This sermon is part warning and part encouragement about the biggest challenge facing us: the reality that both our lives and God’s work in the world is opposed by an Enemy who wants to destroy us. Are you prepared for the fight?
The good news is that Satan is no match for our Lord.
Sermon Text: Matthew 6:9-15
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
Like many of you, when I was growing up we had a “rec room”—sometimes called a “rumpus room”—in our basement. At one time, the rec room had a pool table, a pinball machine, a Pong-like video game attached to a TV on the wall, a stereo, a bar—which was never stocked—and a sauna—which never worked. But still… We kids loved playing in the basement, as you can imagine! And one of my favorite games to play there was a game we called “hot lava.” The object of the game was to get from the bottom of the stairs, which was on one side of the basement, all the way to the bathroom, which was in the other side, without letting your feet touch the floor.
Because the floor, of course, was hot lava, and if you touched it you’d die. So the object was to climb or jump on furniture, chairs, the pool table, the pinball machine—various objects scattered across the floor—in order to get from Point A to Point B. It was difficult to get from Point A to Point B without falling in hot lava.
In so many words, that’s the message of this final part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The prayer ends with a warning from Jesus that there’s spiritual hot lava everywhere in our lives and in our world, and if we’re going to get through this life successfully, we’re going to have to be very careful. And to trust in the Lord every step of the way.
This is the part of the Lord’s Prayer, in other words, that deals with the subject of spiritual warfare, the same topic that the apostle Paul writes about when he says, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For 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.”
Who are these rulers, these authorities, these cosmic powers, these spiritual forces of evil? They’re really the same thing that Jesus refers to when he teaches us to pray, “Deliver us from evil.” Those words come from the King James; nearly all modern translations, like the NIV and the NRSV, rightly translate the Greek words behind the English word “evil” as “evil one,” the devil. Deliver us, in other words, not only from evil as the consequences of our own human, sinful choices, but deliver us also from this active, dynamic, organized, and personal spiritual force—as represented by Satan, and his army of fallen angels.
I confess I feel defensive whenever I talk about the devil. In part because I don’t hear many people talking about him anymore. C.S. Lewis noticed this problem 70 years ago. He said, “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…” As the show Saturday Night Live prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary tonight with a big special on NBC, I can’t help but think of Dana Carvey’s sketch, “the Church Lady,” and how the Church Lady saw the devil and his influence everywhere. The Church Lady represents one kind of error that we Christians can fall into. And I’m sure there are churches that make that mistake, but our United Methodist Church isn’t one of them. Our mistake is the other one: to either disbelieve in devils entirely, or at least never talk about them!
Honestly, in my eights years of preparation and training to be minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I’m not exaggerating: I can count on one hand the number of times that any official with our United Methodist Church, any professor at the Candler School of Theology, or any pastor or church leader involved in the ordination process ever warned any of us future clergy about the dangers of Satan and spiritual warfare—and they did us a great disservice, to say the least. Our denomination talks a great deal about all the reasons that we’re not as effective as we need to be at reaching people with the gospel—we talk about all the reasons for declining church membership—we talk about all the reasons the Millennials are leaving the church—all the reasons except for the most obvious one: which is, that we have unseen spiritual Enemy who is working hard to ensure that we’ll fail.
I’ve shared this before, but during my seminary years and a few years afterward, I went through a period of skepticism or outright unbelief in Satan. One thing that turned me around is the testimony of very smart, credible, intellectual Christian people that I met or read about who did believe in the devil. One of them is New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright. I was reading his commentary on Ephesians 6 one time, in which he was talking about spiritual warfare, and he said that whenever he writes about the topic, he finds that he frequently comes under Satanic attack. For example, construction workers outside his house will accidentally cut a power line to his office, and he’ll lose power to his computer as he’s beginning to write. He said he was grateful it’s not any worse than that. But when I read that, I did a double-take: “He really believes the devil can do that?” So that made an impression on me.
