Deliver us from evil - Luke 10:17-22
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There is the apocryphal story of the devil sitting out on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral one day crying. A tourist who just happened to be passing by went up to him and asked: ‘What are you crying for?’ And pointing to the church the devil said, ‘It’s those people in there, they blame me for everything!’ Now there is a sense in which we have to be careful that we don’t absolve ourselves of our own personal responsibility when we sin by blaming it all on the devil, any more than a through going atheist might blame all his bad behaviour on his genetic make up or upbringing. James in his letter reminds us that our desire to sin comes from within us, 1:13, ‘When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.’ That places the blame squarely upon our own shoulders. We can’t simply point to the devil and say, ‘It’s all his fault’, worse still point the finger at God and claim that he is the cause of our sin.
So what are we to make of that petition we pray every Sunday, ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil?’
As Lee was explaining to us last week, the word translated ‘temptation’ could also be rendered ‘testing’ or ‘trial’. In this sense the ‘temptation’ is more akin to an examination. I remember my teachers trying to reassure me at school that exams were designed not to catch me out but to help me and them find out how much I knew ( and I believed them!). But in a sense that is true. The teachers don’t throw a party if you fail; they are pleased when you pass. Similarly in the army; endurance marches and the like are designed to strengthen the troops, to make them into better, not worse soldiers. And so it is with Christians when they face trials and difficulties. So one writer, F.F. Bruce has suggested that this line of the Lord’s Prayer might be paraphrased in the following way: ‘May our faith stand firm in the time of trial’ or ‘Save us in the time of testing.’ That is what we are asking for. If trials have to come- and they will- let me pass through them and come out the other side all the better for it. And perhaps the apostle Paul had this in mind when writing to the Corinthian Christians when he said, ‘No temptation (trial) has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted (tested) beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it’ ( 1 Cor. 10:13). In the Lord’s prayer we are simply asking God to honour that promise-the promise of protection to pass the test.
So where does the next part of the petition come in- ‘Deliver us from evil’ or ‘the evil one’? What part does the devil have to play in all of this? Well, to help us understand the nature of the spiritual battle we as Christians are in and the role Satan plays in this testing of our faith, we need to understand a little more about him, so that we are not unduly complacent on the one hand or unduly scared on the other.
First let’s think about the origin of Satan.
One of the questions people often ask is, ‘Where did the devil come from?’ ‘Surely’, they say, ‘if he is a creature of God then did God make evil? If so how can God be good? And if God is good, and the Bible is crystal clear that he is, then how did this angelic being in particular and evil in general come about in the first place?
It helps us to begin to answer those sorts of questions if we get to grips with the nature of evil. You see, God did not ‘make’ evil, because evil does not have the kind of substantial existence that good has. Evil is more of an ‘unmaking’ of what is good in that it can’t exist by itself; it is a corruption or perversion of something good. So evil desires mimic good desires. Thieves want to possess things which are good in themselves like beautiful possessions. Gluttons desire food 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 which are used to get them. When good things don’t occupy their rightful place in the way God has ordered his world, they then become bad. Evil is a corruption of the good. Like a good apple which starts to rot. Good can exist all by itself, evil can’t for it is a polluting of the good. The good has priority and evil is a parasite. Sp lust is the sex instinct twisted. Gluttony, the food instinct inflamed-do you see?
Evil then is a mimicking or a ‘mock up’ of what is good. So the worst kind of hostility turns out to be fake friendliness, the worst kind of cruelty fake kindliness. So if evil is a good thing misappropriated, an ‘unmaking ‘of the good, then we are given some idea of how evil and indeed, the devil, may have come about in the first place. Just suppose a good personal being- say an angel- chooses to try and occupy a position he shouldn’t have in God’s universe? Then what? Just think about it. Choosing is a good thing- a great gift of God, but what is chosen- a position to which he is not suited makes that choice a bad thing. 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. You can’t ask the question what made the being choose the bad in the first place, because by definition a choice is just choice. To be ‘made’ to choose something is a contradiction in terms- it ceases to be a free choice. The person simply makes a decision. 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 that would appear to be the case in what little the Bible tells us about the origin of Satan. Turn with me to Isaiah 14:12-15 ‘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.’ What is that all about? Well, the surrounding nations of Israel at the time, including Babylon-now Iraq- had an ancient myth in which the ‘Bright shiner’ the god Heylel, the name given to the planet Venus, also called ‘son of the dawn’ because it rises shortly before the sun, tried to become King by scaling the mountain ramparts of the heavenly city, only to be dispersed by the all conquering sun. Well, that picture is taken, given a new twist and reapplied by Isaiah, for now it applies to the King of Babylon and his arrogance to be the all conquering King. This king is inordinately proud, having aspirations to world domination. In short he wants to be a god. So could it be that behind this picture in Isaiah of a human being we have reflected another picture of an earlier angelic being who also aspired to be like god and has been encouraging human beings to do the same ever since? The Hebrew word, ‘Heylel’ ‘bright shiner’ or ‘Venus’ is translated in the Latin Bible as- Lucifer. And you can’t help but notice the arrogance in the words, can you? ‘I will… I will…. I will….’. He sought to be like God- the very offer by which he tempted Eve ‘You will be like God’ (Gen 3:5) if you eat of the fruit.
