When Jesus Met Satan
St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Millsboro, DE
Lent I - February 18, 2024
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan
; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark
So, as tempting as it is to talk about Noah’s Ark, and as easy as it is to be seduced into talking about The Flood and the Baptism of Jesus, well, it’s the first Sunday in Lent. I won’t be with you again until the fourth Sunday in Lent, and so, let’s just dive right in, shall we?
Let’s talk about Satan. And, wild beasts. And, angels. Yes, let’s roll up our sleeves and do that.
I want to talk about Satan because I’m really tired of him
taking the fall, as it were, for our shortcomings. And, yes, I’m just going to
say it: Sin. Yup, you are hearing a sermon on sin preached from an Episcopal
pulpit from a progressive woman priest.
So, buckle up, friends. Satan, wild beasts, angels and sins. Looks like the preacher is fired up. Except, this isn’t going to be a hellfire and brimstone sermon. (Is Tommy Ray frowning? He told me once he loved a good hellfire and brimstone sermon, but, he also told me that while he wasn’t used to my style of preaching, I didn’t do too bad. I’ll take that.)
I want to talk about the Christian version of “When Harry
Met Sally.” Let’s just title this sermon, “When Jesus Met Satan”. By now I hope we know a little something
about Jesus. So how ‘bout we get to know this Satan a little better, shall we?
Names for the Satan are numerous: Besides Lucifer, he may be referred to as the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Baphomet, Lord of the Flies, the Antichrist, Father of Lies, Moloch or simply - as the SNL Church Lady says, “Saaa-tannn”.
The word “devil” derives from the Greek diabolos, meaning “adversary.” In Judaism, “Satan” as a noun, means “adversary” but it is also a verb and generally refers to a difficulty or temptation to overcome rather than a literal being. In Buddhism, Mara is the demon that tempted Buddha away from his path of enlightenment. Much like Jesus of Christianity resisted the Devil, Buddha also resisted temptation and defeated Mara.
Turns out, all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam and
Christianity, Satan is known as the fallen angel of God. His name in Hebrew is
Lucifer which means “The Shining One.” The Latin translation for Lucifer is
“The Morning Star,” or the planet Venus. In Greek, he is known as “Phosphorus”
which means “light bringer” and “Eosphorus,”
In one of the Midrash stories in Judaism, Lucifer’s original job was to present humans with the opportunity to choose between good and evil. In other myths, Lucifer acts as a prosecuting attorney in the heavenly Court. In that role, he brings up all the wicked, evil, selfish choices of human beings before God for the human to be judged.
But there is a myth that Lucifer was kicked out of heaven because he wanted equality with God. Now, in some versions of the myth, Lucifer’s plan is that no one would have the ability to sin against God, so that not one soul would be lost, and all would be able to return sinless to the presence of Heavenly Father without the need for a Savior. Sounds pretty cool, right?
Ah, but as recompense for his plan, Lucifer demanded that the power and the glory which God possessed be transferred to him, effectively making him "God." God, of course, saw right through the plan and rejected it. Lucifer was furious and rallied other angels to his side and started a war in heaven. The result of which, of course, is that Lucifer lost and became “the Fallen Angel” and thus became more commonly known as Satan, God’s adversary.
In today’s Gospel, after Jesus is baptized, the Spirit
immediately sends him out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. This
is, of course, a mini version of Moses and the Israelites, having been freed
from bondage in Egypt, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before
returning to Canaan, The Promised Land, Paradise, flowing with milk and honey.
It is there, in the wilderness, that Jesus meets the ancient foe, the adversary of God, Lucifer, the angel who fell from the brightness of the morning star to the darkness of the depths of the abyss; one of the sons of God who tempts Jesus just as others were tested.
Buddha was tempted by the demon Mara who challenged him to prove his enlightenment. Buddha touched the earth and called upon the earth to testify for him.
Muhammad was tempted by the demons of Satan with suicidal thoughts to throw himself off the cliff of a mountain, but the angel Gabriel appeared before him to reassure him that he was one of God’s prophets.
