Here is my sermon for St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa, for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A. Thank you to David Lose for his excellent reflection on how this passage about Jesus’ temptations is about identity.
This week’s lectionary texts are Matthew 4:1-11 and Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7. We also had the joy of celebrating a baptism at the 8:30 service on Sunday, so that happy occasion also influenced the direction I went in this sermon.
As someone still fairly new at being a pastor, there are a few topics I haven’t preached on so far. Today, we’re going to get to one of the topics I haven’t mentioned yet, because it’s pretty essential to the readings we just heard.
So, is everyone excited for a sermon on the devil?
I don’t know about you, but I just don’t talk about the devil very much. I’m just not that interested in spending time thinking about Satan, which is probably good!
I’ve done a few baptisms now, and each time, I meet beforehand with the person being baptized or their parents, and we go through the baptismal service. There’s one line in the service (in the LBW version – the ELW splits this into a threefold renunciation) where I as the pastor ask, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?”
So far, no one has gotten very hung up on that question. I’ve even joked with a few people that I don’t know what I’d do if they refused to reject the devil. Renouncing the devil, saying you’re not a Satan-worshiper, seems like such a low bar for Christians; I just assume the answer will be yes, I renounce them.
But as I’ve studied these lessons this week, I think maybe I’ve been too flippant about this question. As I’ve thought about how the devil works, how the forces of evil go about their business of separating us from God, it’s not so easy to just offhandedly reject evil.
Not all Christians believe in an active, personal devil named Satan, and that’s ok. It’s not a very healthy subject to explore too deeply. In fact, the Bible isn’t as clear on it as we often think.
The first time we hear about Satan is in today’s first reading from Genesis, when the devil tempts Eve to eat the apple and commit the first sin. Right? Except, it’s not actually what we just heard or read. It’s actually a serpent in this story, just a snake. There’s nothing about the devil, or the name Satan. That’s us reading into the text, not what the Bible actually says. And for that matter, it says nothing about an apple, just a fruit.
But whether or not you believe in a personal devil as a character, I think we all have to believe in the power of evil. Both the Bible and our own experience make it clear there is evil in the world. Even when no one is at fault, tragedies barely surprise us, because we understand evil exists.
Although we personally may not have done anything this bad, we know humans are capable of doing awful, awful things. Mass murder, hatred carried to the extreme in the Holocaust, genocide, torture, putting ourselves into situations where hate, anger, and killing seem necessary, even normal.
Sometimes we might use phrases like “The devil made me do it” but often that seems like a poor excuse for our own ability to give in to the darkness inside of us.
One of the images of baptism is a great bath, to clean off the sin that clings to us as people, even as babies. We need to have our sin washed away, because we all have sin within our very nature as people.
Another, even more powerful image for baptism is drowning in the waters and being raised to new life in Christ, dying to ourselves, putting to death our sinful nature and being given a new birth, being born again as new creations. This new life isn’t complete in this world, as we know because we keep sinning, but it is in progress.
At baptism, we renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises, but we are still tempted. Evil can still sound awfully appealing. One thing we learn from these stories is the devil is incredibly good at making empty promises.
In baptism, we are claimed as children of God. In our new life, we are given a new identity, a new label. It’s a whole new identity. In baptism, we are adopted into a family of faith. We are told we are beloved of God. My favorite line in the baptism service comes when we trace the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized, and say, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
If you were in church on Ash Wednesday a few days ago, you had ashes placed on your forehead, tracing the sign of the cross, and you heard the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The promise of baptism, the promise of that cross, the seal of the Holy Spirit, is that even when your body returns to dust, you remain a child of God, living the new, eternal life God calls us to. In life and in death, your primary identity is that you are a child of God.
The way the devil works is by twisting that truth, making us question our identity. We see it in the garden with Adam and Eve. They were made to be dependent on God, but the serpent offers them a choice, the chance to be in control of their own lives. They take it, and separate themselves from God, their creator. They forget who they really are in their relationship with God. Instead, they start seeing themselves as naked and ashamed.
With Jesus, the devil tries the same thing. He challenges Jesus’ knowledge of his identity. Are you really the Son of God? If so, use your power to help yourself. Turn these rocks into bread. Throw yourself off the tower to prove your power. Use your power to be the most powerful person in the world.
Each time, Jesus responds by quoting Scripture that reminds him of who he is and who God is.
One passage he quotes is about God’s trustworthiness, another is about the need to depend on God alone for all good things, and another about God’s promise to care for him and all God’s children. (Credit for this line to David Lose)
We all face similar temptations. Remember, the devil is very good at empty promises, so they’re not usually as obvious as the devil suddenly putting you on top of a tall tower.
Often, I think Satan works through the commercial messages of our society. Buy this, and you’ll be happy. Find meaning in your life by visiting this place, by having that experience. You’re not good enough, but if you buy this diet, then people will like you and your life will have meaning.
What is it for you? There’s the temptation that your life doesn’t matter, that you’ve wasted all this time and effort. There’s the temptation that the world is rigged against you, the temptation that no one really cares and maybe the world would be better without you.
No wonder we pray to God every week, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” It’s not that the rejection of the devil and his empty promises at baptism isn’t good enough, it’s that evil is so pervasive, so tempting in our lives.
That’s why you need to keep gathering around this table, around the font, in community, to hear again and again that your identity is in Christ. You are a child of God, claimed and marked with the cross of Christ. Forever.
That’s good news, but it can be hard to believe.
We’ve been going out of order in our readings, skipping around the Bible, but the reality is Jesus’ temptations come right after his baptism. He leaves the river where John the Baptist baptized him, where the heavens opened up and he heard God’s voice declare “You are my Son, the beloved” and he immediately goes into the wilderness for forty days and fasts. When he goes off by himself, that’s when the devil comes to tempt him.
The devil tempts us by saying what matters is whether you’re male, or female, young or old, fat or skinny, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat. We hear messages that we’re lazy or ambitious, good or bad, too quiet, too loud, too dumb, too whatever. But the truth is whatever labels you wear, good or bad, whatever you’ve been told about who you are, your most important identity is that you are a child of God.
You need to hear this message again and again, because it’s about who you are. More importantly, it’s about whose you are. You belong to Christ. You are a child of God.