- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - 1 Lent
In the Name...
There was once an old sailor nearing the end of his days in a nursing home. He confessed to the chaplain that he had never been baptized and he now desired it. So, the chaplain brought a bowl of water to the bedside and began the service. All went well until he reached the question, "Do you renounce the Devil and all his works?” The sailor made no reply. Thinking that perhaps he hadn't been heard, the chaplain repeated louder, "Do you renounce the Devil and all his works?" At that, the old salt spoke up, "I heard you the first time, Father, but do you think it's wise for me to make enemies right now?"
One of the main things we do each Sunday when we assemble for praise and worship is to proclaim our belief in God and direct our thoughts and hearts upwards to heavenly splendour and the life of the world to come, angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. And this is a good thing. But as the saying goes, one can have too much of a good thing and one can have too much of the reality of God and heaven if it comes at the expense of the other great reality of Satan and hell.
Every year, we begin Lent with the story of the temptations in the desert, a story in which Satan plays a principal role as the enemy of Christ. And, every year, we are reminded that Satan is also the most determined enemy of us. So, every year, in its Lenten preparation, the Church feels the need to reaffirm the fact and reality of Satan.
In one sense, this is not surprising, as one of Satan's names is the "Father of Lies" and the greatest lie he has managed to perpetrate in our modern day and age is that he's nothing more than a character in the movies and TV shows. But as for being something real, something dangerous - not at all.
Of course, nobody denies that Evil exists and that there are evil influences all around us. But the idea that these forces are directed by an individual who organizes them, coordinates them, and gives them commands - that's something with which we can't deal. The thing is that Satan is more than ready to deal with us.
Lest, this sound too depressing, however, the First Sunday of Lent also helps us keep in mind that although Satan exists, he is not all-powerful. He is only an angel.
Now, that may not sound very comforting, to say he's only an angel because angels are quite impressive beings in their own right. They're smarter and stronger than we are and are even naturally immortal. But at the end of the day, all angels, including Satan, are just created beings, inferior to God. In fact, I'll go one step further here, and say that angels are not only inferior to God; they are also inferior to us.
That's right. Angels are inferior to humans because humans are made in the image and likeness of God and nothing else in heaven or earth can make that claim.
For another claim we can make is that God loves us and that is something else that Satan can't understand. You see, as wise and powerful as angels are, they have no emotions - only logic - and Satan cannot comprehend how it is that God has not yet destroyed humanity for all the times it has logically deserved it. That's why he's constantly tempting us, because he's trying to test God's breaking point. How much evil does humanity have to do to get God angry?
And so he complicates our lives. His goal is to divert us from doing what God would like us to do, so he plays with what he regards as our weaknesses; our senses and desires, our passions and appetites, our emotions and imaginations, and, having played with us, he hopes that we will then choose to do what he wants.
Our first lesson was that famous episode we call The Fall, when Adam and Eve, our first ancestors, gave in to Satan's temptations. It's a fascinating story because it shows us exactly how he works.
First, we need to realize that God never told Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge. God only told Adam. Adam told Eve. So, Satan makes his pitch to someone who might have reason to doubt the source of the instruction. Maybe, Adam's hiding something from her. Maybe he made this up. This is a good start.
The second thing is, do you notice how long the conversation between Eve and Satan goes on? Quite a while. How long is the conversation between Adam and Eve? There isn't one. It just says Adam ate. Have you ever wondered about that? Why would Adam, who knew what God had said, give in without a fight? Two reasons - love and fear.
Remember that, at the beginning, Adam was alone and lonely. He had seen all the animals and none was found to be a suitable companion. So, God created Eve and Adam loved her. She had rescued him from an eternity of loneliness. Prison studies show that solitary confinement is regarded by most prisoners as worse than the death penalty. People who have undergone it never again want to suffer the mental torture of it. Adam knew what it was like to be in solitary. He didn't want to go back. And that fear of being alone led him to decide to stand with her and suffer the consequences together.
Adam was probably horrified when he saw what Eve had done and knew that this would likely result in her death, so he threw in his lot with her. Life without her, he had known, and death was preferable.
Of course, when God shows up, Adam starts with the second thoughts but the point is that Satan used the greatest virtue to create a situation of fear, mistrust and doubt. And that has been his M.O. ever since.
For Satan is the master of the art of disturbing the soul. It’s an old saying that we make our own hell here on earth. Well, that's not quite true, but he can make us feel that way - if we let him. You see, he cannot control our wills and our minds. He can batter these and try to wear us down, but he cannot control us because our wills and minds belong to God and, as ridiculously simple as this sounds, if we, in the words of the old slogan, "Just Say No", then he has no power. Our God-given freedom of choice cannot be taken away, even by Satan.
In the Gospel today, we see the limits of his power. He can bribe, he can cajole, he can insult and demean - "If you are the Son of God" - what's with the "If"? It's a challenge, an insult. But that's all he can do. He could not control Jesus and he cannot control us either.
The strongest defence we can have against him is what Jesus showed in the lesson - a loving and humble spirit that is centred on God. A spirit that trusts, that loves without fear. A spirit that is confident in the Lord. And with that spirit, we are the ones who have power. God-like power. And with that power, we can command Satan - and tell him where to go.
In the Name...