Sermon: Satan and the One Principle of Hell
Texts: Matthew 3:13-4:11 (NRSV); Romans 8:31-39 (The Message)
Date: March 5, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Here’s a “Once Upon a Time” story from North Korea: Once upon a time there was a very wise turtle who lived in the sea. He served many years as a beloved royal counselor to the sea king. He was a creature everyone loved to be around, but alas, as every pearl has a speck on it, the turtle couldn’t see too well. He was regularly seen by the royal marine ophthalmologist. The eye doctor was deeply saddened by the single flaw in the otherwise perfect creature. One day the doctor murmured, “Only if you could go and see Mount Kumgang, you would be cured.” The turtle pressed on to know about this mysterious mountain. “You cannot go there. It’s in North Korea,” the doctor said. “It’s too far. You cannot reach there in your lifetime even with the turtle’s lifespan.” Knowledge of a cure that couldn’t be attained only added to the turtle’s angst.
One day the sea king couldn’t help taking note of the sad look on the turtle’s face, and asked, “What troubles the turtle?” Upon hearing of the dilemma, the sea king plunged deep into thought and then said, “There is a way. I can build a tunnel through the sea all the way to North Korea, but the sheer distance makes it very unstable. You must turn back as soon as possible.” On the day of departure, the families and friends of the turtle all gathered to discourage him from taking this pilgrim’s progress. The turtle boldly bid them farewell and started down the tunnel. After a long and wearying journey he finally reached Mount Kumgang. The mountain was indeed splendid and majestic enough to improve anyone’s sight. The more he looked upon the glorious peaks of the mountain, the better his sight became. The world was getting clearer and clearer before his eyes. Eventually the turtle remembered what the sea king had told him about returning quickly. “I must turn back,” he said to himself. “I can see well enough now and I miss all my friends and family.” Beleaguered with homesickness, the turtle scurried back to the tunnel. Yes, it was still there. But he couldn’t get into the tunnel. He didn’t fit. He had grown! He had gained insight.
It was someone in the Tuesday Bible study’s comment that the story of Jesus’ temptation was like a Native American Vision Quest that led me to link the Matthew text and this curious turtle legend. The gospel says clearly it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness. Suppose God perceived that Jesus, an otherwise perfect creature, couldn’t see very well? Jesus was wise; he heard and understood that he was beloved by God and sent by God. But to do what, exactly? What is the Son of God’s task? The title “Son of God” was in use well before Jesus was born. When the Romans used that “Son of God” title, ascribing it to their Emperors (their Caesars), it had a lot to do with conquering the world and trying to create peace through military strength. It had to do with aggressively acquiring as much wealth and power as one could. It had to do with demanding the respect of people whether through admiration or fear of retribution. Was that to be Jesus’ calling? Having grown up under the thumb of the Roman Empire, would Jesus assume that being the Son of God meant he was destined for that kind of worldly power?
Like the eye doctor and the sea king who send the wise turtle through a long, dim and narrow tunnel to gaze at a mountain and thus heal his sight, God the physician and sovereign sends Jesus on a journey into the wilderness in order to see what he is called to do and be. Satan appears after a period of fasting to be the foil, to help him see. As you may know, Satan started his biblical career on God’s team. “As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants—a messenger, or angel…” Whether or not Satan has taken on the job of leading the evil empire by this time, in this story (if you ask me) he is reprising his role as God’s angel, God’s servant, since Satan is so very useful in opening Jesus’ eyes, expanding his vision and insight.
What Satan helps Jesus see is that being the Beloved Son of God is not all about him. It’s not about his comfort, his power, his safety, his wealth, or his glory. Those son-of-a-gun, “Son of God” Caesars might have vigorously pursued comfort, power, safety, wealth and glory for themselves and their cohorts, but that was not Jesus’ vocation. He figured it out as soon as Satan opened his mouth: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus was certainly famished, and perhaps he could have worked that wonder—but he understood that feeding himself was far too small a task. He was beginning to see the mountain the Spirit sent him into the wilderness to gaze upon.
Second temptation: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple]…” Satan goes on to quote scripture about how angels would be sent to catch him so he wouldn’t even bruise his foot. Jesus: Nope. I won’t put God to the test with such a trick; I’m not here to prove that the Son of God will be safe no matter what. My work is not to prove that God and I have a special relationship. He sees the mountain ever more clearly.
