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The Devil: beard not essential

The quire at Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 9th March 2014

Sermon by  Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor

The First Sunday of Lent

 

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was about 19 I began to grow a beard. I did this largely I think because I lived in Brighton and everyone thought facial hair was a great idea down there. Also I did it, I have to admit, in order to irritate my then girlfriend. I was being rebellious and edgy and all those other things that you think are incredibly sophisticated and grown up when you are nineteen and away at university for the first time. And so I grew a goatee. The beard did irritate my girlfriend. Indeed we broke up shortly thereafter. The beard also provoked a number of reactions amongst my friends and family, the most frequent of which was, “you know, Tom, that beard makes you look like the devil.” I was still wearing this satanic beard when I arrived here, in fact, though I have since joined it up.

We all know what Satan looks like, don’t we? Horns, tail, and goatee beard. And we all know what Satan does, don’t we. He sits on our shoulder, tempting us. Tempting us to do things we oughtn’t to do: have another chocolate éclair, Precentor. Have another pint of beer. Don’t bother preparing a sermon for Sunday – watch Star Trek instead…

Sadly I suspect for the wider world if they heard today’s gospel reading, that is precisely the image which would present itself. A slightly ridiculous figure desperate to purchase our souls for the right price. Remember the episode of the Simpsons where Homer sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the world’s perfect doughnut?

Or, of course, there is the other extreme. The terrifying films like the exorcist where Satan is presented as an overwhelming, seemingly unstoppable power, controlling and destroying the lives of people seemingly at will.

For wider society, and perhaps for some of us here this morning, on this First Sunday of the Season of Lent, that is the image. I wonder how you dealt with hearing that Gospel read. Did you phase out? Did you imagine the horns and beard? Did you delete the episode from the list of credible bible passages because the figure of Satan seems so irrelevant to a modern rigorous approach to Christianity?

I’d like to suggest to you this morning that we ignore Satan at our peril. Or rather that we ignore that which the figure and the biblical stories, and indeed the Christian tradition of Satan stands for at our peril.

Let me tell you why. I think we entirely misunderstand what the devil is about if we imagine him as this sort of cheap, low level tempter, trying to get us to fail in our resolve, you know just like the Treasurer, knowing I have given up alcohol, standing outside my window during Lent waving a bottle of Chateau Neuf du Pape.

It’s not like that at all. No the devil speaks to us very much more deeply about the nature of the darkness and the evil which surrounds us.

In the Book of Common Prayer, at a baptism the candidate is asked: “Dost thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of this world, with all the covetous desires of the same?” And you reply, “I renounce them all”.

And in Common Worship, if you are being baptised or confirmed you are asked: “Do you renounce evil? Do you repent of your sins, do you turn to Christ?”

What we’re being asked to recognise in all this is that there are dark things inside us, and there are dark things outside too. I think that’s really important because it helps us to navigate life healthily.

Two dangers, two heresies, it seems to me, confront us in the high modern society we live in as a result of individualisation, of focussing too much on the self: we run the risk of becoming entirely paranoid that everything that goes wrong is our fault, or of believing that we have no responsibility at all, and that for everything bad, someone else is to blame.

You recognise these traps, I feel sure. So in the first we become obsessed with our own guilt and unworthiness, with the fact that everything we do seems to fail, we ask why we weren’t good enough, why we didn’t try harder, pray harder, love harder. And that way lies obsession, anxiety and depression and actually despair.

In the other model, we blame everyone else for everything. Everything is externalised. We stand alone, bullet proof and smug and unfairly the beneficiary of everyone else’s failure or vindictiveness, and everyone is an idiot, and we are always, always the victim.

Lent, and today’s Gospel, and the baptism service all call us to recognise that neither of those models is representative. The reality is that, yes, the world is full of darkness. Now some of that darkness comes from within us, and some of it comes from without. There are very many things that I do which are sinful. Every time I snap at you, or belittle a concern you have, or fail to call my grandmother, I commit a sin. That comes from within me. Because I am flawed and weak and fond of the cheap and easy way.

But sin in not exactly the same as evil. Evil is a different. That’s why we have to turn away from both of them at baptism, and each time we renew our baptismal promises at Easter. Christians have always held that evil is bigger than the individual person. Oh, an individual person can be evil, for certain, and you can all offer candidates for that descriptor I am sure, but the tradition of the church, and the witness of scripture, and the lived reality of most of us, I suspect, is that we can recognise evil as something which is not only internal, but also external. Something with an identity of its own, you might almost say, and a life of its own. Something which acts upon is. Something which exploits our negligence, and our weakness. Something which influences not just individuals, but communities, families, nations. Something with tentacles which ensnare.

And that is what the tradition calls Satan, or the Devil. You don’t need the horns, the tail or the beard. What he represents is the power of darkness, the malevolent tendency in society, in the world, in the cowardice and the selfishness and the greed and the injustice we recognise as forces which stamp down on and hem in, men women and children everywhere.

We see that evil acting upon Jesus in the wilderness. The Devil offers him three very human, very recognisable temptations. Firstly to cheat. Turn the stones into bread. No one will know you cut a corner. God won’t see. Your friends won’t see. Take the easy way out, the short way around.

Secondly to doubt God’s faithfulness. Make the angels prove themselves. Make God prove himself. Call him out on this love and grace caper.

And finally to sell out in order for cheap power. To collapse being a follower of God into status and authority and to forget who the King is. To claim a throne for ourselves. Arrogance.

We see Christ in the desert this morning tempted by the devil. And we tread our own desert way towards Easter in his path. The temptation, ultimately, is to ignore evil, to pretend it doesn’t exist, and therefore to collude with it. Remember the Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

And if all that seems too much at the beginning of Lent then hang on, also, to where the desert path leads. To a Cross towering over the wrecks of sin, and to a garden spread with dewfall, where the feet of the Risen One tread, and to the King, before whose Kingdom Satan departs in terror.

Amen.