And the way the devil promotes his work of deception and temptation most effectively is to mimic God. This is particularly focused for us in 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.’
Now, God promotes his will by words-giving commands and making promises- so does Satan. God awes people with spectacular signs and miracles- so does Satan. But they are all inferior to God’s; they don’t quite match up to his. God’s Word is truth and brings liberation; Satan’s words are lies and half truths which bring people into slavery. Let me give an 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, 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.
So what is the purpose of Satan? That is, what is God doing with him? The main point of the Bible’s revelation is not simply the news that there is a malevolent supernatural being at work in the world, but that this being does not lie outside God’s ultimate control. So at the Last Supper as Jesus spoke of the various trials (temptations) the disciples would undergo 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. Yes, he will fail the test at one level, he denies Jesus, but he comes through it at another level to repentance and restoration and much stronger and humbler. So God uses Satan to test his people.Yes, there is a devil, but as Martin Luther would often remark; He is God’s devil’, that is, he does not have total free reign. God will even use him to bring about his righteous purposes in the world, including the testing of his people. 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 for his power depends upon us believing the lie. But when we see that he is more like a snarling dog we have to pass by on our way to heaven, but who is chained, well then we begin to see things differently don’t we? He can bark at us, snarl at us, even try and bite us, but so long as we recognise the chain and don’t go too close he cannot ultimately harm us.
So how is Satan used by God? 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? If it was a pain it may have been a disease which made Paul feel weak and helpless- and how we know that feeling when we are laid on our sick bed, we don’t feel very proud then do we? Or if it was a person it could have been a false teacher, they had loads coming into Corinth who made fun of Paul, who cast doubts upon his credentials and tried to turn people against him- that certainly hurts and lays your spirit low. Which it was we 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 So he gos 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 Cor 5:5). Drastic situations require drastic remedies. And maybe that is where you are at the moment. Perhaps you are letting things drift. This is the state of the backslider which is one of the most terrible states to be in-more miserable and dangerous than the outright non-Christian. This is the way John Bunyan has his hero, Christian, in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ explain how the process of spiritual slippage happens: 1.As far as they can they stop thinking about God, death and judgement. 2. Then bit by bit they neglect private religious practices, like a personal prayer time, curbing their lusts, watchfulness, sorrow for sin and so on. 3. Then they shun the company of lively and warm Christians. 4. After that they become indifferent to public religious duties, like hearing and reading God’s word, fellowship with other Christians. 5. They then begin to pick holes, so to speak, in the coats of Christian people, doing it for devilish purposes so that, just because of some weakness they’ve spotted in other Christians, they can blacken religion behind their backs. 6. Then they begin to associate with worldly, undisciplined and unprincipled people. 7. Then in secret they indulge in worldly and lewd talk and are only too glad if they can see evidence of such conduct in supposedly upright people, to encourage them in their wrong doings. 8. After this they begin to play with little sins more openly. 9. And then, thoroughly hardened, they show themselves as they are. Launched once again into the chasm of misery, they for ever perish in their own deceptions, unless they are shaped by a miracle of grace.’ Now, could I ask, do you see yourself at some point on that list? Do you know someone there? Then pray that you or they will wake up before it’s too late, make this petition of the Lord’s prayer real and urgent.
But thirdly, God uses Satan to teach the church. When you think about it that is one of the reasons we have the Bible. We would not be learning all that we are about a Christian approach to testing had God’s servants in the past not gone through testing- people like Abraham, Moses and Job in the Old Testament, Peter, Paul and the greatest of them all- Jesus –in the New. Not only that but as we see the triumph of God in the life of these people, does it not strengthen us that God will do the same in our lives? What is more I know of people here in this congregation who have and are undergoing trails and as I see their faith and courage, their hope in a good God, well, that helps me to put my troubles in perspective. God is using them to teach me. This is certainly the way Paul saw things: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.’ 2 Cor. 1:3
So God is good after all and can be trusted; it is Satan who is evil and is to be avoided. God is powerful after all and so can be prayed to, Satan is but a creature used by God to bring about his sovereign purposes and is not to be unduly feared. And so Satan is left looking like the creature he really is. What is that? Well, take the first letter of the ways God uses the devil and see if you can discover Satan’s real identity: Refine the faithful; Awaken the sleeping; Teach the church. Now can you see what he is? Something of a rat.
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