Deliver us from the Evil One - Matthew 6:5-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Evil seems to be coming back in vogue again. What I mean is that for many years now intellectuals have rejected the concept of evil as being an unhelpful category by which we simply ‘demonise’ and so dismiss those with whom we disagree. This came out for instance when, after the events of 9/11, President Bush said that America had looked ‘evil in the face’. Many intellectuals at Harvard and Yale said, ‘You can’t say that. That’s a throwback to some medieval idea with associations of spiritual powers and the like.’ But now after the terrible events in Paris, people are rushing back to reclaim the category of evil as a way of getting a handle on things, and some may even be entertaining the possibility of a malevolent supernatural agency at work behind the scenes.
But this is not the first time that intellectuals, especially of the atheist stripe, have been at a loss to explain actions and attitudes which cry out for the label ‘evil.’ Take for example the case of the poet, W. H. Auden. For most of his early life he lived with the belief in the goodness of man and the absence of God- he was an atheist. He described the religion of his boyhood as, ‘nothing but vague uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda water,’ cynically saying that, ‘people only love God when no one else will love them.’ But all of that was to change two months before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Being at a loss of something to do one day, he called in to a cinema in Yorkville, a largely German speaking area of Manhattan in New York. The film being run that day was Sieg im Poland, a documentary of the Nazi conquest of Poland. When Poles appeared on the screen, members of the audience – normally nice people, ordinary people- rose from their seats and screamed, “Kill them! Kill them!’ Auden was horrified. He left that cinema with his beliefs in tatters. First, the belief that man was naturally good, for if that were the case how could he explain what he had just witnessed? Second, that he had to have a reason for thinking that Hitler was evil, for if there is no God and so no objective basis for deciding what is right or wrong, then he could not say Hitler was bad, only that he was different, and he could not bear to live with that. This eventually led to his conversion to Christianity.
You know, each time we pray the Lord’s prayer we are affirming our belief not only in ‘evil’ but the ‘evil one’- a personal, malignant being the Bible describes in a variety of ways- such as ‘the Satan’; ‘the Devil’; ‘the Prince of this World’. Jesus certainly believed in him and so should we. And as we turn to this clause in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘deliver us from the evil one’, I want us to briefly explore three things.
First, the nature of the evil one.
One of the questions people sometimes ask is, ‘Where did the devil come from?’ ‘Surely’, they say, ‘if he is a creature made by God then doesn’t this make God the author of evil? And if that is the case, then how can God be good?’
The first thing to say is that the Bible has very little, if anything at all, to say about the origin of Satan. Much of what has come into mainstream Christian thinking is the result of the speculation of poets such as John Milton in his ‘Paradise Lost’. Sometimes claims are made that Bible passages such as Isaiah 14:12-15 are a description of Satan’s origin, ‘How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! 13You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. 14I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High." 15But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.’ But is that really about the devil? I would suggest to you that a careful look at the context shows that this passage is referring not so some angelic being but the King of Babylon. One reason for it being linked to Satan is because of the way the Latin version of the Bible – the Vulgate- translated as ‘Lucifer’, the phrase ‘morning star’, literally ‘Bright Shiner’, which is the planet Venus. But really, it says nothing about the origin of Satan as such. In the Book of Job, the Satan appears as one of the ‘sons of God’ in the heavenly counsel together with other angels which suggests he is an angelic creature whose business is acting as the chief prosecutor of God’s people, seeking their damnation if you like, for that is what the term,’ the Satan’ means- the adversary or accuser. But still we are left with trying to gain some understanding as to how such a wicked being came into existence in the first place if, as we read in Genesis, God made everything ‘good’.
Perhaps we can think of it like this: ‘Evil’ can’t be ‘created’ as such, because it does not have the kind of substantial existence that ‘good’ has. Good can exist all by itself, but evil can’t. Evil is parasitic on the good in that if there were no good, there would be no evil, but you can have good without evil. So here is a picture of a good orange, and here is a picture of an orange gone bad, you can have the first without the second, but you cannot have the second without the first. Evil is more of an ‘unmaking’ of what is good, a corruption of the good. So take the case of evil desires; these are simply a mimicking of good desires. Thieves want to possess things which are good in themselves like beautiful possessions. Gluttons desire food which is good in itself- like strawberries and steaks. Adulterers desire that which is good- sex. Even tyrants might want good things for their country- harmony and prosperity. But what makes them evil are the wrong motives which drive them and the wrong means used to get them. When good things don’t occupy their rightful place in the way God has ordered his universe, they then become bad. Evil is a disfigurement of the good. Do you see?
