CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Speaking of the Devil
After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written,
'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,'
'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
- Luke 4:1-13
In the Gospel of Luke for the First Sunday of Lent, we see Jesus in dialogue with the devil. Many people read this passage literally, many others metaphorically and many more in some other way. But it raises the question: "Who is the devil?"
I think it's useful to start any talk about the devil not with superstitious ideas, or artwork, or movies, but from the reasonable premise that something’s wrong in the world. Something’s wrong. With the way things are. With us. This is where I start when I hear talk about the devil. I think about the world around us and the world within us. It seems plain to me there is an enemy in the universe, an enemy whose name is death, oppression, hatred, and all the host of demons that seek to destroy the human soul and kill the possibility of love.
Of course, the Bible describes the devil in a variety of terms and with several names. The sharp student of the Bible will say there is no single biblical notion of the devil. Genesis speaks of a serpent, wily and bent on corrupting human nature and the created order. Job speaks of Satan as an accuser, a prosecutor in the court of God. In Revelation, the Beast is numbered and named, a fallen angel, at war with God in spirit and space. Matthew, Mark and Luke see Satan as a tempter. John calls him the ruler of this world.
Many modern people simply believe that sin and evil are the total absence of God, a frozen country beyond the light. As James says, "Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin."
But I think evil and its master is more than a moral vacuum. Because I know myself, I know well that not only do I fail to do what is right, but I will even seek to do what is wrong. This is the way we are, and we have to know this about ourselves, if we are to know anything about God.
Who among us can say, “I do not sin?”
In my case, and probably yours, I don’t just harbor passing wicked thoughts; I host them as if they were old friends. If you have felt these shadowy impulses, however you wish to describe them, then you are a child of Adam and Eve like me.
So why is this? And what hope is there for us?
Well, I believe that there is a force in the universe that, in simple terms, “wants us to die.” It wants us to shy away from God’s love. It wants us to be scared. It wants the powerful to fear the resentment of the weak, and it wants the weak to fear the oppression of the powerful. It wants the comfortable to dehumanize the uncomfortable, and it wants the uncomfortable to demonize the comfortable. Evil is amazingly flexible in aligning and realigning our worst bits of character, and it seeks only to keep us divided and at odds.
It's what comes over you in a petty argument with your partner, parent or friend that pushes you to say something really mean. It's what comes over you when you find your rival has a fatal flaw, and you laugh. It's what comes over you when you think you know the truth and think contrary opinions are evil. It's where what passes for politics has gotten to, and why nobody believes anybody with whom they don't already agree.
I call the principle behind all these things the devil. And I call the force it exerts in our world evil. And I call the place where it leads us to go in this life and beyond hell.
But the reason I’m not afraid of this evil, the devil or the gates of hell is because my God is good, and loving, and generous, and I believe God gave Jesus Christ to live, die and rise again to make us all free from any power that the devil can ever have over us. All we have to do is put our focus on the love of God in Christ.
Do I believe in the devil? Yes. Do I believe in hell? Yes.
But Christ has reduced their power to nothing for all who turn to the love of God.
I believe it is unwise to deny the reality and power of evil, just as it is foolish to disregard the many clear and present dangers in the world around us.
Somebody in my neighborhood once wrote on the sidewalk "live free or die." I assume it was an attempt to decry stay-at-home orders in the midst of a pandemic. Paradoxically, though, the freedom we have in Christ is not meant to unfetter individuals for wanton acts of self-expression but rather to harness the power of individuals to love and serve one another.
A Christian shouldn’t say, “God has saved me," but rather, "God has saved us.” For our freedom is as a people. A people who do not need to have everything our way and who walk not for self but for all.
When we say, "Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil…,” it’s because we are not alone. And our companions are the Son of God and those who follow him.
So I say to you, my fellow children of God, don’t be fooled – evil is out there prowling around like a lion. But by the love of Christ, don’t be afraid. For just as Christ is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, you and I are one in Him.
The Rev. Greg Jones is the rector of St. Michael's, Raleigh.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus