power of evil always attacks you at your weakest point. … For example, it may be booze or drugs. Your weak spot may be the use of chemicals to reduce the level of anxiety and tension in your life. Nowadays, we in America are building hundreds of prisons to put away people who are on crack cocaine. The demand for drugs is so high, we don’t know where this high demand comes from. Maybe your weak spot is a need for instant gratification, and you may be tempted with unhealthy sexuality. Nowadays, more and more people are being addicted to pornography on the Internet. You may be tempted with reducing your tensions by overeating. Now, 80% of American children are labeled overweight because of our fast and unhealthy foods and large containers of sugared pops from McDonalds or its equivalent. Maybe your weak spot is an inordinate fear of failure or the need to succeed, and the power of evil will tempt you will working too hard at being a success. Maybe your weak spot is the need to be liked and you cannot tolerate rejection, and so you become preoccupied with popularity. Maybe your weak spot is you can’t stand being poor, and so you are tempted by money. Maybe your weak spot is your psychological habit of feeling inferior, and the power of evil knows what and when you can get most down on yourself. Maybe your weak spot is that you are afraid that you will be forgotten and you are vulnerable to being tempted with fame. Maybe your weak spot is your fear of failure and you work incessantly hard to avoid failure. Maybe your weak spot is feeling unusually guilty about everything, and so you are tempted to find what you have done wrong in almost every situation. The point is, we all have our Achilles heal. You have your Achilles heals and I have mine. We have those places in our lives where we are more vulnerable to evil, and those power of evil finds those weak spots in us in order to mess up, screw up, foul up and mess up our lives so that are not as loving and productive as God wants us to be.
The other day I was writing a sermon on loving our children. The children came into me and kissed me goodnight and said, “Come and kiss us goodnight when we are in bed and read us a story.” I said, “Sure enough. I will be right there.” Two hours quickly passed by as I was writing this sermon about loving your children. I finally came out of my fixed concentration, and I went to my children who were fast asleep. The first thing in the morning, my son came to me and said, “Where were you last night, Daddy?” My Achilles heel? Trying to write successful sermons. Isn’t it devilish that the devil can take a God pleasing activity like preparing a sermon and mess it up, foul it up, screw it up and ruin it? That happens far too often in my life, but then, Satan, always knows where we are most vulnerable. Me? Too often the project is more important than the people. How sad. A sermon more important than a son. How tragic. The devil is always tempting me where I am most vulnerable, and you are tempted where you are most vulnerable as well.
The power of evil never quits. He is always at work in your life, morning, noon and night. It is always at work in your life and in every phase of your life, whether you are five, fifteen, forty-five or fifty-five. A year ago, I almost died. The doctors cut me open and put in a new valve and then a new pacemaker. They must have done something more, because now, after the surgery, I don’t have as much lust as I used too. Crazy. But I have just as much sin, but now dressed in new forms and new temptations.
All of these temptations comes from inside of us.
The power of evil also attacks us from the “outside.” This is the world around us. The word, world, is used by the Gospel of John and is symbolic of everything around us that the devil can use to tempt us away from God. The world is the need to lead a comfortable and secure lifestyle. The world may be our home, job, car, and credit card. Satan uses anything and everything, including all the good things all around us. Credit cards are very good and useful. In and of themselves, credit cards are good, but they can become a source of temptation whereby we get ourselves way into debt and have astronomical bills at 18%.
And so there is a battle on two fronts: the power of evil is attacking us from the inside and from the outside … at the same time.
During the children’s sermon, I asked the children what I thought was the greatest source of temptation for me in my home. They all had numerous guesses. I then told them that I talked to this temptation more than my wife and more than to God. What was it? The computer. Like a lot of people, I love my computer and it is essentially good. But like all good things around us, it can be turned into a use for evil. When I spend more time in conversation with the computer than my children, my wife, my friends, my God, my Bible, then there is something wrong. The computer can become a consuming addiction to many people.
