Sunday, February 6, 2011

Could it be...mmm...Satan?

I don't know if you know it or not, but the Devil's getting some good play these last few weeks.  Anthony Hopkins' new exorcist film The Rite was number one at the box office last week. In 10 days it's pulled in about $23 million; that doesn't look great, but it's actually pretty strong for the doldrums of February.

And then Saturday night comedian Dana Carvey hosted Saturday Night Live.  And he brought with him many of his classic characters, including one of his absolute best, the Church Lady, who finds the lure of Satan in every new trend. Even Justin Bieber doesn't emerge unscathed:  



Satan -- in our tradition we understand him to be the absolute embodiment of evil, "The Big Bad" lurking behind every temptation, every violent crime, every horrific act, trying to tear down every good thing that God has set in motion.  God's nemesis, if you will, and we the fragile pieces in between them.


Yet at times in Scripture Satan's role is understood differently -- an adversary, yes, but in the sense of an opposing legal counsel, sent to question and test humanity's case for redemption.  So Job begins not with Satan wreaking havoc upon Job, but in God's court, and Satan a courtier who questions whether Job is really good.

This same vision of Satan is employed in Matthew 4.  Jesus is swept out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit (note: it's God, not Satan, who sends Jesus out there);  and there he's tested three times by the Devil. Except Matthew's word isn't "diabolos", or devil; it's "peirazon", which scripture scholar Dan Harrington translates "the tester."

And that's what Satan sets out to do -- to test Jesus' faith.  Will he trust God when he is hungry? When someone flatters him, or dares him to do otherwise? When he is offered the whole world?


We know the answers ahead of time. He's the Son of God; of course he's not going to give in.  No spoilers there.

But the story's still important, because it indicates that Jesus is just like us. He's a human being, so he gets tested, too, and in just as big a way as we sometimes are. Satan's pitch isn't hey, Jesus, wanna steal a candy bar? It's, hey, buddy, you're really really in need, really hungry -- can I help you? It's screw your old life, baby, I've got everything you need.

His responses also tell us what being the Son of God is going to mean -- not fireworks and road shows, not look at what I can do, but radical trust. Eyes on the prize -- yep, you've got bread, you've got shiny baubles, but I've got God.  And so rather than try to save myself, I'm going to let myself be saved.  Radical trust.

And when it's over, Satan doesn't run away shrieking, like the Wicked Witch. He disappears. He's had his role and done his job.

Elsewhere, others have failed the same tests and live now with the consequences of their failures. But that's not the end of their stories, either. Satan's not God's equal, he operates within God's world.  And so we will see Jesus call out those spirits of shame and distrust, and bring new freedom.  

And as he does with them, so is that same healing promised to us.

Isn't that special?




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