So if evil is a good thing misappropriated, an ‘unmaking ‘of the good, then we are perhaps given a clue as to how evil, and indeed, the devil, may have originally come about. Just suppose for a moment, that a good, personal being- like an angel- chooses to try and occupy a position that isn’t rightly his in God’s universe? Then what? Well, then choosing - a good thing- becomes a bad thing because of what is chosen. When that happens, the act of choosing becomes corrupted and so does the person doing the choosing, it boomerangs back on his character so his will becomes more and more inclined to choosing what is wrong. It makes no sense to ask the question what made the being choose the wrong in the first place, because by definition a choice is just that- a choice. To be ‘made’ to ‘choose’ something is a contradiction in terms- it ceases to be a choice, instead it is a compulsion. No, the person simply makes a decision- it is irreducible. Sure, also sorts of factors are taken into account when deciding what to do, but at the end of the day all you can say is that a person chose. And so if Satan is a ‘fallen angel’ then such a fall came about by a simple choice, as did the later fall of human beings.
What is more, if evil is an unmaking and mimicking of the good then it follows that the way the devil promotes his work most effectively is by mimicking God himself. This is particularly focused for us by Revelation 13: 11: ‘Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. 12He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. 13And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men. 14Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth.’
God carries out his will through words- by giving commands and making promises- so does the devil. God awes people with spectacular signs and miracles- so does the devil. But note this, they are always inferior; they don’t quite match up to God’s. Think of the way, for instance, Pharaoh’s magicians mimicked God’s miraculous signs at the Exodus-they were almost authentic but not quite- but they were impressive. And so, we have it that while God’s Word is truth and brings liberation; Satan’s words are lies and enslave. Let me give a subtle example. Since World War 2 the average American and Western European is wealthier and healthier than all but a handful of people who had ever lived before. Yet, this same period saw an even greater growth of clinical depression. This has been carefully documented by Gregg Easterbrook in his book ‘The Progress Paradox: How life gets better while people feel worse.’ There are several reasons offered why this is so. First, with an emphasis on individualism people see all of life through self. Whereas previous generations placed emphasis on family, faith and community, now because of the emphasis on self our setbacks take on a far greater importance, there is no larger context in which to place them. Secondly, people are seeing themselves more and more as victims with a corresponding feeling of helplessness. Victims are people to whom things happen not people who make things happen. But Easterbrook notes that the main factor is that, ‘many people have lost their belief in higher powers or a higher purpose.’ In other words, for many there is no God or ultimate purpose to life. That is the lie that has been promoted by the intelligentsia and, in some cases by clergymen, throughout the 20th century- the result- depression. Who do you think is behind that lie? He is, in the words of Jesus, ‘the evil one’ from whom we need delivering.
Here is the second question: what is the purpose of the evil one? That is, what is Satan’s place in God’s plan for the world? The main point of what the Bible has to tell us about the devil is not simply that he exists but that he is limited. So at the Last Supper as Jesus spoke of the various trials (temptations) the disciples would undergo and in Luke 22 we hear Jesus saying this to Simon Peter- 31"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. 32But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." 33But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." 34Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me." Here Jesus has been praying for Peter that he would ‘not be led into temptation’ that is, to the point where he would miserably and irrevocably fail by sinning. Yes, he does fail the test at one level, he denies Jesus, but he comes through it at another level to repentance and restoration and is much stronger and humbler as a result. Through that mysterious interplay of human decision, Satan’s incitation and God’s overruling sovereignty; God achieves his purposes for Peter. So yes, there is a devil, but, as Martin Luther would often remark, He is God’s devil’, that is, he does not have free reign. The classic story in the Bible where we see this being worked out is, of course, that of Job. In chapter 1, we read that Satan was given permission to test Job’s faith, but limits were set by God- so Job himself was not to be harmed. Of course Satan would love us to believe the lie that he has unlimited power, being a kind of ‘second god’, for his power over us depends upon us believing the lie. But when we come to understand that he is more like a snarling dog we have to pass by, but who is chained, well then we begin to view him quite differently. He can bark at us, and can even try and bite us, and, if we are foolish enough to get up close to him to pat him on the head, then we may well get bitten, but so long as we recognise the chain and don’t go too close he cannot ultimately harm us. What is more, we need to follow through this clause of the Lord ’s Prayer that when we come up against Satan’s schemes God will give us the wherewithal to be wise to them, keep away from them and stand against them and not fall.
