The First Sunday of Lent
26th February 2023
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The evolution of satan in ancient Jewish religion is a fascinating subject, although perhaps rather an odd one for a sermon!
The oldest references to satan in the Old Testament are probably those in the Book of Job and in Psalm 109, which reveal an understanding of satan as a member of the heavenly court who acts almost like a prosecuting lawyer. He is the accuser, the one who makes accusations against others before God.
There then seems to be a slight shift in emphasis, evidenced in 1 Chronicles and the prophecy of Zechariah, in which satan is presented as an adversary or perhaps as a kind of opposing counsel within the heavenly court.
Later writings, from the time between the Old and New Testaments, show a significant shift in understanding. During this time the ancient Jewish people had been exiled to Babylon, which was then itself overtaken by the Persian empire. There was an encounter between Judaism and Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia. Unlike the earliest forms of Judaism, Zoroastrianism had a dualist understanding of the world: there is a dominion of a benevolent God, and there is also a dominion of evil. During this period, satan ceases to be seen as a member of the heavenly court doing an unpleasant but necessary job as God’s director of prosecutions, and becomes instead a wholly evil figure, presiding over an evil dominion and intent on destroying humanity through temptations and lies.
Exactly how the satan of the Old Testament became the devil of the gospel is unclear. The word in New Testament Greek is diabolos, derived from the Greek word for calumny – the devil continues to be an accuser, but is also a slanderer, a liar, one who makes false accusations.
Christian theology has to a large extent retained this dualistic way of looking at the world, seeing the world as being influenced by both a good and an evil dominion. But this dualism does bring with it certain dangers.
In particular, we can lapse into thinking of the good and evil dominions as being equal, and consequently elevating the devil to the status of a kind of bad god, equal and equivalent to the good God. This is not Christian theology. For Christians there is no other god than God, and God is good. However we may try to make sense of the place of evil in the world, and however we may try to make sense of the idea of the devil as a personification of evil, for Christians God alone is God, the Creator of heaven and earth. There is no equal and opposing bad god; the dominion of evil cannot be a genuine rival to the Kingdom of God.
During the season of Lent we are encouraged to take up some sort of practice of repentance and self-discipline. This usually takes several forms.
We should make some serious effort to reflect on our thoughts and words and actions, and to ask God’s forgiveness for that which is not good. This may take the form of making a confession, or it may be something you can do inwardly, alone.
Fasting has always been a significant aspect of Lent; this may take the form of abstaining from certain rich or luxurious foods. Fasting should always be practiced with care and sensitivity towards our mental and physical health.
And then there are the more positive practices of prayer, spiritual reading and almsgiving.
Taken together, we aim with the help of God to make a serious effort at reformation of character and progress in our spiritual life.
But the disciplines of Lent are not only about personal growth in the faith. There is a wider dimension. Looking at the world today we cannot doubt the reality of evil. We see the consequences of human wickedness all around us. And it is easy to feel powerless in the face of this wickedness. Not only do we struggle to believe in the dominion of a good and just God; we might even feel that the radical dualism that I described above is altogether too positive a worldview in the face of the wickedness and the suffering we see.
But if we think about the great evils of the world, we realise that they have the same causes as the small ones. The temptations that Jesus faces in the wilderness are central to the human condition: greed, self-absorption, attention-seeking, the desire to dominate. The greatest evils of the world are caused by nothing other than those everyday temptations that we all struggle with.
We want to see ourselves as the centre of our own little drama, we want our own way, we want more, we want others to do what we tell them, and we’re happy to push, shove, lie and backstab our way to getting what we want. And I think it’s also sometimes possible that we become so hardened and twisted that we start to enjoy cruelty almost as an end in itself. There isn’t really much else wrong with the world than that, it’s just that some individuals happen to have enough power to wreak great devastations in pursuit of what are really the same banal and prosaic goals that motivate your common-or-garden playground bully or conman.
So as you begin this holy season of Lent, and as you take on whatever practice of self-discipline you feel able to bear, remember that this is more than just an exercise in personal spiritual growth. This is a part of a great fightback against evil. When you feel powerless in the face of the great evils of the world, remember that through the grace of God you do at least have some power over the evils that lurk within you. The frontline in the battle between good and evil runs through every human heart; let us seek with God’s help to rush to that frontline the weapons of love, charity, humility and self-discipline, and to take up the fight with the old enemy.
And remember too that when we approach the altar to receive the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood, our little struggles against the evils that lurk in our hearts are united with the triumphant blow He struck against sin and death: by the mystery of His holy Incarnation; by His holy Nativity and Circumcision; by His Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, by His Agony and bloody Sweat; by His Cross and Passion; by His precious Death and Burial; by His glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, He has and He does and He will deliver us, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages. Amen.