The Bible says that Satan comes at a “more opportune time,” and Satan often visits your home and mine when things are going really well. Satan especially comes when you are successful, bright, well, feeling fine and putting everything together. Or, Satan will come to you at just the opposite moments. Satan comes in times of tragedy, pain, depression when someone has died, been killed, the job has been terminated, and the kid is in trouble. We then ask the question, “Why didn’t you protect me from this, Lord? If you are a good God and I am basically a loving person, you should have protected me from this tragedy. ” So the devil always comes at “more opportune times” and those “more opportune times” seem to be the good times and the bad times. It is the world in which we live, with good times and bad times and everything in between, and the devil uses all of this to screw up, foul up, and mess up our lives.
A third general theme is that we give the power of evil too much credit, too much power. We make the devil equal to God or almost equal to God. Recently, I had a theological breakthrough I would like to share with you. In my view of Satan, I had God and Satan locked in combat over everything. God represented the good forces and Satan the evil forces. Recently, I was again reading C.S. Lewis’ SCREWTAPE LETTERS and was reminded that C. S. Lewis has a different configuration of God and Lucifer. C. S. Lewis has a power chart with God at the top and God has an archangel by the name of Michael who is locked in combat with the fallen archangel by the name of Lucifer. The dialogue and combat in the book is not between God and Lucifer but between Michael and Lucifer, between the good angel and the bad angel. God is at the top of the chart andthe battle is between the two archangels, Michael and Lucifer, symbolic of the good andevil forces in this world. This is important. God’s power is far greater than that of Lucifer, the fallen angel. We give Lucifer far too much credit. Lucifer is not a fallen god but a fallen angel. That is all. Lucifer is not god. God is God. In this day and age of the twentieth and twenty-first century, we give Satan far too much power and far too much credit. Satan is merely a fallen angel; he or it is not God nor does he or it have the power of God.
The media is used by Satan to magnify the power of evil and pretend the power of evil is more powerful than it really is. Let me illustrate. How many people were killed by storms yesterday? I want a body count. In our newspaper yesterday, I counted forty-two people who were killed by storms. It could have been a hundred and forty-two or a thousand and forty-two. But there were more than six billion people not killed by storms. Satan uses the media to magnify the power of war. What was the body count of people killed by war in yesterday’s paper? I counted them up. Four hundred and sixty-two. How many people were not killed by war yesterday? Some six billion people. So often we magnify the power of evil and start to believe that God and Satan are equal forces; that God and Satan are equivalent forces such as clash of the good forces and evil forces of the world. All the while, we fail to realize that God’s power is much greater than the power of evil. We fail to realize that Satan is a fallen angel, not a fallen god. Satan is merely an angel, not God. Nor does Satan have the resources and power of God. For me personally, I needed to clean up my mental chart and after reading C. S. Lewis, he helped me to put God on top of the power chart and Michael and Satan on a lower level. We need to keep the power of evil in its proper perspective.
The fourth point of this sermon is equally true. Jesus was able to resist the temptations of the devil, and we are able to resist temptations as well. The devil doesn’t always win. At every boxing match with evil in your life, the devil doesn’t always win. In fact, it may be true that the devil doesn’t usually win but the devil has talked you into believing that he has. The devil magnifies your own faults and failures so that you start to think that you are losing the battle to him. We forget that Jesus resisted temptation. We forget that we too resist temptation. The devil was not invincible and we forget that. Peter and Paul, Martha and Mary, who were common and ordinary folk, also resisted temptation. … The problem is this: so often we think that as long as we sin, we are a slave of the devil. That is not true. Of course, Peter and Paul sinned. Of course, Mary and Martha sinned. It was inevitable that they sinned and missed the mark. But they were not servants of the devil and neither are you. These people were able to ward off temptation and so are you. It is a paradox that we are sinners but our God-givenresistance to sin is stronger than any temptation we face. Sometimes in our Lutheran theology, we emphasize that we are sinners so much that we minimize that God’s power is stronger than our temptations.
In the temptation story for today, we are reminded of the resources that Jesus used to resist temptation and you and I are wise to use the same resources with the same results I would like to mention four resources that help us fight temptations inside and outside.
