Sermon 01-12-14: “This Means War!”

January 21, 2014
Flemish painter Simon Bening depicts the first of Jesus' three temptations.

Flemish painter Simon Bening depicts the first of Jesus’ three temptations.

Do you believe in the devil? Jesus did—which is our best for believing in him as well. That we face an Adversary who is constantly working against the good that we try to do certainly makes better sense of our struggles in life. This sermon is about the deadly threat that Satan poses to us. I also talk about the parallel that the evangelist Luke draws between the temptation of Jesus, the second Adam, and the temptation of the first Adam. The nature of the temptation was the same: the outcome couldn’t have been more different. We Christians share in the victory Christ won over Satan.

Sermon Text: Luke 4:1-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Many of us watched the BCS national championship game last Monday, and whether or not our team won, it was a great game! One of the story lines in the game was that Florida State had won all of its games this year so easily, and by such a wide margin, that they had never really faced adversity. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around in the first 13 games they played, they were always so far ahead that they could rest their starters and put in their second- and third-string players. So all the sports analysts were saying that FSU had never been tested.

By contrast, their opponent, Auburn, had been tested repeatedly. They had faced adversity. They knew how to come from behind to beat heavily favored teams, and they knew how to come from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This kind of experience would give them an advantage.

What if Auburn could force FSU to play a full four quarters of football? Would FSU be able handle the adversity? Would they be able to rise to the challenge? Would they be able to pass the test?

And I guess the answer is yesBut just barely!

My point is, being tested helps us. Facing adversity helps us. These things can toughen us up and instill within us the confidence we need to overcome greater challenges later on. That’s the main thing going on in today’s scripture. God was preparing Jesus for what he would face later on.

Satan, of course, has other plans. He intends to prevent the Lord from completing his rescue mission for our world—and if only Satan can lure Jesus into sin, then Satan will be successful.

So that’s what the devil is up to… But we may recall what Joseph told his brothers in Genesis: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God is going to use Satan’s evil against him by transforming it into something good. Just like he always does!

Since Jesus was led by the Spirit into this time of testing, it’s clear that when temptation comes our way, it’s not a sign that God is displeased with us, or that we’re disobeying God, or that we’re “out of God’s will.” On the contrary, if we’re being severely tempted, as Jesus was in today’s text, it’s probably a sign that we’re on the right trackthat we’re doing exactly what God wants us to do, and Satan doesn’t like it, and Satan wants to put an end to it!

If you find yourself never being tempted, and life is just smooth sailing all the time—which means that the devil is just leaving you alone—well, that’s probably because you’re exactly where he wants you to be! Which is not a good place.

The point is this: When you choose to be faithful to God, you can expect trouble to come your way! Did you hear that? If you’re doing what God wants you to do, responding to God’s call in your life, that’s when Satan will attack you the hardest. If you’re doing what God wants you to do and responding to God’s call, that’s when Satan will attack you hardest.

You can count on it. So be prepared!

Brothers and sisters, consider this is an urgent warning from a pastor who ignored this subject for most of his pastoral ministry. I simply can’t stress this enough: You and I have an enemy, Satan, who is at work right now, even as I speak these words. And Satan is doing everything within his power to destroy us, to ruin our lives, to ruin our families, to ruin our marriages, to ruin us for ministry, to cause us to lose our souls and spend eternity in hell. Or to see to it that our loved ones go to hell! This is what’s at stake when we talk about the devil.

Someone warned me recently, “Brent, you don’t want to overemphasize the devil.” And I’m like, “You’re right: I want to emphasize the devil exactly as much as Jesus does! I want to take the devil exactly as seriously as scripture does! Can we just start there?” Jesus, for example, calls Satan the “ruler of this world.”[1] Paul calls him the “god of this world” and the “ruler of the power of the air.” Paul says that we “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[2] And even in today’s scripture, Satan tells Jesus that he has authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Satan may be lying or exaggerating, but there must be a kernel of truth to it; otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have been tempted. I’m sure that Satan has plenty of world leaders in his back pocket, and they can bend to his will—and they won’t even know that that’s what they’re doing.

Speaking of which, Satan is a liar. Jesus calls him the “Father of lies.” You know that song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” That’s so ridiculous… Johnny makes a deal with the devil. If Johnny plays fiddle better than the devil, Johnny will get a fiddle of gold. If the devil plays fiddle better than Johnny, the devil gets Johnny’s soul. But the devil is the judge of the contest. And even if Johnny is a better fiddle player, why would the devil keep his word? He’s the devil, after all? He’s not known for his honesty and integrity!

