1st Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020
– Matthew 4:1-11, Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –
I’ve met many transplanted Vermonters who say they moved to this state to get away from toxic working and living environments and start afresh, even at the sacrifice of lucrative careers. Yet in rural settings many have found themselves confronted with a more constant stream of quirky small-town personalities that are more difficult to avoid than their urban counterparts. However, because these personalities are not embodied in the form of bosses whose directions must be followed or countless insensitive behavior from pedestrians or drivers rushing from one place to another, they’ve learned to adjust.
The season of Lent is a peculiar time that requires a period of adjustment to the irritating company of Satan who reminds us too much of ourselves. We often imagine Satan as an external evil force waiting for the right moment to entice us away from God. But I prefer to see Satan, or the Devil, less as an external force and more as an internal feature of our soul. But not only our soul.
Whenever Satan is mentioned in the Old Testament, he mostly is the advocate angel sent by God to obstruct or test humanity. Satan, in fact, comes from the Hebrew term meaning to obstruct or oppose. So, while Satan is never mentioned in the story of Eden, it is the serpent God creates that assumes the satanic role of testing the human couple. Satan is the obstructive element of God who hardens the heart of Pharaoh and kills the first born of the Egyptians. But it is also the satanic force that tests the faithful, like Job and Abraham, to determine if they are truly righteous. And you can rest assured that whenever the term forty is mentioned in the Bible – be it in reference to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, or Noah’s forty days at sea in the ark – an implied satanic spirit of God is at play either obstructing our evil intent or testing our faith.
Whether you see Satan as an advocate or adversary angel; or as a force compliant or opposed to God’s will, the gospel tells us that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1) suggesting, once again, that Satan was an instrument of God’s bidding. And whether you see Satan as an external or internal tempter, in either case Satan is the one with whom we all must constantly contend; who confronts us, especially in times of physical and spiritual upheaval and, like a prosecuting angel, probes the dark dimensions of our character, exposing the truths of our cluttered closets we would never reveal in the light of day, yet who exposes them to God who knows and loves us nonetheless.
You may have friends and family members you’ve known most of your life, in whom you’ve confided, who know your good and despicable sides, who confronted and challenged you for the better, yet who nonetheless harbor knowledge about you that could easily be used against you if they chose to do so. But they don’t. The difference between them and Satan is that Satan is a stool pigeon. It is the role of Satan to gain your trust and then betray it; to dig up all the dirt about you and dump it at the feet of God. However, it is your role to realize with Christ that all Satan promises in an effort to gain your trust can never match the riches God has in store for those who are not deceived.
Now certainly, there are satanic forces in this world who act solely for selfish gain and will harm you and anyone else who gets in their way. These are individuals who have fought and lost their wilderness battle with Satan and intend to bring you down with them. But how we contend with the Satans of the world is conditioned upon how we contend with the Satans of our soul. And when we further realize that even the fallen angels from heaven, along with the fallen humanity of earth, are not beyond the pale of God’s forgiveness and redemption, maybe even Satan has a more virtuous place in God’s plan.
It may be that when Jesus told Satan to begone, he was in fact rebuking him as he rebuked his own disciple Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23), which is but another way of saying, “Get the hell out of my way, for you are obstructing my path to God. Get behind me, Satan, and follow my lead.”
As we begin our Lenten journey of wilderness testing and preparation, let us follow the lead of Jesus by making room for the company of Satan. For in such company we gain a greater knowledge of the evil we wish to avoid and greater appreciation of the path we seek through Christ. Amen.