Sermon 26 February 2023 – Lent 1

Sermon 26 February 2023 – Lent 1

Richard Bonifant

In the name of God, Creating, Redeeming, and Giving us Life. Amen.

The readings for the first Sunday in Lent always pose a bit a problem for me.  In recent years I’ve been able to spare myself this difficulty by getting someone else to preach.  It turns out I’ve stumbled into having to say something this year, because I made the mistake of not checking what Sunday this was before agreeing to fill in for Glynn.

So, what is my difficulty with the first Sunday of Lent? Well, each year on this Sunday we traditionally hear one of three versions of the story of Jesus going out into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. I have a lot of thoughts and questions when it comes to Satan. One being, I don’t think I really believe in Satan…at least not the Satan that was described in the churches I grew up in, or in the ways Satan is portrayed in popular culture.

Today we heard from the Gospel of Matthew, in which there is a debate between Jesus and Satan, with Satan upping the stakes with greater and greater temptations. This version of the story is greatly developed from the earlier version we find in the Gospel of Mark, which offers none of the detail found in this morning’s reading. Matthew appears to have taken some poetic license with this narrative.  I say this because the story itself admits that only Jesus and Satan were present when these things took place. There was no eyewitness to record these events. Thus it’s fair to suggest that this narrative really comes out of the imagination of early Christian communities.

It may surprise you to learn that the biblical record actually says very little about Satan.  In the earlier books of the Hebrew bible the word Sātān is a noun, not a proper noun, and seems to refer to a human being who in some way places themselves in opposition to God.  For example, at one point King David wilfully ignores the prophetic advice through which God is seeking to communicate with him. The word Sātān is used to describe David’s behaviour. It is only in later biblical writings that the word Satan becomes a proper noun and begins to personify the forces opposed to God. For example this embodied being called Satan appears in the book of Job as Job’s tormentor.  A roll Satan can only play with permission from God.

In the New Testament the word Satan begins to alternate with the Greek word diabolos (devil), but still only appears a handful of times.  It is only when we get to the book of revelation, which was one of the last books in the bible to be written, that the mythology of Satan as being a fallen Angel becomes part of Christian thought. Sadly it was not long after that that Christian teaching began to attribute the angel’s fall as a result of lust for human women.  This view contributed negatively to the place of women in the church, and ultimately in the world, as it placed the blame for the angel’s fall, not on the angel but upon female sexuality. It would seem that the male understanding of Satan has a lot to answer for. 

Now, before I go any further, I do wish to explore a small tangent. I wonder who here is feeling uncomfortable about this sermon so far. I have intentionally used the word Satan quite a lot.  Each time I say it, I feel myself wince slightly as if I shouldn’t be saying it at all.  Some of you may have a sense that today the guest minister seems to be preaching in the wrong direction entirely.  Our tradition has embellished the word Satan with so much meaning and negative connotation, that it feels wrong to even speak it here in a place of worship.  It is a word that seems to be infused with negative power. 

In reflecting upon that I couldn’t help but think of the Harry Potter stories.  Within those stories, the primary antagonist is an evil wizard named Voldemort, or “he who shall not be named.”  In the world of Harry Potter the mere thought of Voldemort strikes so much fear within some people that they stop using his name.  But Harry’s mentor has another view and suggests that Harry should not shy away from using the name stating, “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.”[1]

Given what we know about the way the concept of embodied evil known as Satan has evolved through history, I find that imaginings of red skinned, pitch fork waving horned demons don’t make a lot of sense.  And yet, as I’ve just acknowledged, my emotional response to simply saying the word Satan is that it causes a certain low level of anxiety. It feels uncomfortable to talk about Satan this much. This is a topic where the heart and the mind seem to be at odds.

On one hand part of me wishes to simply consign Satan to a pre-enlightenment worldview that fails to connect with the here and now. There is just so much baggage around this particular way of talking about evil. It sets up a view of creation as being at war within itself, not an idea I warm to. It can lead to dualistic thinking where we see ourselves as good and others as evil, thus overlooking our individual capacity to do both loving and unloving things. And yet, I accept that there are occasions in this life where evil does appear to exist independently of individual human beings, and there are situations in which good people can be influenced towards their worst impulses.

In dealing with biblical texts that speak of a being named Satan as the embodiment of evil, we must regard those texts as metaphorical in nature. Such stories are wrestling with questions such as why good people can make terrible choices, and why there is so much that is wrong in our world. Unfortunately, placing the blame on unseen spiritual forces is an overly simplistic answer to a very complex set of questions. But there is still value in these stories. By taking seriously a metaphorical interpretation of Satan, we can appreciate the truth that evil exists in our world, it can coerce us and tempt us, but it can also be overcome.

