Sympathy for the Devil


So you think the Rolling Stones' song was wrong, huh? We should have no sympathy for the devil. But the first definition of sympathy is to share the feeling of another. I'm not asking you to have pity on the devil. I want you to look at this well-known text through his eyes.

Can't you appreciate the devil's subtlety? He doesn't come crashing in like gang-busters the first day Jesus is in the desert. No, he waits 40 days and 40 nights, till Jesus is good and hungry before he slithers into the picture, and I do mean slithers. He doesn't come in trumpets blaring, hellfire blazing, or sulphur burning. Nope, he comes in with a question. He questions not accuses. He changes periods into question marks; he doubts rather than denies. Keep looking for a devil who will stand up and say Jesus isn't the Son of God. Keep looking for a devil who will accuse you of not being a Christian. Keep looking for a devil who will deny you'll be saved. You won't find him. He's hidden in that question about Jesus' divinity, in that question mark over your Christianity, in that doubt about you being saved.

You're always looking for a devil dressed in red who says blasphemous things. The real devil dresses in white. The real devil is only interested in the truth. He only wants to ask a question. "Does the Bible really say?" And the real devil doesn't spout blasphemes, he spouts Scripture. When you hear him that's the first thing you note. "Boy, does he know his Bible." He can quote you chapter and verse for memory.

You'll find this devil on your TV set. He says, "Doesn't the Bible say God will bless faithful stewardship? So send me a 1000 dollars and you'll be blessed!" "Doesn't the Bible say God deals with us according to our faith? So believe God for a miracle!" The Bible quoting devil shows up all over the place. He says, "Doesn't God say that we should love? Then how can you call yourself a Christian and not accept people in different lifestyles." The devil says, "Love calls us not to condemn those who teach different than we do." And, "A loving God certainly wouldn't send anyone to hell, would he?" It's the devil who says, "Jesus saying 'judge not and you will not be judged,' means we are never in any situation to judge."

The devil is good at what he does. He doesn't tempt with evil and ugliness but beauty and good. He doesn't say Jesus must worship him. No, he says, "I want what you want Jesus. See all these kingdoms of the world? You can have them all right now without the suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying. And all you need do is fall down, not bow down, just fall and while you're down there just worship toward me."

The devil is subtle. While you're looking for him to show up tempting you with naked bodies, you fail to see him in that accepting friend who'll hear you out, unlike that nasty husband or cold wife who won't. While you're looking for him calling you to devil worship, you miss him in that desire to make worship more "fun" and pleasing to you. While you're looking for a devil tempting you to be murderer, you miss him in that whisper, "You're right to hold a grudge against that person."

Honesty demands that we "sympathize" with the devil; he is the best tempter. He got Eve dissatisfied with Paradise; Job to doubt the wisdom of God, Peter to block Jesus' way to the cross, and Judas to betray his Lord and friend. And don't stop there. He has gotten men to leave their wives, wives to cheat on their husbands, mothers to kill their unborn babies, and kids to rebel against loving mothers. But you know what his crowning achievement has been? To turn this text into an instruction manual for defeating him.

You've heard sermons like that, haven't you? 3 steps for defeating the devil. First, answer him with the Bible. Second, correct him when he twists the Bible. Third, order him away based on the authority of the Bible. That's a great strategy, but it fails in practice. Eve tried it in Eden. She quoted God's Word. She took out the sword of the Spirit and slashed away at the subtle Serpent, and what happened? He took that sword and stabbed her with it. If the Bible is an instruction book for fending off the devil's temptations than we're all lost. I'm no match for a smooth talking politician or salesman let alone the Prince of Deception.

But that's not the worst part. If we make the Bible or even this text and instruction manual, we make Jesus a teacher of the Law, and we lose the Gospel of what He does for us. It was the Pharisees and Scribes who made the Bible a book of instructions, and what did Christ say to them? "You search the Scripture because in them you think you have eternal life. But these testify of Me." If we make the Bible a manual for daily living, we make it about what we do or don't do instead of about what Jesus did and does.

This text is really about how Jesus crushes the devil. And you have to sympathize with him. He knows this is the Seed of the woman who was sent to crush his head. So he attacks when He is weak and all alone. He attacks when the angels aren't ministering to Him, when His Father has apparently forgotten Him, but what happens? The devil is utterly crushed.

