Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45c
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on August 31, 2014.
In the 1930s American author Stephen Vincent Benét wrote a short story called “The Devil and Daniel Webster” in which a famous and beloved lawyer named Daniel Webster defends a man named Jabez Stone in a trial against the Devil plaintiff named “Scratch,” to whom Jabez Stone had foolishly sold his soul. Daniel Webster risks his own soul while convincing a jury, hand-picked by the devil himself (including the likes of Benedict Arnold), to give Jabez Stone another chance. In 1978, John Sebastian wrote music for an animated version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” called “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” which is even more cheesy than it sounds. And most recently, in 2005, a documentary was made about the wildly talented and even more wildly disturbed musician Daniel Johnston, whose fragile psyche cracked under the psychedelic effects of LSD. As a result, he suffered from demonic self-obsession, believing that he had sold his soul to the devil for fame. In the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” Daniel embodies both the devil’s victim and the victim’s advocate.
I find these stories fascinating not only because of all the Daniels but because of the roles played by the devil and the Daniels. The devil is the plaintiff, eager to collect the soul he has damned, and Daniel is the defense attorney, willing to save the damned by risking his own soul. The one who sticks his neck out for the accused is likely to be accused himself. The Hebrew word for the devil is Ha Satan, which literally means “the accuser.” And the name used for the Holy Spirit in the Fourth Gospel is “Paraclete” which is Greek for “advocate” or “defense attorney.” The Devil the accuser and Daniel the defender.
In today’s readings we are introduced to a Daniel in the burning bush and a Devil in the words of Peter. In the burning bush, God reveals Godself to Moses as a God of victims, a God who is concerned about the plight of the oppressed and seeks to defend their cause in order to bring about their liberation. Although a great deal of ink has been spilled regarding the philosophical meanings of the mysterious divine name “I AM,” it is important to pay attention to the clear message about God and God’s character that comes through in this passage. The God who is revealed to Moses is a God who sees the affliction of slaves, hears the cry of victims, knows the pain of the oppressed and, like Daniel Webster, seeks to bring about their liberation. God is also the God of Abraham (who was a stranger in a strange land), Isaac (who was nearly the victim of human sacrifice), and Jacob (who spent much of his life running away from his violent brother). It seems like the most significant truth we are invited to realize about the God who reveals Godself as “I AM” is this: when God says “I AM” God says “I AM the God of the oppressed and I am a God who advocates on the behalf of victims.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus rebukes Peter because Peter says, “God forbid that you suffer! This must never happen to you!” Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Initially, it seems like Jesus is reacting very harshly to Peter’s loving concern for Jesus’s wellbeing. However, Peter has failed to see what Jesus’s mission has been about and will continue to be about. Jesus’s mission is to make it abundantly clear that the God of Israel is a God who is always on the side of victims. Jesus has been teaching this to his disciples all throughout the Gospel of Matthew, beginning with the Beatitudes, saying, “Blessed are poor, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, and the persecuted.” He has been reaching out to the paralytics, the lepers, the tax-collectors, the blind, the deaf, the servants and slaves and has made it clear to his disciples that the way they treat the victims of society is the way they treat God. Even if they give a cup of cold water to the least of these, their reward will be great in heaven. And conversely, if they ignore the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned, then they are ignoring God. Jesus knows that in order to best convey God’s care and concern for the oppressed, he must become a victim himself. As a prophet and representative of God, Jesus will give himself up as a victim of religious violence and imperial oppression to the point of execution. This is his mission so that we may no longer doubt the truth that our God is a God who is always on the side of the oppressed. So that we may know for certain that our God is like Daniel Webster, willing to suffer as a scapegoat in order to free all scapegoats. Peter has failed to see this and, as a result, has fallen prey to Satan’s lie, which denies God’s love and concern for victims. When we forget or deny this, we can easily begin to see God as a God of the wealthy and the elite, a God who thrives by putting others down. And this is not God at all. This is Satan. And Satan works best when we mistake his message for God’s. Whenever we think that God does not have our best interests in mind and wants to keep us down and low, then we are being deceived by the Satan. The truth is that God is always on our side, seeking to shower us with blessings that overflow.
Whenever we start paying attention to voices in our head that say we are lousy and unworthy of love and joy then we are listening to the voice of the Accuser, the Satan. Jesus rebuked this voice because he wanted to make it abundantly clear that God’s voice communicates something very different. God’s voice says that we are God’s beautiful creation, worthy of love and worthy to share in God’s divinity and creativity. Jesus gave himself up for us as the victim of a horrifying execution so that we may have the full confidence to know that no matter how challenging and difficult our life may be, God is always on our side, seeking to bring us closer into the divine glory, which God longs to share with us. And all the voices that claim that God is against us or feels threatened by us or is out to make our lives miserable are voices that ought to be rebuked as satanic. To these voices, let us say, “Get behind me!”
God is always on our side in the same way that Daniel Webster was on the side of Jabez Stone, risking himself in order to free others from satanic accusations. As we grow more accustomed to recognizing the divine voice of the Paraclete, the Advocate, and rebuking the satanic voice of the Accuser, we ourselves can grow into Daniel Websters, who are willing to risk ourselves for the sake of society’s victims. In this way, we become followers of Christ, denying ourselves and taking up our cross, willing to lose our lives for the same mission to which Jesus devoted his life and his death, a mission that seeks to include all of God’s creation in the overflowing abundance of God’s victimless kingdom.