Mother Ann’s sermon preached on Mar. 6, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Mar 6, 2022 in Lent, Sermons

The First Sunday in Lent

Mar. 6, 2022

The Side We Are On

On this first Sunday of Lent each year, we meet Jesus as he steps forward from his baptism.  God has just called out from the clouds, “My beloved Son!” That unspeakable accolade rings in his ears. This is an amazing, decisive moment for Jesus, as God’s Holy Spirit drives him forward into his ministry…and Satan pounces to drag him back.  It’s crucial we grasp these great struggling forces—Spirit driving events forward, Satan dragging them back—so we can grasp the full significance of everything that happens for the rest of Christ’s life, and ours.

Satan is hardly an everyday topic for us. We moderns have largely tuned out the Bible’s cautions against evil, and so we’ve lost enthusiasm for connecting the material and spiritual realms. We see ourselves as well-informed individuals, schooled in the physical, social and psychological causes that lives come to ruin.  Daily problems persist only so long as ignorance persists, allowing us to stumble into mistakes.  As soon as we get more data, and get more savvy at managing it, our lives will become heavenly, right? Yet lately the 24-hour news cycle has been opening our eyes to darker realities: the pandemic, the racial strife, the bloody invasion of Ukraine. Our former we-can-fix-anything bravado is faltering.  One of the most sobering signs of its passing showed up in a recent poll, asking Americans about our fundamental religious beliefs.  Over half of the respondents declared that for them, Satan was no longer just a worn-out metaphor, but a genuine reality unleashing a destructive force into our world. 

From the very beginning the Bible has famously told this story of Spirit driving forward, and Satan dragging back.  In Genesis God creates a paradise: day and night, ocean and dry land, plants and animals of every kind, and we humans are to share it all with God. But then the cunning snake slithers in, and tempts Adam and Eve to defy God’s limits on what is good for us.  They bite, and suddenly they are fearful that God will see what has become of them; they huddle in the shadows, naked and ashamed.  They no longer fit in, and paradise is lost to them.  

After that Satan appears intermittently throughout troubled times.  He most often works behind the scenes through unlikely surrogates such as friends or partners who suddenly turn treacherous. Satan slithers unseen into the heart of these relationships, and wreaks havoc on companionship, trust and love.  He languishes there as an invisible enemy, whose mayhem becomes apparent only as things fall apart.

The birth of Jesus marks a fresh beginning that makes the angels sing. The Spirit impregnates Mary, and now wise men bow before mother and child.  Meanwhile Satan hisses in King Herod’s ear, and he slays every boy child in Bethlehem. Jesus escapes, and through his growing years he maintains a low profile, until his cousin John goes public with preaching about the coming Messiah, and baptizing in anticipation of his work. That fanfare brings us to today’s Gospel. As Jesus rises from the river the Spirit drives him emptyhanded into the wilderness, where hunger and hostility drain him.  Approaching as an admiring friend, Satan suggests Jesus use his divine powers to feed himself; Jesus stands the devil off with scripture.  Then, feigning flattery, Satan offers Jesus practical help in seeking converts; again Jesus silences Satan with God’s words.  Finally Satan tries reverse psychology: fine, throw yourself down from the heights, and see if God will save you! For one last time Jesus again stands firm on God’s sovereign reign.  Defeated for the moment, Satan slouches off until “an opportune time.”

But the wait isn’t long. Satan finds many such times throughout Jesus’ ministry—again most of them are incognito, through naïve surrogates. There is the day a demanding mob tries to hurl Jesus to his death, but he mysteriously slips their hold.  There is the day that scheming enemies try to trap Jesus in breaking religious law, but he thwarts them by performing a touchless healing. There is the day that scoffing neighbors condemn Jesus as insane, and his family rushes to whisk him off the streets. There is the tumultuous feeding of the 5000, when his guests selfishly misread his motives, and rush to crown him Provider in Chief. And there is the night of the Last Supper, when Satan enters into Judas Iscariot, one of Christ’s own hand-chosen twelve. Again and again like this, Satan proves to be the invisible enemy within relationships, whose mayhem comes to light only when everything falls apart. Judas’ kiss brings events to a crescendo during Christ’s trumped-up trial.  It triggers the flight of his friends, and sets the mob to shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  The entire narrative of Holy Week heaps satanic betrayal upon betrayal, until the treachery consumes nearly half the pages of the Gospel. That’s how central this cosmic struggle is to faith, as Spirit relentlessly drives events forward, and Satan damnably drags them back.

In honor of this enduring enmity, on the happy day of our baptism, the Church publicly asks each of us which side of this cosmic struggle we are on.  The priest, speaking for all on Prayerbook page 302, asks:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces that rebel against God?, and we proclaim, I do.

Do you renounce evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I do.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the Love of God?
I do.

1-2-3. Having thrice defied Satan’s attempts to drag us back from following Christ, we are eager to now be asked,

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?
I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do.

And with that bold, threefold declaration of the side we are on, we are baptized in the name of Father Son and Holy Spirit, and solemnly signed on the forehead as Christ’s own forever.  Baptism is a beautiful thing, because from this day on, whenever we sense evil’s presence lurking in the shadows and dragging us back, we now know clearly whose we are, and how this struggle will end. As Martin Luther thundered whenever he was tempted, pounding his palm over the place he was signed with the cross: “I am baptized! I am baptized! I am baptized!”  Get your palm ready and keep on pounding until you’re safely home. Amen.

© 2022 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.