Lent 1

February 17, 2002

Text:     Matthew 4:1-11

Title:     “A Better Mousetrap”



I’ve learned something from mice. Or rather, I've learned something at the expense of mice.  Believe it or not, we’ve had a few mice in our home.  It's true.  You know the story of the pastor who goes into the hardware store and asks the clerk for six mice and two dozen cockroaches.  He tells the clerk, "I'm moving out of the church parsonage and they told me to leave it just like I found it."

We lived in a church parsonage once that had several mice.  The cat caught one of them; the others were too smart.  They hid behind appliances.  They hung out in the garage.  But we knew they were there.  They chewed holes in the trash.  They left us little mouse presents here and there.  So Brenda and I decided something had to be done. We bought a mousetrap.

Now we weren’t mouse-trapping experts, but we figured, "What's there to it?"  You put in the cheese, you set the springy thing, and then you wait for the mouse.  Easy, right?  Well, we didn't have to wait too long. That night we heard this "snap."  I was elected to go out to the garage and check it out.  It was a little gray mouse.  And we felt just a little bad.

We felt guilty, and so we began to make statements to justify, to explain our actions.  This was a bad mouse.  Bad mouse.  Plus, the mousetrap wasn't really so bad.  After all, it was quick.  It was cheap.  Plus, the mouse was better off; he didn't suffer.  But neither of us really wanted to look at it.  We threw it away, mousetrap and all.  We had tried our best to put a different spin on the mousetrap, to put a new face on the mousetrap.  But the fact remained; a mousetrap is a rather brutal device.  Innocently enough, we had tried to put another, less disturbing face on the mousetrap.  In our minds we tried to create something less brutal; a better mousetrap.  But the fact remained; a mousetrap is a rather brutal device. This morning, I want us to talk together about putting another face on that which disturbs us.  I want us to talk about putting another face on Satan.

Now the text we heard this morning from Matthew deals with Satan's temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  It's one of the few New Testament appearances for Satan.  Satan is not mentioned much, and maybe that's one of the reasons.  Maybe that's one of the reasons we don't think much about Satan anymore.  In our post-modern world, with all our sophistication, our technology, our knowledge, it seems silly to many people.

"Satan?  You mean the guy with the horns and the pointy tail?  The guy in the red suit with the pitchfork?  Come on.  That's kid stuff.   Fairy tales."

And yet we can look in any newspaper and read of the violence; beatings, rapes, and murders.  We can talk to just about any friend or relative and hear stories about how someone they know has been touched by sickness, disease, or death.  You can't watch any news program without seeing the bitterness, anger, and what seems to be genuine hatred the opposing sides of various political, geographical, and even religious groups have for one another.  We see acts of greed and corruption strong enough to bring down a once-mighty Enron; we witness acts of hate and violence strong enough to bring down twin gleaming towers.  We can tune to just about any TV channel and see evidence of broken families, financial distress, hunger, dishonesty, and substance abuse.  Unhappiness.  But is it “evil?”

Some people try to put a different face on it.  Many of us have rejected the notion of Satan - a devil - that plays some role in what we might refer to as evil.  But as we look at Jesus' temptation by Satan, it may be time that we reconsider the concept of Satan as we ponder the mystery of evil.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hear the Princeton professor Elaine Pagels speak at a minister’s week seminar.  Interesting person.  She has written a book called The Origin of Satan, and in her book she talks about how Christians took the concept of Satan from the Jews, and then in a twist of cruel irony, applied it to the Jews.  These Christians then began demonizing anyone who didn't look like or think like them.  Pagels claims that "Satan" is simply the ancient Jewish/Christian name for "the other," the one who is different from us.  Satan, then, is merely an example of our human tendency to project our evil ideas onto others.  Is that who Satan is?

We're not too comfortable with this Satan who really tempts us - who really is evil.  So we put another face on Satan.  We put our face there.  Professor Pagels turns the traditional Christian view that Satan is somehow involved in the origins of evil completely around, suggesting instead that it's our own evil tendencies that have created Satan.  Satan is simply a projection of our bad side.  Satan is not real.