Surely, you can sympathize with how perplexed the devil must have been. He wasn't overcome by God. How could God who opens His hands and feeds every living thing be without food 40 days and nights? How could he, the devil, be able to whisk God off to the holy city, stand Him on the temple and then take Him to a very high mountain? And even when Jesus sent him away, He didn't do it by divine power. No, He said, "Away from me, Satan! Because it is written.." Jesus doesn't use a divine command but cites the same Bible that Sunday School children use!

But though it wasn't Godly power beating him, it wasn't merely a man either because not even a perfect man could do this. The devil should know. He was in the Garden of Eden. He dealt with a perfect man before. Perfect man in Paradise, with a full stomach, and the perfect companionship of both God and another person was no match for his wily ways. But here in a desert a Man with an empty stomach and no companionship, paries his every thrust; takes Bible passages out of his hand, stabs him with them, and then chooses suffering rather than all the kingdoms of the world. The devil over the aeons has gotten uncountable men to give up their eternal souls in order to gain just a piece of the world: a lover, a promotion, a good time. Yet, this Man refuses all of the world not to save His soul but the soul of others!

What Satan didn't take into account is that this is no ordinary Man, this is the God-Man. Matthew says, "He was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." The word "led" has the idea to be offered up as a sacrifice. The roaring lion Satan wants to devour us who by sinning have made ourselves fat for the swallowing. But into the devil's open mouth, the Father casts His Son instead. To take our place the perfect Jesus had to be under the same judgement of the Law we are. So He didn't go into the desert until He was baptized where He confessed to being guilty of all our sins. And although all the fullness of the godhead dwelled in Him bodily, He used none of the weapons of God. He uses only what we have. The most attacked, maligned, and laughed at book ever: the Bible.

All Jesus had to do is give in just once. Make a cupcake. Have an angel stretch out a pinky to help. Incline His head a bit to Satan. If Jesus had given in at all, we were lost. No entry back into the Garden, but an eternity of curses, ashes, and torture. But Jesus didn't given in, give out, or give up. He was given into the mouth of Satan, but Satan couldn't swallow Him. Jesus remained the perfect, unblemished, Lamb of God still able to go to the cross for us. His body was still perfect for receiving the whipping we deserve. His blood was still perfect for covering all of our sins.

What joy should break forth in the hearts of sinners like us today! The Crusher of the Serpent is on the scene. The Man stronger than Satan, our kidnapper, is on the scene. The Man able to bind Satan till Judgment Day has appeared and proven He is more than Satan's match. He cast Satan out of heaven. He can no longer stand before the Father's throne and accuse us day and night. He has to admit that Jesus has succeeded in saving us.

So friends, don't go on living as if your salvation is in doubt. Don't go on living as if it's up in the air whether or not you've overcome the devil. Don't go on thinking that you are at his mercy! Don't go on believing that because you feel starved for love, health, or happiness you're not really a son or daughter of God. Don't think you have to prove the angels are really there to protect you by doing something foolish. And stop fearing that your world is somehow in the hands of Satan. No your world is in the hands of the One who gave His hands, feet, body and blood for the world's salvation.

Go on, sympathize with the devil. What can he do now? Can he slither into your garden, home, or office and get your soul? No. He can't damn sinners in Jesus because Jesus kept the Law for sinners and died for their not keeping it. Therefore, Satan has no law in his hands not fulfilled by Jesus to damn you with, and no sin of yours in hand to make you pay for that Jesus didn't already pay in full for.

O, but what about when he jumps up and down on your conscience gleefully shouting, "I've got you! I've got you! You did this; you did that?" Do you think your sins count more before God that His only Son's keeping the Law for you does? Do you think even the blood you might have shed or the bodies you might have hurt mean more to God than the Body and Blood His Son gave to pay for your sins? Think again. Sympathize with the devil. He can't touch you now no matter what. Jesus has secured your salvation by what He did and suffered in His Body. Now He gives salvation to you by covering you with this same Body in Baptism and feeding you with this same body in Communion. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

First Sunday in Lent (2-13-05); Matthew 4:1-11