When Jesus met Satan, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism. There he remains and fasts for 40 days and 40 nights. During that time Satan tempts Jesus three times: to turn stones into bread, throw himself from a temple, and submit to Satan in exchange for power.
In other words, Lucifer is taking on his original job to present Jesus with the opportunity to choose between good and evil, to tempt Him and, in so doing, to test the decision of God to gift humans with free will - the power of choice - our own autonomy - our own moral agency.
When Jesus met Satan, not only were humans given a clear sign of our liberation in Christ, but God’s decision to give us the gift of free will in The Garden was justified.
When Jesus met Satan, God’s decision was reaffirmed when God chose to place a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of the covenant God made with Noah “and every living creature of all flesh” never to destroy the earth or the human race ever again.
When Jesus met Satan, God’s decision to send Jesus for our salvation was validated.
When Jesus met Satan, we were deemed worthy of salvation.
Our baptism reaffirms the freedom God has given us to choose between good and evil, wrong and right. That’s not to say that we don’t make wrong choices. We do. All too often. And, when we do, we call that sin. But, that’s not the end of the story.
When Jesus met Satan, the end of the story was changed - or, perhaps, completed - so a new chapter can begin.
Because of Jesus we have, as our prayerbook says, “the means of grace and the hope of glory” if we but follow His way, obey his commandments and observe his teaching.
Here’s the thing: It really doesn’t matter what you call the forces of Evil in this world - Satan, the Devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer. What matters is that you understand these things: We all have within us enormous potential for good. We also have within us enormous potential for bad. When we choose the good, we call that being righteous with God. When we choose the bad, we call that Sin. Sin is what separates us from God - and often, from each other.
Our Catechism in the BCP defines it this way: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” The key here is that we don’t get to say what sin is for other people. Sin is a matter between God and each person. And, each person, when they truly repent of their sins, can seek out a good and faithful priest and make a good confession and be assured of God’s absolution and pardon for their sins. When sin affects others negatively or harmfully, then sin is a matter for the community, and sometimes, for the courts.
But what is evil? It is said that sin is the root of all
evil. Some say love of money is the root of all evil. The sages hold that the
seven deadly sins - Lust, envy,
anger, greed, gluttony, sloth and pride - but, especially pride, is the root of
I think what Lucifer teaches us is that evil happens when we try to be like God, when we want the power and authority of God by some sort of scheme or negotiated plan. Evil happens we set ourselves up to be the one who decides who lives and who dies and why; who gets food and shelter and clothing, the basics of life - based on some human construct of worth or need.
Evil happens when we set ourselves up as the prosecuting attorney before the Heavenly Court, charging people with crimes WE think they’ve committed because of their race or gender, their age or social status, their country of origin, sexual orientation or religion, or because we disagree with the decisions they make for themselves and their lives.
That, my friends, is evil.
Annie Lamott says that you can be reasonably certain that you have created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.
Yes, there are evil forces, temptations, seductions, that can lead us astray. Call those forces of evil what you will, but when Jesus met Satan we learned that we cannot - not for one Red hot New York minute - blame our bad choices on Satan. We have been given the gift of free will. It is our choice, not Satan’s fault, that leads us away from God. We must take responsibility. We must hold ourselves accountable.
Yet, even when we do, we are assured of the second gift God has given us in Christ Jesus and that is the gift of GRACE. Grace to repent - to turn around, to walk away, to start anew. Grace to seek and ask for forgiveness. Grace to seek amendment of life and to “go and sin no more.” And, grace is always available to us. As my friend, Jerry, the UMC preacher from Tennessee says, “Grace is like grits. You don’t gotta order it. By God, it just comes.”
When Jesus met Satan in the wilderness, after Satan left defeated, we are told that “the angels waited on him”. So, too, will be our reward, when we resist the power to pull us from the path of righteousness and “seek first the Kingdom of God.” Amen.