Here is the first sermon in the Leaving Left Behind Behind series. Though it’s a sermon about ‘the satan’ the text is from the Easter encounter of Jesus to his frightened disciples in John 20.19-23. ‘Satan’ is a tradition that’s evolved over the course of the tradition so the sermon couldn’t possibly map the entire history. Instead, I chose to focus on the root of the word- which I think yields an insight far scarier than any Al Pacino depiction.
If you’re interested in the treatment below, I highly recommend the Rene Girard book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening.
My dad had a heart attack a couple of years ago.
I flew up to Cleveland when I got the call. He almost died.
Some of you probably don’t know this about me:
My dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my boys are now. Even today our relationship is complicated and tense and…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of the story.
Some hurts never go away and some scores never get settled.
A few days after his heart attack my dad went home.
We were sitting in his garden- just him and me and my stepmom. My dad’s face was black and his nose was broken from where he’d fallen on the street. His chest was sore and his breathing tight from the CPR.
My dad and me, we don’t have the kind of relationship where we know how to just sit in the garden with each other- if you know what I mean.
So we were sitting there, he’d just come back home, he’d just come back from the dead and some of the first words out of his mouth?
He started picking at me.
Picking at old wounds.
Picking old fights.
I hadn’t seen him in nearly 2 years. His heart had stopped beating for several minutes. He’d gotten a new chance at life; he’d gotten new life and I’d gotten a new chance at a new life with him. But there in the garden he just wanted to go back at it.
There was no ‘I once was lost but now I’m found’ moment.
I thought: Really, you want to do this now? Right here?
But it didn’t take long for me to take the bait, and there I was arguing 20 year old resentments with my nearly-dead-dad.
There we were trading blame and accusation back and forth, blame and accusation.
We didn’t get very far though. A couple of minutes. A couple of raised voices.
And then my stepmom stood up, gestured in the middle of us and scolded: ‘Whatever you think is between you. It’s gone. It’s removed. It’s not here anymore.’
And then she pointed at me or, rather, at the cross on my neck and said: ‘I expect you, at least, to understand that.’
Alright, you may not be wearing a cross around your neck, but you are here today. So, at least in theory, you should understand too.
So here’s my question:
What did she mean?
What was she talking about?
To keep it basic, you could say sin- the sins between us, the sins committed on the other, the sins suffered because of the other.
On a basic level, you could say she was talking about sin.
To get more theological, you could say she was talking about Good Friday and Easter, the Passion and the Resurrection, the Empty Cross and the Empty Grave.
On a theological level, you could say that’s what she thought I should understand.
But to get specific, painfully, dangerously specific, you could say she was talking about satan.
And there’s your question, right?
Satan? What do you mean she was talking about Satan?
Satan is red.
Satan has horns and a tail.
Satan carries a pitchfork. Satan smells like sulfur. Satan slithers on the ground.
Satan’s the Prince of Darkness; he rules like a god in Hell, he has dominion over this fallen world especially the House, Senate and Department of Motor Vehicles.
And when Satan speaks, it’s probably in parseltongue.
Sometimes he appears to resemble Al Pacino, but Satan’s a fallen angel, a serpent, a creature.
As in, not human.
Not one of us.
Not like one of us.
Satan’s nothing like us.
So what did she mean? My stepmother, what was she talking about?
Here’s our problem:
Biblically speaking, Satan isn’t a proper name. Later tradition turns it into a proper name but initially in the bible Satan isn’t a proper name. It’s a noun.
‘Satan’ isn’t a person. It’s a title.
Biblically speaking, it’s not Satan with a capital ‘S.’ It’s satan with a little ‘s.’
It’s not Satan. It’s the satan.
In Hebrew it’s ha-satan (שָּׂטָן).
‘Ha’- is the Hebrew definite article for ‘the.’ Ha-satan is the noun form of the Hebrew verb: שָׂטַן.
And the first place you find that verb in scripture is in Genesis 3.
After God has created all that is and called it ‘good.’
After God has created Adam and then Eve and called everything ‘very good.’
After the serpent asks Eve ‘…did God really say…?‘
After Adam and Eve wonder whether God is ‘very good’ and they eat.
After God goes looking for Adam and Eve.
And after God asks Adam what has happened…what does Adam say?
Eve made me do it.
It’s because of her. It’s her fault. She’s the reason.
He points the finger. He passes the buck.
He finds a scapegoat.
Eve’s guilty too, sure, but that doesn’t mean Adam’s not scapegoating her. Rather than deal with and repent of his own sin and guilt, he takes it and puts it on someone else.
And that’s the first place where you find that verb satan.
It means ‘to blame.’