First, the Spirit of God. In the temptation story for today, it does not mention that Jesus was filled with the Spirit of God, but those words are mentioned in the previous story. More than anything else, we need to be filled with the Spirit of the Living God. The Spirit of the Living God helps us to withstand temptations from within and without. … The Spirit is connected with prayer. We realize that the life of Jesus was infused by the power of God through prayer. As St. Jerome said so many centuries ago, let prayer be your pillow as you fall asleep at night. As St. Mother Theresa said last week, let prayer be your pillow as you wake up in the morning. The day begins and ends with prayer and prayer fills so many moments in between. We, God’s people, are in constant conversation with God and this constant conversation with God gives us a spiritual power to stand against the wiles of the devil.
Second, Jesus always countered the temptation of Satan by quoting a Bible verse from Scripture. Jesus knew that God was stronger than any temptation he would encounter and Jesus used the weapons of the Spirit. That is, Jesus used the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. The Word and Spirit of God lived inside of Jesus, so Jesus could draw on that Word and Inner Spirit. Likewise with you and me. The Words of the Bible and the Holy Spirit of the Bible live inside of us, giving us power to resist Satan just as Jesus did. Jesus quoted the Scriptures three times: “You shall not live by bread alone. You shall worship only the Lord your God and serve him. You shall not put the Lord God to the test.” These are all recitations of the Bible from within. The Bible doesn’t do you any good if it is merely words recorded between two covers, if the content of the Bible remains in the Good Book and not in your heart. For the Bible to have power, it needs to live inside of you so that it can become a sword of the Spirit and useful to you.
Third, Christian friends and community. There is power in the community of like-minded people who share similar visions and values. There is power in a community who bears the name of Jesus and whose power is rooted in Jesus’ love. Friends and family who are deeply Christian influence our lives and help us to stand up against the wiles of the devil who wants to ruin our lives, destroy our lives, sabotage our lives. With close Christian friends and Christian family around us, we gradually discover that they have an influence on our lives and the way we have strength to resist temptation. We all realize this truth applies to teenagers but it applies to older adults like me as well. I pray for twenty-five men by name every day. Those men teach me how to love, to live life, to care for children, to love a woman, to die, to handle money…and they never have said a word to me directly about these things. I learn from them, not from their words, but from their example. Those men help me to stand up against temptations within and around me.
Fourth, a deposit of spiritual wisdom. After a few years, you begin to develop a reservoir of spiritual wisdom inside of you. Like a lake. Like a kettle filled with water. Like a reservoir above a dam. You start to get more spiritually smart. If you have trouble with pornography, you don’t go spending time on the net. If you have trouble with booze, you begin to realize who are the friends who are a bad influence on you. You start to develop spiritual wisdom, spiritual smarts about what people and places to avoid and what people and places you need to be hanging out with.
Today is Satan Sunday, and we need to be reminded that the power of Satan is not as strong as the power of God. Luther said the following about the devil. What Luther said about the devil appeals to children and youth but does not appeal equally to the adults here today. Luther said, “When the devil tempts you, roll over and fart in the devil’sface.” … I quoted Luther some nine years ago in a similar sermon, and that sermon became the “fart sermon.” That is, within two weeks, my parents telephoned and asked me about the Luther quote and farting in the devil’s face. When Luther says that we are to roll over and fart in the devil’s face, that is Luther’s humorous way of saying that the devil is not an invincible power. The quote stays in your mind and in your thinking about evil in you and around you.
God has the power and shares the power so you can resist temptation, just as Jesus did. So did Pete and Paul and Mary and Martha. Even though they were sinners and sinful people, they still resisted the power of the evil one. What Peter and Paul and Mary and Martha did, we can do also.
Yes, today is Satan Sunday. No, not really. It isn’t really Satan Sunday. Subtly to name a Sunday Satan Sunday is to cave into the power of evil. Today and every Sunday is Jesus Sunday. Would all you students who are taking notes on the sermon put a big letter X through the words, SATAN SUNDAY, and instead write the words, JESUS SUNDAY. Today records the story where Jesus resisted temptation. Amen.
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