When I was a graduate student at Fordham University, I had the mad idea that I should take an intensive course in Latin to aid me in my theological studies. My professor was none other than Fr. Thomas Bermingham, a lively and engaging Jesuit priest. One of his claims to fame, besides being an outstanding classics scholar, was he was the mentor of William Petty Blatty the author of the best-selling book, The Exorcist. Fr. Bermingham was also a technical advisor to the 1973 movie based on the book. Has anyone here seen the Exorcist? It reportedly sent people screaming out of the theatres, provoked nightmares, vomiting and insomnia; it was controversial for some of the blasphemous scenes contained in the movie. Fr. Bermingham didn’t speak at great length about the movie, but he did speak about the devil. The main intent of Evil, to paraphrase Fr. Bermingham, is not to frighten or spook people out. The Devil goes for the jugular: to destroy relationships and break human connection in all its forms. Evil seek nothing else but to mare that image of God imprinted upon the human soul.
As we begin our journey of Lent, it is important for us at the get-go to understand temptation and the presence of Evil in our lives and all around us. We live in an age where people have various opinions about evil. We see Evil’s handiwork around us in conflicts, and wars, in ruptures in our families fighting in our churches, and even in the discord in our very souls. In this modern era, is evil just an impersonal, invisible force operating around us like gravity? Is it the sad by-product of human sin? Or is there an intelligent, cunning spiritual being that deliberately seeks to create havoc and devastation wherever it goes? That delights in our suffering, seeking to obliterate the very image of God etched within us? Is it a combination of all these things?
However we slice or dice it, evil is a part of this world. Explain it scientifically, psychologically, metaphorically, or scripturally, the bottom line is that evil exists. Temptation exists. Every day we face choices for good or evil, bad or good. Right or wrong. Every day we have a devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other trying to influence our actions. In this season of Lent, we are asked to become more conscious and alert to temptation and the presence of evil influence in our lives. Call him Satan, the Devil, the Evil One, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, (Revelation 9:11), the Father of Lies(John 8:44) and Belial (2 Corinthians 6:15) the tempter, the adversary, the ancient serpent, Abaddon (destruction), Apollyon) (destroyer) (Revelation 9:11); the god of this age(2 Corinthians 4:4), prince of this world (John 12:31). Take your pick. Picture him in the form of a snake, a sea monster, a roaring lion (1Peter 5:8) a dragon (Revelation 12:9), or a red-hued, human-like creature with a sinister smile, horns and a tail, carrying a pitchfork. Demonologists, those folks who study the ways of demons and evil, tell us that Evil doesn’t desire to look scary. The more respectable and normal the better. The charismatic pastor. The successful businessperson. The outstanding citizen. Whatever form Evil takes the results are the same. To destroy human relationships, to sever our connection to God by leading us into sin and rebellion; to break with each other, to crush out goodness within us. The devil seeks to reign as a counterfeit God, ensnaring us, enchaining us, stirring up torment and discord especially under the guise of righteousness.
Our stories today from Genesis the temptation of Eve, and from Matthew which describe for us the temptation of Jesus, paint a picture of the Evil One’s handiwork. Our scriptures today give us insight into what the Devil is after, how he goes about doing it, and what we can do to guard ourselves against his attacks.
In Genesis note that the devil, disguised as a crafty serpent, begins his work by asking Eve an innocent, but devious question: “Did God say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” God actually says, “you may eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for the day you eat of it you shall die.” So the devil begins his temptation by twisting the truth, inserting doubt, trying to undermine God’s authority and goodness. Eve could have corrected the devil and ended the temptation if she quoted God’s words, which Jesus does. Moreover, she knew how serious God’s command was because she adds “neither shall you touch it.” Eve knows God has place a boundary they are not to cross and highlights the lethality of the action by even touching the fruit let alone eating it. To this the devil counters, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like god, knowing good and evil.” Bottom line, Satan lies. He contradicts God’s command, plants a seed of rebellion that Eve should be like God, her eyes opened, knowing good and evil. Look what happens. Eve suddenly sees the fruit as good instead of a danger. She sees the fruit as a delight to the eyes, no longer something she knows not to even touch. Worse yet, she sees the fruit as a desire to make one wise. All these thoughts the serpent manages to stir up in Eve’s mind, with just with a simple lie. The lie compounds, creating images in Eve’s head so that she ultimately believes something that is wrong is now right. By this act of rebellion, doing the one thing God asked them not to do, Eve then Adam know evil intimately, and they spiritually die.
