"Is There a Devil?"

Genesis 3:1-8; Matthew 4:1-11

Rev. Dr. Lisa Rzekpa

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As we consider the question “Is There a Devil?” it’s interesting to note -- the word devil is never used in the Hebrew Bible. In the story you just heard – evil comes from a crafty creature. The word Satan, which literally means The Accuser, is only used four times in the Old Testament. Satan was a member of God’s court of angels.

Over time, moral consciousness developed and the Hebrew faith began to separate the force of evil from the character of God. As a result:

  • In the New Testament, the Accuser or Tempter is referred to as Satan 35 times;
  • the term Devil, is used 37 times;
  • seven times the word Beelzebub is used, which is literally translated, “Lord of the Flies.”
  • Many other times the Tempter is simply referred to as The Enemy.

The reason there are so many more references in the New Testament than the Old Testament, is that in the Hebrew Bible, testing and punishment – sometimes thought of as evil, came from God.
For example If you were crippled, you must’ve sinned and God punished you.
If you were ill, it was the cost of sin. That’s why unwell people were outcasts in Hebrew society.

With that background, we turn now to the morning gospel reading from Matthew chapter 4, verses 1-11.

The context for the reading is that Jesus has just been baptized by John. While being baptized, Jesus sees the heavens open up and the scripture says: “he saw the Spirit of God descending and alighting on him.” The Spirit has more in store for Jesus. Let’s listen again for a Word from God to each of our hearts this morning:

1Then - Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then - the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to Jesus, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

When the Rzepkas decided 21 years ago to move from Rochester, NY to Baltimore, MD, we were faced with a dilemma-- What To Do With Goldie, the family goldfish. Goldie was unique in that she was our longest surviving fish. John and I had a tropical fish tank when we were first married, but it was hard for us to keep the exotic fish alive. But a goldfish from a carnival…lasted years.

Goldie was the only family pet at the time and was pretty good sized for a gold fish. As our move approached, a good friend offered to adopt Goldie. The boys were thrilled. They knew they’d get to see Goldie again when we went back for visits. My friend had a little backyard pond shaped fountain on her deck that she planned to make Goldie’s new home.

The first time we went back to visit to Goldie…she’s not there. The boys asked my friend where she was. My friend told them, “I took her back to the pet store.” We all looked at her aghast! “You what?” I asked.

She turned to me and whispered, “I came out one day and Goldie had been eaten.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “I’m sure, part of her was left behind.” I wasn’t sure how the boys would handle being told their pet had been eaten – since my youngest was four years old. So I went along with the story.

Well, from then on my friend was like an evil stepmother to my boys. They would grumble and fuss about how awful it was that Cheryl had sold their pet back to the store. Finally, a few years later, hearing the grumbling once again--I decided to tell them the truth. Goldie was part of the natural food chain and another animal had come and eaten her. “Oh.” was all they said.

The boys were perfectly fine with what some refer to as “natural evil.” Natural evil is the shadow side of life…the food chain, natural disasters, the human life cycle. What the boys struggled with, what we all struggle with -- is “moral evil.” Evil that has a more human component – one that breaks relationship. Evil that is a result of our “shadow side behavior.”

Moral evil is a broad subject…volumes of commentary exist trying to understand the forms it possesses in individual behavior, systemic behavior, and as a cosmic force. We will not exhaust to subject of evil this morning. There are a few interesting aspects to consider, however, as we address the question of “Is there a devil?”

As one Bible study participant this week pointed out, the word devil is simply the word Evil with a “D” in front of it. The devil is the personification of evil.

Once, when I was sharing faith with children about the Genesis story in the Garden, I used a toy to depict the crafty serpent. It surprises people – whenever I say that this is the adversary. I believe that the invitation to sin is attractive…enticing…or we wouldn’t be tempted by it.

In the Hebrew Bible, that’s where evil starts, with sin. And you just heard the story of sin which comes by way the crafty creature of God. Think about it…If the invitation to sin came looking like a serpent or a snake - most of us would have no problem saying “no” to its the forbidden fruit.

One of my favorite verses on the difficulty of resisting sin follows in Genesis chapter 4, where Cain and Abel brought offerings to God. The story says God preferred Abel’s offering. Cain became jealous. God asks: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? God tells Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; Its Desire Is For You, But You Must Master It.” This passage was my Hebrew Bible ordination exam question. For the exam, we had to translate the passage from the Hebrew into English. The word “lurking” is literally translated “stretched across.” So the passage can also be read, Sin is stretched across the door, its desire is for you, but you must master it. Doesn’t sound easy – stretched across the door, does it?

I was home translating this passage when my husband called home and said, “Have you been watching the news?” It was September 11, 2001. That’s why I remember the translation so well.

Getting back to the Garden Story – we tend to focus on the forbidden fruit – which may take our minds to the “racy” evil…grabs for power, money, or carnal knowledge. This evil certainly exists.

Yet, if we think again about the Garden story, it’s helpful to remember that the temptation of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with any of those types of sin.

