Kicking Satan to the Curb (A Sermon on Matthew 4:8-11)

Matthew 4:8-11 represents the third and final of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness.[1] First, after forty days and nights of fasting Satan tempted Jesus to exploit his divinity, exchanging his anointing for physical sustenance. Secondly, Satan tried to persuade Jesus to test his divinity, flippantly displaying it for mere showmanship. Thirdly, Satan took off the gloves and went for the knockout punch. "Here the underlying issue of the temptations is in full view to either worship Satan or worship God alone."[2] Satan offered Jesus the world if he would only forfeit his soul.[3] Thankfully Jesus rejected these empty offerings and sent Satan on his way, which is the example that we must follow.

The pink elephant in the room upon reading of Jesus' temptations is that some of us don't quite believe Satan to be real, that there is a nameable adversary active in this world who opposes God. Maybe these aren't your thoughts, but those of a family member, neighbor, or friend. Popular caricatures of evil are partly to blame for this doubt; you know, the fury animated character wearing red horns and a long tail in any given cartoon, representing Satan, who chases others around with a pitchfork. Then, there are the theological nuances of evil in the Bible-the adversary or accuser, labeled the Satan, of the Old Testament who represents evil more generally, and the devil or Satan of the New Testament who represents evil more specifically.[4] Then, too, there are more complex philosophical and historical arguments against Satan's existence, which is to say that evil might exist as a metaphysical force of some kind, but there isn't one nameable entity or personified source. Some argue that Jesus' temptation in Matthew 4 is purely allegorical as opposed to a blow-by-blow account of a real dual between good and evil. Whichever argument you are in most support of, I submit to you this morning that Satan is a real force in our world, and in our lives. Satan is not a figment of biblically-inspired imagination.

Look at Job. Presumably he did nothing wrong, but he battled with Satan and won, having lost everything that was dear to him along the way. Look at Judas who Satan entered and exploited.[5] Look at Peter who Jesus rebuked because his fear and doubt led him to be used by Satan.[6] Look at Adam and Eve. In the form of the serpent, Satan tricked them into disobeying God.[7] Satan can be present in our decisions that dishonor God, but Satan is also more broadly present in the world. This reality doesn't lesson or dumb-down human responsibility. It just points to the ultimate source of our trouble as the one who encourages sin, causes devastation, and is hell-bent on sifting us like wheat.[8] Look at the baby born addicted to alcohol or crack cocaine. Look at the effects of blunt force trauma as a man lies on our city's streets with blood gushing from his head. Look at the murder-suicide of the actor Phil Hartman by his wife. Look at the Enron scandal, 9/11, famine, slavery, prostitution, war, and disease. Look at my sister.

My sister has one of the most important and unique occupations that I know of. She tracks down online pedophiles and assists in their prosecution, as well as the identification and rescuing of the children that they abuse. Her work is vital to the safety of children in the so very technologically complicated world that we live in where virtually anything is available anytime from the so-called anonymity of the Internet. I love that my sister is so skilled and passionate about her work, but I don't envy it simply because, without ever having seen them first-hand, the images that she views on a daily basis represent horrendous evil; human choice in action for sure, but the presence of Satan nonetheless.

It has been said that, "The greatest trick the devil ever played was to make the world believe he doesn't exist."[9], a belief that C.S. Lewis co-signed in his popular work The Screwtape Letters. In kicking Satan to the curb you and I must make the conscious decision, moment-by-moment, not to become the devil's advocate or accomplice.[10] When we choose differently it is easy to begin stealing from Peter to pay Paul. Hypocrisy becomes comfortable, so we tell our children to do as I say, not as I do. We lie and cheat, disrespect, and dishonor those who mean the most to us, and we disobey the word of God. According to Erich Fromm, "Man does not only sell commodities, he sells himself and feels himself to be a commodity."[11]

We must take our cue from Jesus. In verse 10 of Matthew 4 Jesus says to Satan, "Begone, Satan! for it is written, "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve." After quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, you will notice that Jesus didn't politely ask Satan to leave. No, he aggressively kicked Satan to the curb and we must do the same. Our problem is that we oftentimes misappropriate who Satan is. Like hardcore fans of The Godfather trilogy we embrace the axiom to, "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."[12] To be frank, however, that is just plain 'ol silly. Satan is nobody's friend, but even as our enemy, with the word of God we must to seek to boldly subdue Satan's presence in our lives. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, refuse to make deals with Satan, no matter how attractive the trinkets.[13] Refuse to be a commodity that is for sale to the highest bidder. Refuse Satan's insistence to relax in the passenger seat of your life.

In my life, as I suspect in your own, I am the biggest in progress protagonist of all-time. I fall short of the mark,[14] and covet God's grace and mercy to forge ahead each day. Yet, even in my imperfections because of the Holy Spirit I am being perfected by our perfect God. Therefore, I want no part of Satan's negotiations, and I don't need any arbitration either. We are not friends. We are and forever will be enemies. And, I am okay with that. Don't let the presence and worldly power of Satan render you helpless or hopeless on this day, or any other, for our help comes from and our hope is in the Lord.[15] 

[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on March 13, 2010 at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Roswell, GA where the Rev. Patrick Day is senior pastor.

[2] Donald Senior, Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 59.

[3] Matthew 16:24-26.

[4] Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 974-975. See also T.J. Wray, Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots (New York: Macmillian, 2005).

[5] John 13:18-30.

[6] Matthew 16:22-23.

[7] Genesis 3.

[8] Luke 22:31-32.

[9] Adapted from the short story, "The Generous Gambler," by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. See Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen (New York: New Directions, 1970). The exact wording is: "My dear brethren, do not forget, when you hear the progress of lights praised, that the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!" The axiom was made popular in contemporary popular culture by its use in The Usual Suspects, directed by Byron Singer (Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1995).

[10] John 10:10-11.

[11] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Macmillian, 1994), 119.

[12] The Godfather: Part II (Paramount, 1974).

[13] See John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries, Volume XVI-Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 221.

[14] Romans 3:23.

[15] See David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 44-49.