Sunday Sermon – August 26, 2018

The Devil is a Liar
Proper 16: Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL

26 August 2018

 

May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

 

“The devil is a liar.”  This sentence was penned by CS Lewis in July of 1941 in the preface to his famous book The Screwtape Letters.  For those of you unfamiliar with the book, The Screwtape Letters is a collection of correspondence that takes place between a senior devil named Screwtape and his nephew, a junior devil named Wormwood, who is new at learning the art of temptation.  Screwtape mentors Wormwood along through a series of letters, teaching him how to turn his human “patient” away from God. This book is a wonderfully ingenious way for Lewis to urge his readers to think seriously about what one might call the reality of spiritual warfare.

Now, I suspect, since I am still relatively new here, that a sermon on spiritual warfare and the devil is hardly a common theme preached about at St. John’s. Perhaps one might search the archives to see when this last occurred?  Nevertheless, the devil and spiritual warfare are both ancient and timeless themes. We are all familiar with Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. And, the apocalyptic heavenly war is nowhere more dramatically described than in the book of Revelation.  Hence, since these realities are testified to in Holy Scripture, we must attend to them with seriousness, despite our 21st century tendencies to look upon such realities with skepticism.

The Screwtape Letters provides a helpful way to understand the idea of spiritual warfare that can capture the mind of modern, intelligent reader.  Lewis himself, it should be noted, was an Oxford don and professor of English literature, who was a professed atheist before he converted to Christianity at the age of 33.

The first thing that we must do when it comes to thinking about spiritual warfare is to understand it properly.  Lewis tells his readers, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve their existence.  The other is to believe, and feel an excessive interest in them.  The devils themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

A materialist in this context is someone who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of nature and that everything that occurs is simply a result of material interactions.  A materialist would say that there is no such thing as a spiritual realm. Therefore, there is no God, no angels, no devils or demons. Materialists, obviously, by denying the existence of the spiritual realm have all but been won by the devil, so they don’t gain too much of their focused attention once they accept this philosophy.  Screwtape confesses, however, that once the materialists believe in their own position, they are not much fun to torment.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe in the devils, but take them too seriously.  This is good news for the devils, because humans who take the devils too seriously, misunderstand their true nature.  For example, they either think that the devils’ powers are equal to that of God, which they’re not, or they don’t understand the devils as properly spiritual beings, but only as vague and malign forces of nature.  The devils are happy for such misunderstandings because these people afford the devils more power than they actually have, or deploy the wrong resources to combat them, like turning to magic or the occult, which won’t work to defeat them.

 

The middle way between these two errors is to admit that there is a spiritual realm, created by God, which is inhabited by beings that we don’t fully understand and cannot perceive with our senses.  There are also beings, which we call devils or demons, who inhabit this realm who have fallen away from God and whose mission is to get people to turn away from God, too.

Classically, this battle for the human soul has been described as two spiritual armies at war, in which Christians are decidedly caught up in.  St. Paul says as much when he writes, “For our struggle is not against […] enemies of blood and flesh, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The second thing to understand about spiritual warfare, once a devil’s true spiritual nature has been established, is to become familiar with his main weapon.  Lying. The devil’s main weapon of choice is deceit and falsehood. Nothing he says can be trusted. And he uses his lies to sew doubt, and discord, and to engender fear.

The devil’s masterful deployment of lies and falsehood permeates the whole of the The Screwtape Letters.  For example, in the opening chapters of the book, Screwtape tells Wormwood to steer his patient away from believing that there are such things as facts, which can be true or false.  He says that encouraging humans to exercise their reason is a dangerous path which might lead them to God. Instead, Screwtape advises that it is better that we have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing around in our head and that getting us to communicate using jargon and propaganda is the best ways for us to avoid the truth.

Screwtape also points out that, as hard as they have tried, the devils have never been able to invent anything pleasurable.  Instead, they take the good pleasures that God has created and tempt us to enjoy them at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or in the wrong degrees.

The devils also admit that they are not at all capable of creating virtue. Rather, their job is to turn those virtues into vices.  For example, they take the virtue of humility and tempt us into that of false humility, which is the sin of pride.

