Doubt That Kills

Saint James Fordham • Lent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
The tempter came to him and said, If you are the Son of God…

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and just a little while ago we sang a long litany that included a striking petition: our earnest appeal to God that we might finally one day “beat down Satan under our feet.” Satan is, of course, the Adversary, in particular humanity’s Adversary, from the time he misled Eve in the garden to the day he tempted Jesus in the desert, the greatest troublemaker there ever was. The trouble Satan makes comes in the most part through what he tempts us to do.

As I say, he’s been at it an awfully long time. Right from the beginning, Satan has been at his work of temptation. In the garden, as a snake in the grass, he tempted Eve. We all know what that led to. Later on, he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, coming at him at the end of a long and weary fast, when he was weak and famished, hitting him when he was down. In both of his assaults on humanity — humanity at its very beginning and at its culmination — Satan tempts his victims to doubt.

Now, doubt is not an entirely bad thing. A little healthy skepticism is an important part of common sense, particularly when you get an email telling you someone has found $10 million in an abandoned account and if you just send them all of your private information they’ll do the transfer for you. Right. Some doubt can save you from some trouble. But the person who doubts everything is in some ways as much a fool as the person who doubts nothing at all. Some doubt, then, makes common sense. But the doubt towards which Satan tempts Eve and Jesus, and all of us — every man, woman and child since — is not the reasonable doubt of common sense, but the unreasonable doubt that assaults both who we are and who God is.

This is the doubt that kills: to doubt God and God’s promises, and to doubt ourselves at the very core of our being. These two doubts, so pointless and so hopeless, are the doubts Satan lays before us, setting his snare: Who am I? and Where is God? These are the doubts that lead to despair and death of the soul. They make us feel like less than we are, and also rob of us of trust in the only one in whom we can become more than we are, leaving us high and dry in the desert of despair, of loss and isolation, ready prey for Satan to snatch us up and carry us off to hell. These are the two sore points that Satan has worked away at endlessly and tirelessly since Eden, and they leave their marks on the human soul like the twin punctures of a serpent’s fangs.

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The crafty serpent came to Eve, and the hidden assumptions behind the advice he gave to her planted those seeds of doubt. “You will be like God...” the serpent said. But Eve was already like God, made in God’s image and likeness. Satan put his advice in the future tense and conditional mood, as if to say, “You are not like God now, but you could be, if only you eat the fruit.” So the serpent led Eve to doubt herself, her own likeness to God, her very being. He made her feel like less than she was, and then offered a way to feel better about herself.

Does that sound familiar? Haven’t women and men been caught by the same nasty doubts ever since? How many products are are marketed precisely by making people feel bad about themselves and then offering them a quick solution. The modern day serpents whisper to us that we are too fat or too thin, that our hair is the wrong color, or not shiny or plentiful enough, and on top of that — we smell bad; and then offer us the diet plan or exercise machine, the hair color or shampoo or baldness cure, — and the mouthwash and deodorant. Satan was, it seems, the first creature to get someone to use a product they didn’t want and didn’t need. And he did it by getting Eve to doubt herself.

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He also got her to doubt God. That’s the second fang in the serpent’s mouth. Satan’s crafty temptation to Eve calls God a liar — “You will not die; you will become like God! God hasn’t told you the whole story! And how can you trust him if he isn’t on the up and up with you? Who is this God, anyway? Where is he? But look at that fruit; it’s a sure thing! It’s right here... Where is your God?” And Eve, without responding to the devil, silent in the face of the doubts he has raised, takes the fruit.

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How strong is the power of doubt! Eve has known God’s blessings all her short life. She’s never even been out of the garden, in which God has been such a gracious host. She has been cared for and watched over, God graciously providing for her every need. Yet against her whole short life’s experience, she is prepared to listen to the hisses of a snake in the grass, and turn from God in mistrust, without so much as a word.

Again, doesn’t this sound familiar? How many relationships have been wrecked through a casual bit of unfounded or malicious gossip? How many reputations have been ruined by false accusation, by devilish doubt ready to leap out against even the most trusted, most belovéd person, pouncing like a rattlesnake. Oh yes, Satan is still busily at work, and ever since Eve, people have been giving in in silence to the doubts that chill the heart and kill the soul.