There are a couple of things we should note. The devil is clever. He approaches Eve when she is by herself, just like he approaches Jesus alone in the wilderness. It’s the action of predators everywhere: separate an individual from the flock, where there is strength and protection and attack them where they are vulnerable. From this vantage point the devil plants the snare with subtle, seemingly innocent questions, in order to implant ideas and thoughts that are contrary to the will of God. “Did God say?” “If you are the son of God…” The Devil succeeds by carefully twisting the truth, very carefully appealing to human pride and weakness, perverting the good, giving a distorted angle to the situation that opens the door to temptation.
The devil is planting a thought and a desire for Eve to be wise. Instead of going to God to ask for wisdom directly or tell him of the conversation with the serpent, she takes matters in her own hands. She relies on her own limited insight and strength. She takes on the role of judge that belongs to God alone. Likewise, the devil tempts Jesus to use his powers to appease his hunger by supernatural means. The devil tempts Jesus to test and be saved by supernatural powers by throwing himself off a cliff. The devil tempts Jesus to enjoy worldly dominion by just once bowing before him and worshipping him. In each instance however, Jesus doesn’t rely on himself to confront temptation. He resorts to God’s word.
Doesn’t the devil tempt us in the same way? The devil knows our faults and foibles better than we do. Maybe we don’t want to be wise like Eve did, but maybe we want approval and acceptance. Maybe we want to be loved. Maybe we want power and control. Maybe like Jesus we are hungry for something. The devil says, why wait? Maybe like Jesus we have certain gifts from God. The devil says why not use them for our own benefit? Like Jesus we all have an amazing destiny and purpose. The devil says I can help you get there faster. I can give you all the power and fame you deserve or ever could ever want. The devil we should note in his temptation of Jesus, can quote scripture with the best of us. So let us not be fooled, but be prepared.
Where Eve fails, Jesus succeeds. Jesus feels all the desires the devil is stirring up, but Jesus doesn’t let it ruminate. He doesn’t engage the images of longing. Jesus instead uses scripture to counter the attacks. If only Eve had stayed focused on God’s word and obeyed it, she might’ve avoided a catastrophe.
This is the big takeaway from our stories: when we are tempted let’s use scripture! Remember what the book of James (4:7) advises: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” 1 Peter (5:8) reminds us: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
There is a scripture for every temptation. In this Lenten season, take the time to name faults, to name weaknesses, to name sinful habits and confess them to God. Let us use our time to do personal bible studies, to research scriptures that respond to our needs and concerns. Find an accountability partner with whom you trust and pray whenever you feel tempted or brought low. Jesus knows temptation is part and parcel of life. For this reason, Jesus adds to the prayer he taught us to say: “Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil.” In Jesus we have a model of someone tempted in every way, but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15) He knows our weaknesses and is ready, at the drop of a hat, to intercede on our behalf.
Remember this: Evil wants to make us feel alone, Evil wants to make us feel worthless and washed up. Evil wants to inflame anger and pride, to eat away at our souls, to break our loving connections to others, to destroy the church, to reduce the world to tears and rubble. And if he can’t destroy you he will seek to disarm you with feeling miserable and weak all the time. Temptation and evil are real things in our lives, that touch us every day. But so is the love, mercy, forgiveness and power of God. The joy of the Lord in our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). God is love and the foundation of our ties to one another. God created us for love to love, to be in love. So, this Lent let us help each other to defeat evil whenever it rears its ugly head.
Let us overcome temptation. Let us cling to Jesus, cling to each other, cling to the Scriptures. Let not the cords of love that connect us be broken. Together we are better. Together we are strong. The saints of old remind us to laugh in the face of the devil, jeer and flaunt him. In the face of temptation and evil we are called to hold fast good cheer: for remember scripture reassures us: “Greater is he in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).” Amen.