Lent 1: “Go to Church, or the Devil Will Get You”

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Seen in rural Alabama, by the side of I-65.

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

Thanks to Lent, and in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening and New England in the eighteenth century, this is a sermon about the devil.

Okay, it’s not in the tradition of the First Great Awakening. There will be no “sinners in the hands of an angry God” and it’s too cold for tent revivals. But they talked a lot about the devil too back then. Anyhow, thanks to the Bible, we have to talk about the devil today.

When I was in college, there was a sign in the middle of nowhere on the side of the interstate which, complete with a red devil and pitchfork, read, “Go to church or the devil will get you.” It was actually on the way to my college from the Birmingham airport, and many a teammate of mine from another country or another part of the country questioned their life choices about where they had moved when passing it. Sometimes the places you move to defy stereotypes. Other times, they don’t.

In another episode about the devil, one of my favorite comedians in the world, Rowan Atkinson, popularly known as Mr. Bean, has one particular sketch that I find relevant today. You know, the devil goes by a few names.

Atkinson begins the sketch with a clipboard, a pair of horns on his head, and a black robe.

He begins:

“Hello, nice to see you all again.

Now, as the more perceptive of you have probably realized by now, this is Hell, and I am the Devil. Good evening. You can call me Toby, if you like – we try and keep things informal here, as well as infernal. That’s just a little joke.

Now, you’re all here for eternity, which I hardly need tell you is a [heck] of a long time, so you’ll get to know everyone pretty well by the end, but for now I’m going to have to split you up into groups. Are there any questions? Yes? [pause]

Um, no, I’m afraid we don’t have any toilets. If you’d read your Bible you would have seen that it was [punishment] without relief. So, if you didn’t go before you came then I’m afraid you’re not going to enjoy yourself very much … but then, I believe that’s the idea.

Right, let’s split you up then.

Can you all hear me still?

CAN YOU HEAR ME AT THE RACK?

All right, off we go …

Murderers, over here. Looters and pillagers – over there please, thieves if you could join them, and bank executives …” (1)

On Wednesday night we faced our mortality, and today, on the first Sunday in Lent, we have the devil appearing just about everywhere. That’s Lent for you, I guess.

When I was first talking through how to lead families through the baptismal process with my pastor back in Atlanta, she was familiarizing me with the Lutheran baptism service and warned me: “There’s a lot of devil talk in there, and that freaks some people out.”

No kidding.

She went on to say, as I now say frequently, that an acknowledgement of sin and Satan are less about archaic religion and exorcisms and a lot more about how the world is not as it should be. Things are broken.

In a poll that was simply titled “Devil and the Demographic Details,” Gallup estimates that, way back in 2001, 68% of Americans believed in the devil, 20% said they didn’t, and 12% said they weren’t sure. Those devil belief numbers have gone down a bit in recent years, but they tend to hover at over half of Americans believing in Satan as a real entity. (2)

Now, you all know that I am a highly practical person, sometimes entirely too into reason and my own mental processes to be very good at being spiritual. It’s weird for a pastor, I know, but here we are, and at least I’m in New England, where overly cerebral, academic personalities are a bit more tolerated than in other places. There’s not much to do in the winter besides read here anyway.

So I admit that I used to be weirded out by devil talk, too. I mean, it seems odd: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead wasn’t too much for my sense of reason, but talk of the devil was just crazy. I suppose the difference was that the resurrection made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but the devil was scary. So there you go.

Then I faced up to the question at the end of seminary six years ago in my very first ordination paperwork. I knew quite well that if I didn’t look further into this, I wouldn’t be given a church in Alabama.

Though the devil reportedly went down to Georgia, Alabama pastors, too, just can’t serve properly without being able to give a good Satan talk.

And so I did what any overly cerebral seminarian would do: I looked at the Hebrew.

In our Genesis text today, we have the serpent tempting, and succeeding, with Eve. He tells her that God wasn’t really serious about that fruit — that it’s totally fine to eat.

Why was fruit so bad? That’s another question for another day. Let’s stick to the devil.

Most of us know the story at least pretty well: the serpent tempts Eve, who eats the fruit. Eve then gives some to Adam, who curiously does not ask enough questions, and he eats some too. When God finds out and asks Adam for an explanation, Adam blames Eve, then Eve blames the serpent, thus beginning the long human tradition of blaming other people for our s… our stuff.