Be that as it may…

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’s insightful and depressingly funny book The Screwtape Letters. The book is a series of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his young and inexperienced demon protege, Wormwood, his nephew. In Lewis’s depiction of the spiritual realm, each demon has a “patient”—a human being who’s living and breathing right now. It’s the demon’s job to lead that person to hell. In one part of the book, Wormwood’s human patient is having trouble with his mother—just normal, everyday irritations that causes a great deal of strife between them. So Screwtape arranges for the demon assigned to the patient’s mother to conspire with Wormwood to make the whole situation far worse than it would otherwise be.

Can you imagine for a moment that demons are conspiring with one another right now to harm you—to attack you in your area of greatest vulnerability or weakness? I can!

And so can my favorite contemporary theologian, N.T. Wright, a retired bishop in the Church of England. In a recent commentary on the New Testament, Wright said something that caught me off guard: He said that whenever he writes on the subject of Satan and spiritual warfare, odd things happen. “One time,” he said, “a workman outside the house drove a nail through a main electricity cable, and I lost half an hour’s writing on the word processor. Sometimes domestic crises suddenly arise and distract me. Today,” he said, “the computer jammed completely just when I was about to begin writing. I have come to accept this as normal—and to be grateful that this is all that has happened. So far.” He said, “I have noticed over the years that the topic of spiritual warfare is itself the subject of spiritual warfare.”[3]

Did you get what he just said? This great clergyman, this prolific and bestselling author, this leading New Testament scholar with a doctorate from Oxford University, this funny and down-to-earth guy who once matched wits with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report—this brilliant man just blamed Satan for breaking his computer when he was writing about the reality of Satan and spiritual warfare. In fact, he said, Satan does this sort of thing all the time in an effort to prevent the truth from getting out.

And it’s not just him… Since reading that, I’ve read other well-respected scholars who’ve reported similar things happening to them. I’ve talked to clergy friends who’ve had experiences that have convinced them of the reality of a literal Satan.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking right now. Some of you probably want to go outside and check the name on the church sign, because we United Methodists aren’t supposed to talk about the devil. And I don’t blame you for thinking that because during the eight years it took me to go through the process of getting ordained in the United Methodist Church—including three years of seminary at Emory University—I never heard any Methodists talk about the devil—at least outside of Bible classes where Satan was dismissed as merely a symbol for evil. Not a real person or thing. Never mind that Jesus certainly believed in a literal Satan! He talked about the devil a lot!

So… Was Jesus wrong?

I like the way Michael Green, an Anglican theologian, answered this question: “If Jesus was mistaken on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man,” why should we trust him when he talks about anything else, including his words about God being a loving Father who freely forgives our sins? “It will not do,” Green says, “simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us… The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.”[4]

Satan is real… Therefore, it’s time we started acting like Satan is real. It’s time to start believing, alongside the apostle Paul, that we wrestle not “against flesh and blood,” and, like it or not, this means war.

And if that thought—that we Christians alongside all of God’s angels are fighting a war against Satan and all of his demons—if that thought humbles us and drives us to our knees, inspiring us to ask God for his protection and power, and if that thought steers us to God’s Word—which Paul refers to as the sword of the Spirit,[5] a piece of armor that we carry into battle with Satan—well, if we do these things, Satan doesn’t stand a chance against us!

We don’t have to be afraid. “He who is in you,” John says, “is greater than he who is in the world,”[6] meaning Satan. We have the Spirit of the living God living within us, which means we have more than enough power to defeat the devil. So we don’t have to be afraid.

But there’s more good news…

In today’s scripture, Luke wants us to make a connection between something that he told us at the end of the previous chapter and today’s scripture. He concluded chapter 3 by giving us a genealogy of Jesus. And that genealogy works backwards from Jesus all the way to Adam. And who was Adam’s father? God. So the very last verse of chapter 3 calls Adam the “son of God.” That’s an interesting way of putting it, because when Luke describes Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of chapter 3 he tells us that God spoke to Jesus from heaven and said, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” So on the one hand you have Jesus the Son of God an on the other hand you have Adam the son of God.

Luke wants us to compare the two, to see Jesus as the new Adam, who, unlike the original Adam, is going to succeed where the first one failed; is going to be faithful and obedient to God, where the first one was unfaithful and disobedient. And in the process, this second Adam is going to undo all the damage caused by the first when he fell into sin.