So how is Satan used by God to fulfil his purposes? Let me suggest at least three ways.
First, to refine the faithful. The devil’s disease is in all of us- pride. How is pride to be countered? By being humbled. The apostle Paul knew this in his own experience. So in 2 Corinthians 12: 7 he says. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. What was the messenger of Satan? Was it a pain or a person? We really don’t really know. But what we do know is that although it was an activity of Satan, it was given by God which, with the right response by us, does God’s work to make us more like Jesus. So Paul goes on to say, ‘8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Now do you believe that? It is only an empty cup that can be filled and sometimes God uses the devil to empty us.
Secondly, Satan is used to awaken the sleeping. It is only too possible for Christians to drift off into snooze mode, a spiritual twilight zone, so they find themselves thinking and doing things they should not. In such circumstances God sometimes hands over people to have a bit more of a taste of the devil in the hope that they will discover it to be so foul that they repent and get sorted. It happened in Corinth. There was an adulterer in the church and so Paul says. ‘Hand this man over to Satan. So his sinful self will be destroyed and his spirit will be saved for the day of the LORD. ‘(1 Corinthians 5:5). Drastic situations require drastic remedies. And maybe that is where you are at the moment. Perhaps you are letting things drift and you need a wake up call. Be careful because God might do just that and it won’t be a pleasant experience. Get sorted out tonight before you leave this building.
Thirdly, God uses Satan in a roundabout way to teach the church. When you think about it, one of the reasons we have accounts in the Bible of the way God’s servants in the past have been tempted by Satan is that they offer us examples to emulate and pitfalls to avoid. Yes, you have Peter tried and tested and refined. But you also have Judas who fell, never to recover. In 2 Timothy 4, the apostle Paul cites Luke as one who stood by him and Alexander the coppersmith (presumably a church member) who betrayed him. All the devices of Satan are laid out for us in this book as well as the divine remedies. And we are meant to take note of them. This is the way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 10 as he surveys the way Israel succumbed to temptation in the wilderness wanderings: ‘Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.’
Take the first letters of each one of those things and they reveal what the devil is really like- R- refine the faithful; A- awaken the sleeping; T- teach the church. The evil one is something of a RAT!
Finally, and more briefly, conquering the evil one. We must grasp hold of the fact that the devil is already a vanquished foe. In principle he has been defeated by Christ on the cross. This is the way this truth is portrayed in apocalyptic language in the Book of Revelation chapter 12: 9ff: ‘The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.11 They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death 12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you. He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” Satan can’t accuse us and damn us anymore because of the ‘blood of the lamb’- there is nothing to accuse us of because Jesus has torn up the charge sheet. Those things you have done in your life of which you are ashamed, the missed opportunities, can’t be dragged up on the judgement day to condemn you because if you are trusting in Jesus they no longer exist in God’s sight. The devil is now more like a wounded, dying animal, and like a wounded animal he is furious and vicious- but he is as good as dead- his real power to damn us has been drawn! Just as D- Day marked the end of Hitler Reich, and his generals knew it, so the cross is God’s D day. And just as it was some time before VE Day (Victory in Europe) came- (and it was only a matter of time) so it is with the ultimate downfall of Satan when Christ returns.
Let me close with some words from Dr Peter Bolt in his helpful book, ‘Living with the Underworld’: ‘How, then, do we resist the devil? Not by turning to face him, but by turning to face Christ; not by engaging directly with him, but nu engaging directly with Christ in his gospel. We resist him by standing firm, fixing our eyes on Jesus, and letting the devil go to his absolutely certain fate. If we resist in this Christ-centred way, the promise of the Scriptures is so clear and so easy: ‘he will flee from you.’ He is a defeated enemy. Let’s leave him that way, and not treat him as if he still has any claim to our lives.’
 Peter Bolt, Living with the Underworld, pp. 146-147.
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