Or I think of another scholar I greatly admire, Roger Olson, a theologian at Baylor. He said he was teaching a class on the occult one time—which includes non-Christian practices related to witchcraft, magic, and the supernatural. For research he drove to an occult bookstore in town. He parked the car. And when he tried to get out of the car, he said the door wouldn’t open. It was unlocked but it wouldn’t open. He took that as a sign of a demonic force at work, and he drove away. And of course, after he did so, his door opened without trouble. He never had that problem before or since. So his testimony made an impression on me.
Once I was talking to a fellow United Methodist pastor who went to a different seminary from mine. When he was in seminary, he and some of his classmates were involved in street ministry—literally sharing the gospel with junkies, prostitutes, winos, homeless people. He would go into crack houses. And he told me that he saw many things that couldn’t be explained naturally—supernatural events that he attributed to the work of demonic forces. And that made an impression on me.
But there’s a far more important reason to believe in Satan than personal testimony, no matter how credible it is—a biblical reason. We believe in Satan because Jesus himself believed in Satan. Was he mistaken? An English theologian named Michael Green puts it like this: “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 take him as our teacher on anything else?”—including, by the way, questions about whether God loves us like a father or freely forgives our sins.
It will not do 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.
About five years ago, Lisa and I were just beginning to climb out from under a mountain of debt we had accumulated from my quitting my engineering job and going to an expensive seminary for three years while I was also trying to support three young children. By 2010, I’d been out of seminary for a few years, and things were very slowly starting to get better financially. We were still living hand to mouth but we were paying the bills, paying off debt, and managing to get by. One legacy of my drastic career change, however, was that we were driving two very old Hondas. And one of them, Lisa’s minivan, was demon-possessed. No, not really… I’m joking. But we replaced the transmission in it three times in three years. I’m not kidding. Each time the transmission failed just outside of the one-year warranty. How convenient! And it set us back financially, as you can imagine.
And I believed in Satan at this point, but I was always very slow to see his influence. Lisa, on the other hand, was very good at reminding me that the devil was attacking us through the car trouble we were having.
So one time the minivan was in the shop for another new transmission. It was 4th of July weekend. I was getting in my 18-year-old Honda Accord, which was just shy of 300,000 miles. And I cranked it. [Imitate crank sound.] It wouldn’t start. No big deal. This was a recurring problem. When it was really hot outside, the car sometimes wouldn’t crank. So I tried again, Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.
But in that moment, I was thinking to myself, “We are driving two embarrassingly old Hondas—trying desperately to keep one of them running with bailing wire, chewing gum, and duct tape, while the other is facing yet another expensive repair.” And we’re driving these two old cars, holding our breath each day, hoping that they will get us from point A to point B—and why are we doing this? Because I decided to answer God’s call into ministry eight years ago—completely unprepared for the huge financial sacrifice that it would require of my family and me!
So I’m sitting in my driveway, cranking my car in vain. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. Feeling sorry for myself. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. Thinking, “I was doing fine as an engineer.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We didn’t have to live on such a tight budget before.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We could’ve bought a couple of new cars by now.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We didn’t have these kinds financial worries back then.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch… Ch-ch.
So I go back in the house, and I’m beside myself with anger. And Lisa told me, among other things, that I did not trust that God would really take care of us—that, despite what I preach, I don’t actually believe these pretty words that I tell you each week. And she reminded me of how much God has taken care of us so far, how faithful God has been to us, how happy and healthy our family is, how nice our home is, how, in spite of all the challenges, we’ve made ends meet. And how, in spite of our car troubles, there hasn’t been a single time when we couldn’t get from point A to point B.
And she said, “Maybe God keeps sending us this car trouble, because he’s trying to get your attention—to teach you something about what it means to trust in him!” And I’m like, “Whoa!” I thought I was the theologian in this family. Her words literally brought me to my knees. I did the best praying I had done in a while.
But Lisa was right: God was sending us this car trouble because he was trying to teach me about what it means to trust in him. If there were some easier way to get it through my thick skull that God could be trusted, I’m sure he would have done that, but he used this car trouble!
“Wait,” you might be thinking. “You said earlier that the devil was attacking you by giving you this car trouble. Do you still believe that?” “Yes.” “And now you’re saying that God was sending you this car trouble?” “Yes.” “Isn’t that a contradiction?” No! It’s both.