I don't agree.  Our modern society has the tendency to reduce religious faith to mere psychological or sociological debate.  To my way of thinking, that’s what Professor Pagels does here.  But the story we hear from Matthew is not a story of Jesus' pent up fears and anxieties.  It's not a story of how Jesus' negative thoughts created his own personal Satan.  Jesus is dealing with the real thing.  And Matthew doesn't give us a chance to put another face on temptation, on evil.  Matthew puts one there for us.  Matthew gives Satan a face, a personality.  It's not make-believe.  But it is uncomfortable.  Looking into that face is uncomfortable.  Frightening.

And so we look for a new face.  New ways to explain away evil.  We look for a better mousetrap, one that doesn't sound so brutal, one that we can control.  But the fact remains.  This is a brutal device, a brutal force, this Satan.

Every Sunday, when we gather together for worship, we mention it.  Oh, I know that sometimes it's just an exercise in rote memory, but we do mention it.  We mention evil.  That Lord's Prayer we pray together.  Somewhere there toward the end, we say something about it.  Does this sound familiar to you?  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."  You know who taught us that prayer?  Jesus.  Matthew's Gospel records it this way: “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one."  You know who taught us that prayer?  Jesus.  And when you consider what he had been through, it comes as no surprise. You see, he'd been there.  In the wilderness, face-to-face with temptation, with evil.

Three temptations.  The first?  Turn stones into bread.  You see, this wilderness Jesus found himself in was covered with little rocks, limestone, almost like little loaves.  The devil says, "If you're the Son of God, turn a stone into some bread.  I know you're hungry.  Feed yourself.  Use your power to satisfy your wants, your needs, your desires."  Jesus says, "You can't live on bread alone."  So much for temptation number one.  So much for the temptation of self-fulfillment, of not needing anyone or anything but yourself.  So much for the temptation of not needing God.

The second.  Worship the devil, and all this... can be yours.  The devil takes Jesus upon a high mountain and says, “Look at all these kingdoms.  Worship me, and they're yours.  That's all you have to do.  Glory, authority, wealth, all yours.  Just worship me. That's all."  Jesus says, "It's written, ‘Only worship God.’”  So much for temptation number two.  So much for the temptation to compromise with evil.

The third.  The devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple and says, “If you're the Son of God, jump off.  You know God will send angels to keep you from getting hurt.  Go ahead.  Try it out.  Test it.  See how much God will let you get away with."  The devil even quotes Scripture to Jesus!  Jesus responds, “It is said, ‘Don't test God.’”  So much for temptation number three.  So much for the temptation to abuse faith, to take advantage of God's love and grace.

Both the Lord's Prayer and this temptation story seem to say it clearly.  Something, someone, is conspiring against good, against the righteous Kingdom of God.  And try as we might to put a new face on it, to envision a better, less brutal mousetrap, the fact remains.  Evil is sometimes brutal.  Temptation is sometimes brutal.  But it's not final.

The good news is that we don't have to explain evil away.  We don't have to be in the wilderness alone.  Jesus Christ has already done that.  And that's probably a good thing, because one-on-one, we're no match for Satan.  But as you look around the sanctuary this morning, you can see that it's not one-on-one.  We're not alone.  We're here as a community, as a body.  Maybe that's why we're here, here together.  So that we don't have to look into that face alone.

Looking into the face of temptation, of evil, of Satan, is uncomfortable.  Frightening.  Because temptation is real.  We're tempted everyday.  We're tempted to use our skills, our technology, and our sophistication to create a perfect world, a world that doesn't need God.  We're tempted to compromise our values, to look the other way when we see things we know are wrong.  We're tempted to push God to the limit by using grace as a license to sin, to do whatever we want whenever we want because after all, God will still be there to forgive us after we've sown all of our wild oats.  We're tempted by money, sex, power, and the last jelly donut in the box that seems to call us by name.  Temptation speaks, calls us by name.  But it doesn't have the last word.

The last word belongs to Jesus Christ.  The Jesus who spent those forty days being tempted, looking into the face of evil.  Looking into the face of Satan.  Because Jesus stood alone in the wilderness, we don't have to.  It doesn't mean we're not tempted.  Temptation is real.  The tempter is real.  But it does mean that we don't look into the face of the tempter all by ourselves.  As a community of faith, as the body of Christ, we do it together.  And we do it alongside someone who has a lot of wilderness experience on his resume.  The question for us is, “Are we willing to face evil with Christ at our side, or are we still working on building a better mousetrap?"