Sermon for Sunday, June 9th, 2018.
“The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
Eve’s fateful words from the Book of Genesis. Eve is trying to ease her guilt; she is trying to shift the blame for her transgression, but nonetheless the words she says are true; the serpent did trick her. The serpent tricked Eve into thinking that God couldn’t be trusted; that God wasn’t true to his word; that God for some reason wanted to withhold good things from his children. The serpent tricked Eve into trusting him and while he was at it he tricked Adam too. Adam won’t take responsibility for listening to the serpent; he blames Eve and indirectly he even blames God for his downfall, saying: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” In other words: this is your fault God, says Adam.
Well I’m sorry Adam, I don’t buy it. You knew what you were doing when you ate of the fruit. The serpent duped you too. Because that’s what the serpent does. He is a trickster. Like any good trickster or con-man he goes by several names; he has several aliases: the serpent, the accuser, the devil, Satan, even Beelzebul, but no matter what name he goes by or which scripture you find him in, he is always up to the same no good: tricking God’s children into misplacing their trust.
That’s the root of it all you know. All the evil in the world. It all comes down to misplaced trust: humans putting their trust in the wrong things. The bible spends all of two chapters talking about how the almighty God created a beautiful world filled with good things, but then in chapter three of the Book of Genesis, it gets right to the meat of the issue: why the world doesn’t seem so good anymore. What’s the root of the problem? Well the problem begins with a character that the bible describes as shrewd, subtle or cunning. The root of the problem is a trickster and the people who are willing to trust him.
Now I must admit, that preaching on the devil makes me a little nervous. Not that I am overly worried about what he is going to do to me; I’m frankly a little more concerned about what y’all are going to do to me; because in my experience when it comes to the devil people frequently fall into one of two categories: there are those that don’t believe that he exists at all, and then there are the people that think that he reigns supreme. There are the people who don’t believe in him and then there are the people who are terrified of him, and I am here to wade in the water right in the middle this morning. You see, I think that the devil, who we know to be a trickster, has two main tricks up his sleeve: he will either convince us that he has no power, or he will convince us that he has all power. No power, or all power. If he can convince us of one of those two things, then he can draw us away from the trusting in the power of God.
In his preface to “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis wrote:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
Equal and opposite errors: to either deny the devil or to become obsessed with him. I think that is just as true now as when Lewis wrote those words. People either want to dismiss all this as pre-scientific fable, or they want to watch movies like the Omen and the Exorcist, terrified at what the devil may do to them, but how often do people want to talk about or focus on the power that God has over the devil?
Isn’t it funny, if you stand up and say the devil doesn’t exist, people are with you. If you stand up and say that the world is going to hell and evil is running this world unchecked, people are with you. But if you stand up and say that God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit is at work in this world casting the devil out, that’s when people think you are crazy. When you stand up and say that God can be trusted, and that God’s power is greater than any other power in this world, that is when people wanna lock you up.
It seems to me, that that is what is happening to our Lord in the gospel today. People think that Jesus is either crazy or possessed. If they think that the devil doesn’t exist, then they are probably inclined to think that Jesus is out of his mind and needs to be restrained. If they think that the devil has great power, then they probably think that that demonic power is how Jesus is performing these miracles. Either way, many people around Jesus are missing what is really going on. They are so focused on the devil’s power that they can’t see God’s power at work. What they don’t see is that God is at work correcting the damage that was done when humans first misplaced their trust. God is casting Satan out and inviting his children back into relationship with him. God is proving that he is the one who is trustworthy; he is the one who is faithful; he is the one who is powerful. Jesus is no trickster; he is the anti-trickster.
I know that in some circles it is still fashionable to question the existence of the devil. Some people want to say that this serpent stuff is just a fable; that Satan and the devil are just mythical characters created to convey an idea. Well, at this point in my life and ministry I have seen enough and experienced enough that I am less inclined to fall for that trick of the devil. I believe he exists, although I doubt that he usually manifests himself in spinning heads and pea soup as popular drama would have us believe. As I read the gospels, I can also have no doubt that Jesus believed he was real. I must admit though, that I am sometimes susceptible to fall for that second trick of the devil; sometimes I am inclined to overestimate his power. I am inclined sometimes to look out at the world and wonder if evil has been given free rein. Sometimes my own cynicism about evil in the world prevents me from seeing God at work, at that is just as bad as believing that the devil doesn’t exist. In either case I am distracted from witnessing the true power of God at work in the world.
I need to be reminded that just as the gospels leave us no room to doubt that Jesus believes in the devil, they also leave us no room to doubt that Jesus has power over him. If we take the gospels seriously then we will realize that we need neither to succumb to denial on the one hand, nor fear on the other. Trying to figure out whether the devil has no power or all power; that is a trick the devil plays so that we won’t recognize the true power of God. We shouldn’t be drawn into that one way or the other. What we do need to take seriously is the power that God has over the devil. What we need to take seriously is the power of Jesus to silence the devil and his lies. What we need to take seriously is the power that God has demonstrated to cast the serpent out and to bring his children home. That is a power that is real. That is a power we can put our trust in. And after all deciding what power to put your trust in, well that’s what it’s all about.