Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Devil in the details: Lent 1

This Lent, I will be preaching on the theme of finding the Devil in the details of the Sunday gospel readings. Jesus called him the “Father of lies” (John 8:44) and St John the Divine called him the “Deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Our goal will be to become familiar the with ways of “Old Scratch” so that we might be less likely to fall into his traps in the future.

Interestingly, just a few days after I decided to preach on the devil, presidential candidate Rick Santorum was taking heat for talking about the devil a few years ago in a speech to Catholic students at Ave Maria University.

He said, “The Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country—the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age?”

Santorum was right about that. The devil has his sights on any force for good—our nation, the Church, the family, children, your soul—all are under attack. This Lent, let us arm ourselves for the spiritual battle.

The late Pope John Paul II said that “Spiritual combat . . . is a secret and interior art, an invisible struggle in which [we] engage every day against temptations.” (Of course, there’s no struggle if you offer no resistance.)

There is an ongoing battle, a clash of good and evil, and you are the ultimate prize—precious human lives, human souls, creatures God made in his own image.

Just who and what is the devil? The Bible tells us that he is a fallen angel—a being created to serve God, but who chose instead to rebel. He began as Lucifer (“the shining one”), but through pride he became known as Satan (“the Adversary” or “Enemy”).

He enticed about a third of the angels to join him. At the judgment of God, St Michael the Archangel led the host of angels to expel Lucifer and his demons from heaven. Jesus once said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:17).

The Prophet Isaiah wrote, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the dawn! . . . Didn’t you say to yourself: ‘I will be as high as heaven; I will be more exalted than the stars of God; I will be the supreme leader in the privileged places; I will be higher than the skies; I will be the same as the Most High God’? But you shall be brought down to hell, to the bottomless pit. And all who see you will despise you” (Isaiah 14:12-16).

The devil is a defeated foe, but (like a wounded animal) he is still dangerous. Like the Nazis retreating into the heart of Germany, or the Iraqis retreating from Kuwait, the Prince of Darkness has enacted a “scorched earth policy.” Those armies devastated the land and cities they had once occupied their retreat. They could not win, so did their best to ruin the spoils of the victors.

The Devil seeks to destroy everything that is good, everything which glorifies God. He knows his ultimate destiny; he knows hell was created for him. He just wants to destroy as many lives and take as many with him as he can.

St. Peter tells us in his first letter, “Be sober, be vigilant. Your adversary the Devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brethren throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9). This Lent, we will talk about how to resist him, firm in our faith.

Even our Lord himself suffered the assaults of the devil in his ministry. Today’s gospel tells us about the high point of his baptism, and the low point of his desert ordeal—all in the span of two verses.

The other evangelists tell us that the desert was for Jesus a time of spiritual struggle. We know that he was tempted in the wilderness. At his baptism, a voice had proclaimed, “Thou art my beloved Son.”

“Are you really the Son of God?” the Devil whispered. “Is the cross really necessary?” Jesus confronted evil whenever this truth was revealed.

I’ve always found it odd that there are some Christians who do not believe that there is actually a devil. Such a view is unbiblical, of course, but there is a greater problem that arises. If there is no devil, how is Jesus tempted? God tempts no one, as were are told by St James. Jesus is alone; is he tempting himself? Then he would not really be God, nor would he be “my beloved Son,” which is precicely the doubt that Satan was trying to instill.

St Theodore of Mopsuestia points out that Jesus defeated the devil’s temptations, not as God (i.e., by just saying it and it being so), but through his humanity. This was to teach us by example “that it is not through miracles, but by long-suffering and patient endurance that we must prevail over the Devil . . .”

The Devil hates the crucifixion, because that sealed his fate and God’s victory. You see, there is a power that overcomes death, hell, and the grave. That power comes from Jesus Christ—living in you by the Holy Spirit. There is something in your life stronger than temptation and sin. It is the grace of God, poured out in the shed blood of Jesus.

The Devil’s great fear is that after filling the world with sin (and filling your life with sin), God would find a way to take it all away, to undo all the Devil’s work. The Devil was right to be afraid!

We’ll learn more about the Devil’s ways this Lent. Meanwhile, “Be sober, be vigilant!”

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