When we talk about original sin, we always think of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
When we talk about original sin, we’re so used to thinking of the tree in the garden that we completely miss how the first sin of humanity against humanity is when Adam blames the only other person he has to share this world with.
Blame and accusation- satan– that’s our original sin, on each other.
Turn the page and our very next sin is murder, when Cain kills his brother- what Jesus refers to as the foundational sin of the world.
Blame and accusation- satan– leads to violence.
Our original sin leads to the foundational sin of the world.
‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name- at least not initially- it’s our propensity for blame and accusation- a propensity that inevitably leads to violence.
‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name. The blame game is satan’s name.
I suppose in that sense it’s the most personal name of all.
It’s less about a supernatural, otherworldly god-like character and more about the spirit of blame and accusation and recrimination and judgment that so easily captivates us and so quickly leads to casualties.
When you dig down to the dirty root of the word, it’s no wonder we’ve preferred to imagine Satan with horns and a pitchfork. Because while ‘Satan’ doesn’t look much like any of us, I don’t know about you but ha-satan is the spitting image of me.
No wonder we’ve preferred to make him the Prince of Darkness and put him down in Hell to rule and reign because that’s a lot less frightening than staring at him in the mirror every morning.
You see, imagining a ‘Satan’ who smells like sulphur is just another way we try to convince ourselves that our s#$% doesn’t stink.
Of course, not wanting to smell our own s#$% is exactly the problem.
The Book of Genesis is the first book in scripture for a reason. You miss what’s going on here in the first few chapters and you lose the plot to the rest of the scripture story.
The original sin of not trusting God’s love and goodness produces the first sin we commit against each other other: satan, blame and accusation.
And our first sin against each other leads to the foundational sin of the world.
Separation from God, blame and accusation of each other and violence, physical and emotional violence.
This is what’s wrong with our world. This is what’s wrong in our relationships, and this is what’s wrong in our communities and nations.
The ancient Jews had a system of dealing with this problem: Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
In case it’s been a while since you read your Leviticus, Yom Kippur revolves around the Jewish high priest. The person who represents all of God’s people, the only person who can ever venture beyond the temple veil and into the Holy of Holies, where the ark and the presence of God reside, and ask God to remove his people’s sins.
Because when he enters the Holy of Holies he enters God’s presence, every detail of every ritual matters.
When he’s done with the ritual preparation, the high priest is brought two goats.
Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done.
One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple of sin.
The second goat is brought to him alive.
The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel.
The priest removes all the people’s sin and guilt and puts it on the goat instead.
It’s a ritualized exchange of satan, blame and accusation, from the guilty onto the innocent.
While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.
When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness.
So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel. Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job.
That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head- red that symbolized sin.
The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word ‘scapegoat.’
Ahzahzel means ‘taking away.’
The Gentile would lead the scapegoat to the forsaken place while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’
Take it away. Take our sin away.
So that it’s not here anymore.
Our first sin against each other leads to the foundational sin of the world.
Mistrust of God, blame and accusation of each other and violence.
This is the dynamic at play in the Passion story too.
When Jesus is arrested, he’s brought to whom?
The high priest.
And what’s the high priest do to Jesus? He satans Jesus.
He accuses Jesus. Casts blame on him.
They satan Jesus of blasphemy, but that’s God incarnate standing there before them so who’s really guilty of blasphemy?
You see, they’re putting their guilt and sin onto him.
They satan Jesus of threatening to destroy the Temple.
They satan Jesus of fomenting armed revolution against the empire.
They satan Jesus of teaching that his followers should hold back taxes to Caesar.
They accuse and blame Jesus.
Even though it’s Pilate who wants to destroy the Temple.
It’s Herod who skims off Caesar’s taxes for himself.
It’s the High Priest who breaks the first commandment when he says ‘We have no King but Caesar.’
And it’s the hosanna-shouting crowds who reject Jesus a few days later because they want their Messiah to be a violent revolutionary.
They satan Jesus with their own junk and put it on him.
Then Pilate’s men ritually humiliate this ‘King of the Jews.’ Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes off him. And then wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it.
Afterwards, Pilate presents the crowd with two prisoners: Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas.
One is the incarnate Son of the Father; the other’s name means ‘Son of the Father.’
It’s like the crowd’s being asked to choose between two identical goats.
And when Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus.
What do the crowds shout?
Not ‘Crucify him!’ Not at first.
First, the crowds shout ‘Take him away!’
Then they shout ‘Crucify him!’
After Caiphus and Herod and Pilate and Caesar and the crowds all put their sin on to Jesus, satanically blaming and accusing him of the very things they’re guilty of, Jesus is led away, like an animal, with a red ring around his head, with shouts of ‘ahzahzel’ ringing in the air- led away from the city by Gentiles to Golgotha.