Third temptation: Satan takes him up on a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms and all the power, and promises it to him if he will leave off worshiping God and worship Satan instead. Jesus: By no means! I worship and serve the One God. Satan’s mountain of power and glory is not my mountain.
George McDonald once wrote, “The one principle of hell is, ‘I am my own.’” If Satan was representing the hellish empire, that was the essence of all of his temptations: to goad Jesus into looking exclusively after his own interests. That’s what all the other “Sons of God” were about, after all. But Jesus, Beloved Son of God, nixed that tunnel vision.
We don’t know what happened to the legendary turtle who could no longer fit in the tunnel because of his growth and insight. We learn from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus went home to Nazareth. It wasn’t long before he left home again, however, to begin his ministry. He had grown. He had outgrown his carpenter’s vocation. He had rejected a life seeking his own comfort, wealth, safety and power, having perceived that his calling was considerably more expansive. He saw clearly that he was not his own.
Hell is still marketing that one principle: “I am my own.” I can do what I want; I owe nothing to anyone; the way I spend my time, energy and money is none of your business. That one principle is part of the fabric of a highly individualistic, profit-driven society like ours.
That may be our society’s story, but it’s not ours, fellow Christians, sons and daughters of the One God. We have been claimed by God and are loved by God with an indestructible love. This is good news: God loves us, and no power in heaven or on earth can separate us from that love.
Now we, like Jesus, are led by the Spirit to wrestle with what it means for us to be sons and daughters of God. What is the vocation of the Child of God as it applies to the unique pattern of each of our lives? We will be tempted, like Jesus, to pursue selfish interests alone—comfort, wealth, safety, power. Yet some part of us knows the minute Satan lays out this paltry, puny vision of being a son or daughter of God that we are meant for something more. Being a beloved child of God is not about reveling in a special relationship with God while pursuing what those old school, son-of-a-gun “Son of God” Caesars put their life’s energy into. Some part of us knows that, and the more we gaze on the splendid mountain of God’s love for all creation, the more clearly we see that we can’t return to the cozy selfishness of days gone by.
The temptation to seek our own comfort is particularly compelling. The phrase “move out of your comfort zone” is so over-used as to be almost trite, but I have been musing on it again as we prepare to spend these weeks of Lent talking about White Privilege in small discussion groups. There’s nothing comfortable about white people talking about the privilege we inherit by virtue of our skin tone. There is an introductory lecture linked to the UCC “White Privilege: Let’s Talk” curriculum some of us listened to Ash Wednesday. One of the things that really struck me was the teacher pointing out that most white people live segregated from communities of color; that while we may work with people of color, we live and befriend and break bread with mostly white people. She emphasized the point that in all her going to “good” schools, living in “good” neighborhoods, getting into a “good” career and so forth (surrounded by mostly white people), no one ever suggested she was missing something important by not having the voices and companionship of people of color in her life. That hit home for me since I have been comfortably surrounded by white people most of my life, and I hadn’t thought to apply that word “segregated” to my situation. (Duh!)
We are just beginning the study, and already I feel I am beginning to see more clearly how my vision of being a beloved daughter of God has been too constricted. I can’t say I am joyfully anticipating the process of examining my white privilege, but I know I want to grow as a person, so I am willing to set aside my cozy comfort for this. I want to see the immensity of God’s love more clearly. I want to embody and share it more fully. And I have to say I’m so thankful that even woeful and willful blindness about my racial privilege will not separate me from the love of Christ. When we take a few risks in order to grow we do it in the context of unshakeable love for us, which makes such self-examination not comfortable, but possible.
Beloved, Jesus was not the only Son of God who is called to give away the strictures of a small life in order to enter into the vast and glorious vision of God’s kin-dom. Cling to the Love that God guarantees. Cling to nothing else.
Some wise words from Rumi, who knew a thing or two about being Beloved:
Maybe you should know yourself
For just one moment.
Maybe you should glimpse
Your most beautiful face.
Maybe you should sleep less deeply
In your house of clay.
Maybe you should move into the house of joy,
And shine in every crevice.
Maybe you are the bearer
Of hidden treasure.
Maybe you always have been.
 “The titles of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus were: Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World.” Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Birth, p. 63