That being the case, we should make a connection between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and Adam’s temptation in the Garden. The nature of that temptation is the same for both—and it’s the nature of most temptation that you and I face today: the temptation to second-guess God. Instead of trusting that God knows what’s best for us, we are tempted to imagine that we know what’s best. “Are you sure God said not to eat the fruit of this tree? That doesn’t make any sense. Why would God say that?” Or, “Are you sure that God wants you to be starving out here? That doesn’t make any sense. You’re the Son of God—how are you going to fulfill your mission to the world if you die before you even get started. Forget about God says. Turn this stone into bread. It’ll be good for you.”

Instead of submitting to God, we are tempted to become like God, so that we’re in charge of our lives, not our Lord. “If you eat this fruit, you’ll be like God, knowing good from evil.” “If you perform the miracle of turning this stone to bread, you’ll be like God, who miraculously fed the Israelites with bread from heaven when they were starving in the wilderness.”

So we all have a choice: what’s it going to be—your way or God’s way? One way is broad and smooth and easy to travel and we’ll have lots of people to keep us company. The problem is, it leads to destruction. The first Adam chose that way. The other way is narrow and difficult, overgrown with weeds and briars, and we’ll mostly be traveling that path alone. But the good news is that way leads to life. The second Adam resisted the temptations and chose that way.

And these temptations Jesus resisted in today’s scripture foreshadow the temptations he’ll resist on Calvary.

For example, Satan offered Jesus bread and said, “Let me take away your pain and discomfort.” And Jesus said no, and would later accept the pain of the beating, the scourging, the thorny crown, and the cross. Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “Let me give you power.” Jesus said no, and would later make himself powerless at the hands of Caiaphas and Pilate. Satan offered Jesus the protection of God and said, “Your Father will take care of you and keep you safe.” And Jesus said no, and would later experience complete rejection and abandonment by his Father, causing him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And here’s the good news: By saying no to Satan, both in the wilderness and on Calvary, Jesus said yes to our salvation. The first Adam started in Paradise and led humanity into the wilderness. The second Adam joined us in the wilderness in order to bring us back to Paradise. After all, near the end of Luke’s gospel, what does Jesus say to the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Satan knew what was at stake, and he was quite literally fighting like hell to defeat Jesus. And he lost. Today’s text was a small skirmish in a larger war. The decisive battle would be won on Calvary. And he won that battle for you. Do you understand that? He fought and won that battle so that you and I could be saved from hell, so that you and I could be forgiven, so that you and I could be with God both now and for eternity. If only we’ll repent of our dins and receive this gift of eternal life that God wants to give us.

But guess what? Just as the Germans weren’t willing to lay down their arms after the Normandy invasion, Satan and his minions aren’t willing to lay down their arms after Calvary.

In the meantime, until Christ comes in final victory at the end of this age, you and I and Hampton United Methodist Church have some fighting to do. And for all I know, thanks to a bunch of wimpy preachers like me who haven’t spoken the truth about Satan and the threat he poses, we’ve been fighting this war with our hands tied. That needs to change… After all, we are fighting for the very souls of people we love.

But let’s not lose heart: the victory is certain!

[1] John 12:31

[2] Ephesians 6:12

[3] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 72-3.

[4] Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.

[5] Ephesians 6:17

[6] 1 John 4:4

2 Responses to “Sermon 01-12-14: “This Means War!””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Agree to Satan being real. Agree that he is waging war against us. Agree that ULTIMATELY we prevail because we end up going to heaven and he to the lake of fire with his fallen angels. The only caveat is that, like in most wars, the enemy “gets his licks in” and wins various skirmishes. Which cause “casualties.” Somewhat on the line of Romans 7, I think. We still have the “old man” within us who is capable of being “taken in.” Satan “walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” I think you recognize this, but it might be made just a little more clear, that sometimes we do get “beat” or “bested” along the way. LIke with Samson, for example. Only Jesus came away “unscathed” as far as never suffering any “defeats,” although the certainly “got scarred” in the fight (for our benefit).

    • brentwhite Says:

      I certainly do agree. As for clarity, I’ll have opportunities to say more in the future. I thought this was enough for now. Based on the feedback I got, my congregation “got it.” Although Paul doesn’t mention Satan in Romans 7, I think Satan is lurking in the background of that text, as Paul well knows.

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