This simple truth has been demonstrated in numerous psychological experiments where ordinary people have been placed into situations in which they have done terrible things.  Some of you will know of the famous Stanley Milgram experiments in which it was demonstrated that people were prepared to administer deadly electric shocks to a complete stranger, when instructed to by a perceived authority figure.  This is but one study of many that have shown us that often the context in which an act of violence takes place often contributes directly to the violence occurring. Or to put that another way, sometimes there are situational factors that produce actions we could name as evil.

I am part of an intentional religious community. In the last few weeks members of that community have been discussing a television series call The Last of Us, which is a pandemic themed horror story really. I only mention this show, because one of the central themes is what are we prepared to do for those we love. Over and over again, different characters make some pretty awful decisions, primarily to protect the ones they love. This series makes the point that we are all capable of deliberate harmful acts, but there are situations where we cannot boil down an atrocity or even a crime to individual responsibility.  Sometimes there are external factors that influence us towards good or bad.

Interestingly…this is more or less the position that Muslims have reached in their understanding of Angels.  In Islam the status of angels is a tenant of faith. Muslims believe that every one of us is assigned angels at birth who journey with us throughout our lives. These angels influence us towards good.

Islam also acknowledges the existence of spiritual beings called Jinn. At some points in history Jinn have been romanticised as genies, such as in the pre-Islamic stories of Scheherazade. Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba for example. Christians have often been misrepresented Jinn as demons. In Islam, Jinn are spiritual beings created from smoke who possess freewill.  Thus Jinn can chose to influence humans in various ways, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil. Alternatively Islam teaches that Angels are created from light and possess no free will, rather they only act in accordance with God’s will. Muslims bear no malice towards the Jinn as they are not fallen angels as Christian demonology suggests. Rather they are simply beings doing what they were created to do.

In reading one description of the ways Angels and Jinn influence us, one Muslim suggested that angels use words of encouragement always directing us towards goodness, while the influence of Jinn can be located in feelings such as anger or fear.

There are many situations in life where we can experience anger or fear and those emotions can certainly influence us towards negative choices. There is a Spanish proverb that states, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”  I can certainly think of many times when fear has held me back, times when I wish I had chosen a more courageous path, rather than giving in to my fear.  I just note here that in the bible, often when an Angel appears, the first words spoken are, “do not be afraid.” In fact those words, or similar words, appear in scripture three hundred and sixty five times.

I can also think of times when my anger has gotten the better of me. Times when I have said or done hurtful things. Worse still is when anger and fear team up together. I feel anxious just thinking about it.

But emotions are complex, and focusing on the negativity of such feelings only allows us to understand part of the story. Certainly fear can hold us back from things in life, and anger holds the potential to cause harm to ourselves and others. But even these emotions are not negative all the time. Sometimes our fear is reminding us that we need to prioritise our safety. And sometimes our anger is moving us towards confronting an injustice. (You heard me say it to the young ones this morning…sometimes it’s ok to be angry. What matters is what we do with that anger.) The challenge for us is to understand our emotions and recognise where they are trying to steer us. Because when we do that, we realise that actually we have choices. We do not have to simply act out our emotions.

I suspect that at the time Jesus decided to retreat into the wilderness, he was coming under pressure from numerous outside influences.  Like us, Jesus experienced pressures and temptations to go in one direction or another in determining just what kind of person he wanted to be.  The context in which he lived was one in which a revolutionary leader was desperately hoped for.  It would have been tempting to capitalise on those feelings in the wider community.  Maybe during those days alone in the desert Jesus thought about the possibility of a violent uprising against the romans. There were certainly other would-be messiahs who chose that path. Jesus had free will. Just like us he was capable of giving in to the dark side of his emotions. His choice, and one that we can also make, is seek the path of peace.

So as we begin this season of lent, I would encourage you not to think of this as a season of struggle with malevolent forces, but rather to take stock of your life and to reflect on what things influence you for the worse and what things influence you for the better.  Lent is an opportunity to change the things that don’t serve you well, but also to appreciate the things that do. Amen.

Have you ever felt really angry?

Maybe when you saw that something was wrong in the world?

Maybe when you felt that a great unfairness had been done?

Maybe when someone was hurting another person or a tree or and animal?

Have you allowed yourself to express that anger?

To use that anger for good?

One day Jesus went into the temple and he found it full of tables covered in coins.

Gold and silver, copper and tin all shining in the light.

Now inside Jesus grew a burning feeling,

a beating and a boiling righteous rage,

like a fire, like a fury.

“This is my father’s house!”

he cried and lifted up the tables and smashed them down.

“This is a place to talk to God not a space for trading money!”

And as he yelled his yell to the sky he felt his anger leave him

and he felt clear and powerful and calm.

And all around him the air grew sparkly and the angels (if you listened closely) could be heard to sing.

And then the blind and the poor who had been too frightened to come to the temple came forward to Jesus and felt warmed by his love.[2]

[1] Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone

[2] Alexandra Sangster, Mystic Bible, pg. 47