The serpent isn’t named Satan here. Satan, as I said before, has many names. Here, the devil is just called the serpent. The serpent, Beelzebub, the devil, Satan, is understood as a tempter. But Satan, in Hebrew — called “ha-satan” in the book of Job — means “the adversary,” or traditionally, “the accuser.” Far beyond the horns and pitchfork, the devil is the one who accuses us of wrong.

The devil, to me at least, is that voice in your head that says that you are not beloved. That your mistakes are forever. That God could never love you after all you’ve done. That you will never be able to be fully yourself. That your life is over. That there is no hope.

Satan is the force, the voice, that accuses: it says that you are corrupt, and you were not created good.

The devil is a liar.

Even in today’s Gospel reading, we hear the voice of ha-satan, the accuser: there is an accusation in every temptation.

Twice, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” asking Jesus to prove that he is really who he says he is: God’s beloved Son.

Then, for the last grand temptation, the devil takes Jesus up to a high mountain and shows him all the world’s power and says, “I’ll give you all of this if you’ll worship me.”

The implication and hidden accusation being, of course, that Jesus is vulnerable and weak and in need of that kind of power. The devil has all the persuasion of a dealer touting, “Hey! I’ve got what you need.” It’s not about something that’s nice to have, a luxury. It’s about need.

Jesus was facing the world’s most powerful empire in Rome, stirring up trouble. His life was in danger.

In the words of Whoopi Goldberg in the 1990 film Ghost, Jesus, “You in danger, girl.”

Pilate will even tell him at his trial, “What is truth?” with the implication being “What is truth compared to power?”

The devil offers safety through strength. You’re weak, Jesus. You need power.

Ha-Satan, Satan, the adversary and accuser, strikes again.

Call it Satan or call it whatever you like, but we always seem to feel accused. Accused of being weak or dumb, of not being good enough, of not working hard enough, of having the wrong political beliefs, of not having a grip on reality, of being a bad parent or a bad spouse or a bad adult child, of being less than we should be. Sometimes, those voices come from others. But you all also know that sometimes, they come from within.

And we could certainly all stand to improve ourselves (that’s part of the point of Lent, after all). But when the accusation goes beyond what we do and starts to strike at who we are, we have a problem. It is the difference between trying hard to improve and giving up improvement because you feel that something is wrong with you.

When we feel accused, we do exactly what Eve did, and what Adam did. We pass the buck. We don’t like to talk about our own faults.

When we are outraged by something on the news, most of us are more likely to blame someone else, like a religious or ethnic group, a leader or other person, or a corporation, rather than change our own behavior.

This is true across the political divide: we would rather rant at someone else than to look at what we might change in ourselves.

We can all do something to work for peace and justice in our world, but we would rather accuse than repent. In that sense, we’re perfectly capable of being little devils ourselves.

Jesus offers us a better way. When he is accused by the Great Accuser, he remembers who he is. He remains secure. He quotes God’s words.

God’s words over us in baptism are that we are beloved, and we are God’s own. The other voices that tell you that you are not beloved, that you are not good enough, and that you cannot improve, are lies.

The devil is a liar.

Again, that is not to say that we are beyond improvement. Part of the whole point of Lent is figuring out a better way to live, to prepare us to celebrate Easter feeling renewed.

While we all need to make improvements in what we do, who we are is beloved. When you feel inadequate, don’t pass along Satan’s accusations to someone else. This Lent, look at what you can do to make your corner of the world better. And don’t forget to be still and rest in your belovedness, so that when Toby… I mean Satan… comes accusing, you’ll know whose you are. Let us continue to remind each other, right here in church, that we are beloved.

And that, my friends, was my Lenten devil talk:
Go to church, or the devil will get you. Amen.

1. Rowan Atkinson, skit, posted 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91DSNL1BEeY

2. Jennifer Robison, Gallup Corporation, 2001, http://www.gallup.com/poll/7858/devil-demographic-details.aspx.

One thought on “Lent 1: “Go to Church, or the Devil Will Get You”

  1. I’m so glad that I can read your sermons, Pastor Anna.
    I can hear your voice and see your facial reactions as you deliver each sermon.

    Loved the way you took the devil and really made him real to us in today’s world and in Jesus’ day.

    Blessings to you!

    Liked by 1 person

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