What is important to keep in mind about the devils from these two examples, is that they do not create anything! They can only work with what God has made and pervert it, tricking us into thinking that what is true is false, what is right is wrong, and what is good is bad, and vice versa.  And, they have accomplished their task not only when we can no longer tell the difference, but when we decide that being able to distinguish between them doesn’t matter either.

But, the good news, of course, is that we are not left unequipped to resist any temptation the devil throws at us.  As St. Paul tells us, God has supplied us with the whole armor of God. It is simply up to us to put it on.

It is perhaps not surprising that the first thing we are to put on is the belt of truth.  Recall that Screwtape’s first instruction to Wormwood is to avoid the truth at all costs.

The next thing we can take up is the breastplate of righteousness.  Our heart, which belongs to God alone, and is classically understood as the seat of our will, will be protected by this armor, so that we cannot be turned from doing the will of God.

We can also put on the helmet of salvation, which protects our ability to reason, and which allows us to know the difference between fact and opinion, truth and falsehood, and is the faculty which we use to know and believe in God.

We are also given the shield of faith, which can be used to defend against the flaming arrows of the evil one, which are the lies, deceptions, and every temptation the devil throws our way.  

As for our shoes, we are to wear “whatever will make us ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace.” But these shoes are not to help us run away from the enemy or to charge at him with a full on frontal attack either.  Rather, the best way to think of these shoes is to think of them like cleats, which allow us to dig in and face our temptations squarely. Like a batter digging in the batters box, staring down the pitcher, daring him to throw a curve ball.  

The whole image in Ephesians is of strength, standing one’s ground, to be anchored, and purchased in a secure spiritual position, to defend ourselves and our neighbors against the devil and the forces of evil which continue to threaten and disrupt the good of God’s order and those who worship God.  

The only offensive weapon in the hand of the Christian soldier is the sword, which is the Word of God.  And, as the Word of God it is truth itself and as such can never deceive.

But once we have donned the armor of God, we are told that we must “pray in the Spirit at all times.”  When we pray we align our wills with the will of God, which is one of the most effective ways to resist the work of the devil.  Indeed, Screwtape tells Wormwood that when his patient is praying, there is not much that he can do, except maybe try to distract him or get him to pray to an image of God that he has conjured up in his head.

Finally, our greatest resource in spiritual warfare is Christ himself, which he offers to us in the sacrament of his Body and Blood.  This is why Jesus insists that his followers must “eat his flesh and drink his blood.” Christ’s spiritual power in the sacraments is real, and we are deceived if we think otherwise.  The materialists will make the mistake in thinking that they are merely bread and wine. And, by doing this they’ve conceded too much ground to the devil. And, on the other hand, the sacraments are not magic either.  Rather, they are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. As such they supply us with the spiritual resources we need to successfully weather our spiritual battles.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter, namely the Gospel message in our reading from John.

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live forever because of me.” To abide in Christ is to dwell in Christ.  To dwell in Christ is to be united to him and to receive his spiritual strength. And, when we abide in Christ, the rulers, the authorities, and the cosmic powers of this present darkness cannot spiritually harm us.  We are spiritually safe in Christ when we abide in him and he in us.

The truth of the Gospel and the saving work of Christ is our best defense against any evil we may experience.  We are equipped to stand against the devil clothed with the whole armor of God. We can dig in with our cleats ready to proclaim the gospel of peace so that with every confidence we can stare down lies, deceptions, alternative facts, fake news, war, racism, sexism, atheism, and whatever else may be wrong in the world at the moment.  

And, when we stare down these works of the devil we may declare boldly, fearlessly and with confidence:

“YOU DON’T GET TO WIN!  I am not afraid of you! You may have won a couple battles now and in the past, but you will not win the war on that last day! Truth does exist.  And his name is Jesus Christ. The world is a good place.  Everything that is good is of God.  God loves it and God loves us! Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.  The Gospel will be the law of his kingdom.  We will abide with him and with each there in perfect peace.  The power of God through Christ and in the Holy Spirit will win in the end.”  

That is the truth of the Christian faith.

If anyone tells you differently, he is a liar.