The temptation had everything to do with insecurity and mistrust. What the crafty creature, or adversary of God, intends is to cast doubt in the hearts of the woman and man. God did, in fact, say, that if they ate of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, they would die. And then they didn’t…at least not right away. The devil plays upon the insecurity of Adam and Eve in order to call into question God’s intentions. He plants seeds of mistrust: God hasn’t told you everything about the forbidden fruit. What else is God withholding? It is a story of seduction based on mistrust and it leads to the dissolution of the relationship between the two humans and God, and then between Adam and Eve themselves as they play the blame game.

in the gospel story mistrust is again the name of the game as the devil tries to dismantle Jesus’ trust in God. Did you notice that in this story the words Devil and Tempter BOTH are used to name the being that came to Jesus in the wilderness. Translated as devil, the Greek word used here is “diablos” means prone to slander or to accuse falsely. The Greek word for Tempter means: to try or test one's faith, virtue, or character, by enticement to sin.

In the New Testament lies inherent understanding that evil exists. The Gospels offer no explanation for the presence of evil or the devil -- nor does is make any statements about its ultimate end. Does evil exist? Jesus acknowledged it did. He told his followers that the wheat and the tares live together in this world and that God would decide their fate at the end of time.

It is important to note: Jesus is out in the wilderness praying and Discerning God’s Direction for his Life. And it was only AFTER his temptation by the devil, that Jesus begins his ministry. Eric Elnes wrote a book called “Gifts of the Darkwood.” It’s a book about things we would never choose to have happen to us. And it explores the possibility that certain challenges may offer… wisdom, new perspectives, resilience,

Elnes includes a chapter called Temptation. Elnes' thesis is that for average folk, our biggest temptation in life is not so much to do big evil acts. Our biggest temptation is doing the wrong good and ignoring what God gifted us most to do.

Elnes conducted a social media experiment where he posed this question: If you could choose only one of the following, which would you choose?

  1. Eliminate World hunger
  2. Eliminate War
  3. Convert the world to the God or gods of your choice?

Which would you choose? Why? It’s a hard choice. Responses were pretty equally divided. Elnes compared his social experiment to Jesus’ temptation story:  Offering that Satan tempts Jesus with solving world hunger when he challenges him to change the stones to bread. But Jesus determines that is not the good he is called to do. How did Jesus know? He knew by listening -- deep within his soul.

Listening for the good that you are called to do is what theologian Parker Palmer refers to as a “Rosa Parks moment.” Rosa Parks was listening deep within her soul when she decided that she could no longer give up her seat on the bus. From the outside, Rosa’s life was relatively good. Rosa had a job; she was a seamstress.
She worked for a white family that treated her with respect. Her autobiography describes early memories of the kindness of white strangers. Yet, there came a time when she could no longer acquiesce to a system that ate away at her soul. She grew "tired of giving in."

That’s what less than wholehearted living will do --- it will exhaust you rather than energize you.

Mine is a very recent and personal example. I knew at the beginning of spring that the interim position would be open here at FPC of Annapolis. When a friend told me about it, I said, “The church sounds nice, but I just started a co-pastorate and I can’t leave my partner so soon.”

Our co-pastorate team had been designed so that we both worked three-quarter time, giving us one weekend off a month. After 21 years of not sharing a common weekend, John and I LOVED that one weekend a month. Yet, In my quite moments, I’d think about ten and 1/2 years at my church and sometimes I wonder if I was still where God wanted me. Things had gotten very routine.

In the early summer, God started sending bigger signs my way. My co-pastor suddenly needed a full-time job. Our crowded house with extended family started wearing on me. John started experiencing some pretty significant neck and back pain that affected his quality of life. So I took a look at the jobs open in Maryland, since John works in Hunt Valley. FPC Annapolis’ interim position was still open.

A friend and colleague of mine was one of your references. She verified the position was still open and encouraged me to apply. The pieces to the puzzle seem to come together nicely – with one hitch. I didn’t want to leave my congregation. I loved them. They loved me, well at least that’s what they said. Even though I didn’t want to leave, I wondered what was the best good.

I wondered about returning to work full time verses three quarter time – but if this past week is any indication – I’m energized. I was tempted to stay comfortable – to do what was routine, to do good, but maybe not my best good.

We often use the term Wilderness as a metaphor for chaos and danger – something to be feared. Yet, when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after leaving Egypt     they ended up in the Promised land. If you think about it, growth happens when we stretch ourselves, when we master the temptation to not change.
Temptation creates conflict – within our soul, which ultimately effects our relationships with each other.

First Presbyterian of Annapolis entered a transitional wilderness this summer.
Rather than fearing this wilderness, let’s think of it as the Holy Spirit guiding us on an adventure!

Let’s take a collective deep breath and look for the Spirit’s presence in our midst. Let’s be attentive together about what God is calling each of us — individually and collectively to be and do. I invite you as you contemplate this week, to use the inserts in your bulletins that have 2 questions: What is easy for you to trust God with…and where is it hard for you to trust God? Pray for deep knowledge in your soul.

Let us pray, Holy and Everlasting God, You know the good that is ahead for each of us, and for this, your church. Guide us and light the way as we together discern what “best good” we can do in and for your world. Amen.