Look, the devil is going to attack us in any number of ways. But if we’ll trust in God, God is going to work over and above the devil to undo his destructive work, to use what he’s doing in order to bring something good out of it. The greatest example of this, obviously, is what God did through the cross—the devil and his forces, conspiring with sinful humanity, put Jesus on the cross. But look how God used it. He used it to save us!
And that’s also what Jesus is getting at in today’s scripture. The Greek words for “temptation” can mean something positive or something negative.“Temptation” can be a trap that ensnares us, which it does when we fall into sin. Or it can mean a test or a trial—as, for example, when the apostle James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” This kind of testing strengthens our faith, the way a piece of coal, under pressure, becomes a diamond.
The point is, one person’s harmful trap is another person’s helpful test. The event is the same in either case. The only difference is our response!
Just this week a popular young United Methodist pastor and blogger announced on his blog that he’s just been diagnosed with cancer. You don’t know him; he’s not in our conference. He knows me at least in the sense that we’ve exchanged emails. He let me guest-blog for him once. On his blog, he said, “Before my cancer diagnosis, I never believed that God does mean things like give people cancer, and I don’t believe it now. There’s no ‘mysterious reason’ that I have this other than the fact that I have a rare chromosomal disorder.” God, he said, doesn’t have any “bigger plan” behind all of this.
Respectfully, and with great compassion for what he’s going through, I disagree. Not about the fact that God didn’t give him cancer; I don’t believe that, either. I think it’s very possible, even likely, that Satan did—but my colleague doesn’t believe in the devil, as we’ve argued about. But that’s beside the point. The point is, God allowed my colleague to have cancer. I’m sure that my colleague prayed for his healing, I’m sure that his wife and kids prayed for his healing, I’m sure that his church prayed—long before anyone knew what was was wrong with him. And God didn’t give them what they prayed for. So we ask why? Was it because God doesn’t love him as much as anyone else? No! Was it because God doesn’t have the power to heal him? No! Was it because God is arbitrary about who he heals and who he doesn’t heal? No. God forbid, no!
Given all that, then it’s clear that God had some good reason for allowing it—even if we don’t know what it is!
And if there’s a reason, that means there’s a plan. And if there’s a plan that means there’s a purpose. And if there’s a purpose, it is that God is working to bring good out of these incredibly difficult, trying, evil circumstances!
God loves us so much that he does that for us, and I find that immensely comforting.
And maybe I’ll get a chance to tell my colleague some day that he’s facing a trial and a temptation right now: the devil is using it to harm him and his faith; God is using it to help him.
I have an acquaintance named Chris who just adopted his second child a couple of weeks ago. The birth mother is a 19-year-old woman in college, and she interviewed Chris and his wife a couple of months ago and arranged to have them adopt her child. So she gave birth to a baby girl, and Chris and his wife took the child home with them. But they can’t quite be at peace just yet, because according to Georgia state law, the birth mother still has ten days to change her mind. I thought the ten days had passed when I saw Chris last week. And he said, “No. There’s still a few more days. It’s ten business days.” He doesn’t anticipate that she’ll change her mind, but you can imagine… He’s already fallen in love with this child. The “dad switch” has already turned on, and it would be devastating for the birth mother to change her mind, to come back and say, “I made a mistake. I want my child back.” But that could still happen!
Reminds me of my own experience… I was adopted, and my mom told me once that for the first couple of years after bringing me home she lived in fear of a knock at the door. A social worker from the adoption agency shows up: “I’m sorry, Mrs. White. There’s been a mistake. We’re going to have to take Brent away from you.” Mom said she was afraid of that happening. She told me if that ever happened, she would have been like, “Over my dead body you’re taking my son!” I think she meant it! Over my dead body!
Now think again about what it means to pray, “Our Father.” It means God has adopted us as his children. And like any adoptive parent, it’s as if God said, “Over my dead body will anyone come and take you away from me—even the devil himself! Over my dead body! And God proved it by coming to us in Jesus and dying in order to prevent the devil from taking us away from him.”
“For God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
 Ephesians 6:11-12
 Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.
 James 1:2-3
 Romans 5:8