A garbage dump.
A barren place where some of his last words will be ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’
Our original sin of mistrusting God’s goodness produces our first sin of blame and accusation, satan, and that leads to the foundational sin of the world, violence.
That’s the dynamic at play in every heart, every crowd, every community and every nation.
That’s what the Gospels try to show you.
It’s what John the Baptist meant at the very beginning of the Gospel when he pointed at Jesus and said he’s the one who will ‘ahzahzel the sin of the world.‘
It’s what St John means when he says Jesus was ‘slain from the foundation of the world.’
It’s what Caiphus reveals about us when he decides once and for all to scapegoat Jesus: ‘…it’s better that one innocent man should die…’ than all of us.
We like to imagine Satan as fiendishly red with horns and a pitchfork to go with his tail, but when you look at the Passion story, satan, is found on every face in the crowd.
We like to picture Satan as a mythic, rival to God instead of confronting that satan, blame and accusation, is what we do to each other.
We blame and accuse.
We backbite and judge and gossip.
We find fault.
We point the finger and pass the buck and cast the first and second and third stone.
We satan until we do it to God himself.
And we still do it.
According to a Pew Survey on Religion in America, those who check ‘None’ when surveyed about their religious affiliation are the fastest growing religion in America.
Surveys have shown that what’s behind the rise of the Nones, in many cases, is an image problem for Christians.
In one survey, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:
81% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’
85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical’ which is just another word for blame and accusation.
Only 70% checked ‘yes’ to insensitive while 64% said they thought Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’
In other words, when those outside the Church look at those inside the Church they don’t see Jesus. They see Satan, satan.
Blame and accusation.
And that reveals not just an image problem. It shows that we’ve lost the plot.
We’ve forgotten the very first thing it means to confess ‘Christ is Risen Indeed.’
When you go back to read Leviticus, about the Day of Atonement, one of the things you realize is that once that scapegoat is loaded down with all the sins of the people and sent away into the god-forsaken wilderness to die, the last thing you want is to have that goat come wandering back.
Cain sure didn’t want Abel coming back.
Scripture says the innocent blood of Abel cries out from the ground.
Innocent scapegoats coming back just leads to more satan, blame and accusation, until it leads to revenge and retribution.
You don’t want the scapegoat coming back.
Think about it- that kind of news would be absolutely terrifying if you were guilty or had had any kind of hand in it.
But Jesus he’s the scapegoat slain from the foundation of the world, the scapegoat of scapegoats.
And he wasn’t just innocent, he was God.
After he’s led away to forsaken Golgotha to die and left in a tomb never to be heard from again, he comes back.
He comes back.
And it’s turn the other cheek time no more.
He throws Caiphus up on a cross of his own and he gives Pontius Pilate a dose of his own medicine and he says to the hosanna-shouting crowds: ‘Pay back time.’
He doesn’t even bother with Caiphus.
He doesn’t give Pilate a dose of his own medicine, he grills his disciples fish.
And the first thing this scapegoat says to them, the first words out of his Easter mouth, the first word of God’s New Creation is ‘Peace.’ שָׁלוֹם
Which is the Bible’s shorthand way of saying ‘I forgive you.’
‘I want to restore not retaliate.’
‘I want to heal our relationship not harm it more.’
‘I want to make all things new.’
The first word of Resurrection is the opposite of satan.
I’ve been a minister now for 13 years.
I’ve pastored in 4 churches, 1 hospital and 1 prison.
And in at least 1 way, you’re all the same.
All of you could tell a story like the one I told you about my dad and me in the garden.
All of you have someone in your life who might say: ‘I forgive you, let’s move on.’
But the next time a fight erupts, you know, it’s all over again. All the archived animosities will come out.
All of you have someone in your life with whom it’s never done. It’s never finished. It’s never put to rest.
Someone with whom you can try to put it behind you, but next time it’s right there between you again. Like it never left.
All of you have someone in your life for whom what you’ve done is never done with.
Someone for whom the past is only in the past until it comes back tomorrow or next year.
It’s never gone once and for all.
And for some of you, that someone in your life is you.
You’re the one who can’t put it away, can’t send it away, who always brings it back to where or how it started.
You can’t face and repent of your own junk and so you’re always looking to put it on someone else.
We like to picture Satan red with horns and a pitchfork to go with his tail, but when you dig down to the dirty root of the word you realize that ‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name.
The blame game is satan’s name.
And if the first word of Resurrection, the first word of God’s New World, the first word that summarizes everything Jesus did and everything he undid- if the first word on Jesus’ Easter lips is ‘Peace,’
Then there should be no margin of error in the surveys: 100%
Christians should be known as those people who renounce the blame game in Jesus’ name.