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Biography of the Devil

One of the most celebrated architectural landmarks in Florence, Italy is the “Duomo” or cathedral. It’s constructed of white, red, and green marble to reflect the colors of the Italian flag. The vast dome is covered with red tiles can be seen from a great distance. Inside the dome is an amazing mural painted by the artist Giorgio Vasari in the late sixteenth century. It’s possible to climb to the very top of the dome through an inside passageway, which is what I had the opportunity to do a few years ago. The stairway is narrow, and it becomes more so as you approach the top of the dome. The walls lean inward, which makes it quite a disorienting experience. It’s necessary to stop often and flatten one’s self against the sloped wall to allow others to pass on their way down. The final steps are so steep it’s necessary to hold on to a rope while hoisting one’s self to the top. Mid-way to the peak of the dome, a small doorway opens to a narrow walkway at the base of the dome itself. It’s a bit like standing in an Imax theater, surrounded by Vasari’s colorful and super-realistic artwork. The mural is an intricate depiction of judgement day, based on Dante’s poem, The Divine Comedy. Much of the dome’s art portrays the section of the poem known as The Inferno. Ghastly demons torture human beings for their sinful lives, and nearby sits the devil himself, wings unfurled, horns jutting from his head, eating a sinner whose legs are dangling from the his grinning mouth. How would you like to look at the ceiling during church and see that?!

When I was a child, my favorite picture in my children’s Bible story book was of the devil all in red with wings unfurled, horns on his head, cloven feet, fleeing from Jesus at the peak of a mountain. Jesus had just uttered the words, “Away from me, Satan. For it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” We read those words each year on the first Sunday of Lent.

I’ve been trying to figure out how put the devil and Valentine’s Day together. Sometimes the church calendar and the calendar for popular holidays don’t mesh very well. St. Valentine was a real person who lived in the third century and was martyred in Rome. Not much is known about him, and it wasn’t until a thousand years after his death that the English someone began to associate him with the concept of romantic love. Today we buy Hallmark cards and give heart-shaped boxes of candy in his honor. Obviously the legends and practices related to St. Valentine have developed over the years to the point where it’s hard to even know how they got started.

It’s a bit like that with the devil. We have deviled eggs and deviled ham and I have no idea what they have to do with the creature that confronted Jesus in today’s gospel reading. We almost uniformly depict the devil as having horns and a tail, though there is no basis for that in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures or any other faith tradition. We say “the devil made me do it,” but we’d be hard pressed to explain how a supernatural, malevolent being is responsible for our bad behavior.

Anthropologists tell us that the idea of a devil can be traced back to the Babylonian empire and the tradition of Zoroastrianism. That’s the religion that gave us the wise men who came from the east. The Jews picked up the concept of a devil, but not with much seriousness. We associate the snake in the Genesis story with Satan, as Christians like to call the devil, but for most Jewish readers, a snake is just a snake. Even the antagonist called the devil in the book of Job is more an interesting character than a cosmic force. It’s really Christians, and Muslims after them, who have developed a theology of evil that is rooted in the existence of a personal devil. By personal devil, I mean a powerful being who has a serious interest in your life and is determined to do everything possible to make you fail. For many, it’s a counterbalance to belief in a personal God who knows and loves us and wants us to experience abundant life.

Last week when discussing the possibility that Muslims and Christians may actually worship the same God, I brought up the topic of dualism. Splitting the world into people who are good and bad and deciding that someone else’s religion is evil and wrong one’s own is good and right is an example of dualism. It also has very serious potential consequences. It’s not like all dualism is inherently wrong. Even Jesus spoke about a judgment day when people are separated like sheep and goats according to what they have done. It would be naïve to pretend that everything is full of light and goodness when people suffer real injustices and children die and lives are ruined by hatred. But what does the devil have to do with it?

In some ways, the story of Jesus is like the book of Job. The devil in both accounts is trying to destroy the future of a righteous man. Job had no clue what was happening to him when the devil conferred with God and won the right to mess with Job’s life. The devil succeeded in destroying Job’s family and servants and property, but he did not succeed in getting Job to curse God. In the gospels, Jesus is confronted by the devil in the wilderness and given three opportunities to change course and forsake God’s call on his life. Like Job, he does not.

Much of what has become traditional Christian teaching about the devil developed after our scriptures were written. One such belief is that Satan was originally an archangel named Lucifer, which means “light-bringer.” A reference in Isaiah is used to support this view, though the context is about Babylon and its king.

The New Testament has many references to the devil, using names like Satan, Accursed Dragon, Tempter, Adversary, Beelzebub, Master of Deceit, the Enemy, the Father of Lies, and the Prince of Darkness. The devil is described 1 Peter as one who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. In the book of Revelation, Satan is thrown into hell to face eternal punishment.

Closely related to the devil himself are demons who are understood to be rebel angels who have joined forces with evil. Many of the healing stories in the gospels involve the practice of casting out demons. Many Christians today, of course, believe that demonic manifestations in the Bible are a pre-scientific understanding of mental illness.

About fifteen years ago, a friend of mine underwent an exorcism because he was gay and was told that the problem was demons. A respected and tenured professor at his influential Protestant seminary conducted the exorcism. Water from a hallway fountain was splashed on him, the demon was asked loudly to reveal its name, and my friend nearly passed out from fear and hyperventilation. It was a horrific experience, and he is still gay and has come to embrace that reality. I share this story to illustrate for this progressive congregation that there are educated, thinking people who still believe in and take seriously a personal devil and his demonic tribe.

57 percent of Americans believe in the devil, according to a 2013 YouGov survey. An earlier poll by by Barna Research, a conservative religious group, was more specific in their criteria and indicated that only about a third of Americans believe Satan to be a living being with supernatural powers. Most consider Satan to be a symbol or principle of evil, not an actual being or personality.

The belief that the devil is symbolic and not literal has a long tradition and is not just the product of modern liberalism. Some sixteenth century Anabaptists and other dissenters in the Netherlands, for example dared to promote this view. It spread to England and Germany in the next century and set the stage for others who have come to believe wholeheartedly in a loving God but not a personal devil, including most who are progressive Christians today.

What do you believe, and how does that come into play when you are tempted to do or be something that is at odds with who you know yourself to be?

Jesus was just starting his ministry when he was tempted in the desert. He hadn’t preached a sermon, he hadn’t healed a sick person, he hadn’t confronted the powers that held the poor and oppressed captive. He was barely dry after his baptism, and now he was dealing with the most basic questions of his identity and purpose. “Turn stones into bread to satisfy your basest needs.” “Jump off a tower and impress people with how amazing you are.” “Worship someone or something other than God and reap the benefits of personal power.”

Jesus wasn’t fooled by the voice that told him to trade his mission for selfish gain. Whether we believe in a personal devil or find that concept unbelievable or unhelpful in our modern era, we still need to grapple with choices that could lead us away from who we know ourselves to be.

No devil can make us do anything that we have not determined on our own to do. There are plenty of conflicted motives and desires within each of us to steer us off course if we’re willing. Jesus’ example in the desert is powerful. He is looking ahead. He is choosing to say “no” to the easy opportunity for today in order to say “yes” to a more worthwhile and joyful goal for the future. Have you ever done that? I imagine you have. Will you consider temptation in that light when the devil shows up in whatever form this week?

One of our readings today said “We long to believe in a world of hope unchained and lives unfettered.” Making that longing a reality for all people, for those who suffer – and for creation itself – means making choices for the long journey instead of taking the shorter, easier path. By God’s grace, you have the power to overcome the temptation to choose expediency over what has true and lasting value. Thanks be to God.


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