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Yet Jesus shows us a different response to Satan and the doubts that Satan spreads. Satan confronts Jesus in the wilderness, and he bares the same two fangs of doubt he’s chewed on people with since time began. “If you are the Son of God...” he begins each assault. If? If? Is Satan trying to get Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God? You bet he is! And with his one-two punch Satan follows up with temptations that try to poke holes in Jesus’ faith in God’s providence, God’s protection, and God’s authority.

But Jesus, unlike Eve, knows that silence will not do to clear away these powerful doubts. Jesus knows that just ignoring Satan won’t make him go away! The hissing of doubt must be answered, the murmur of doubt must be silenced by the voice of faith. And so Jesus answers every doubt that Satan raises. He will not let the devil have the last word, and it is Satan who ends up retiring from the field, silenced at last by Jesus’ rebuke.

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Jesus talked back to the devil, to the one who tried to get him to doubt God and to doubt himself. We too can talk back to the devil, whether he appears in the guise of friend or family member, co-worker or public figure, or as that more familiar devil, that nagging little voice within you. You’ve heard him — don’t deny it! He is that little voice of insecurity who tells you you are less than you know you are, or that bids you not to trust the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.

To the voices that seek to whittle you down, to cut you into little pieces, to nibble at your insecurities, you can boldly respond, “Quiet! I am a child of God, loved by God and made in God’s image!” To the little devils who spread rumor and distrust, you can boldly respond, “I’ve known my friends far longer than I’ve known you, and I trust them more than I trust you.” And to the deep, evil voice that asks us “Where is your God?” we can confidently respond, God is with us, among us and within us, and we can go nowhere out of his providence, his protection, and his power.

We can talk back to all of these faithless chatterers, internal and external; and with bold words of rebuke beat down Satan under our feet. And there are few more choicely worded rebukes to the talkers of doubt (within and without) than these from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, with which I close:

Talk faith. The world is better off without
Your uttered ignorance and morbid doubt.
If you have faith in God, or man, or self,
Say so. If not, push back upon the shelf
Of silence all your thoughts, till faith shall come;
No one will grieve because your lips are dumb.+

The King and His Cross

Saint James Fordham • Proper 29c • Tobias Haller BSG
The soldier mocked him... saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”

What does a king look like? We all carry pictures in our heads evoked by words, images that pop up when we hear a word like king. Many people, I’m sure, probably picture a figure like Henry VIII. Though if you’ve seen any of the TV dramas about Henry recently, you might have a very different image in mind. In an effort to promote a younger viewership, they’ve got actors playing Henry who look more like Brad Pitt than Charles Laughton — Henry as a hunk instead of a slab! But perhaps you are familiar with the famous portrait of Henry as a stately monarch standing defiantly arms akimbo vested in splendid and colorful robes.

On the other hand, kings are often more comical figures, subject to ridicule and caricature especially in our democracy. So perhaps instead you might picture one of those comical cartoon kings, the little chubby guys with goatees and tiny crowns perched on their heads, your average Dr. Seuss kind of king. Whatever image first leaps to mind when you hear the word king, I think I can guarantee that it will almost never be the image of a condemned criminal about to be executed.

We expect kings to be seated on thrones, not electric chairs. We expect kings to exercise their power in the freedom of their monarchy, not to be fastened down in the incapacity of bondage and death.

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Yet this is the central paradox of Christianity, the embarrassing scandal that made it and makes it so hard for some people to understand: that our king — and more than a king, the Son of God incarnate, Jesus Christ — that our king died on a cross, executed for insurrection against the Emperor, nailed up and hung out to die in naked agony on a rocky little hill outside the walls of a provincial city in an outpost of the Empire.

This was and is hard to understand. For some it was and is impossible. It was, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians, a scandal to Jews and a folly to Greeks — in short, to the whole world a notion that was absurd and tragic — the very idea that the one through whom all things were created should be so powerless! And that is because in most minds — then as now — kingship was and is associated with showing your power, especially power over others. To be a king is not just to be powerful, but to display that power through control, to have in your hand the power of life and death over others and to use it, to be able to shout out, “Off with his head,” or “I dub thee, Sir Wilfrid.”

At the very least, to be a king means to have complete power of self-determination: no one can judge or forbid the king anything. The King is the boss! As I said before, many people picture someone like Henry the VIII when they hear the word “king” — and Henry certainly was powerful and willful. He enjoyed exercising his power and his will, and nobody, pope, queen, chancellor or archbishop, better get in his way! Henry once wrote a little song about himself, and so we have his own testimony on this matter: “Grudge who will, but none deny; so God be pleased, thus live will I!” Or, to put it in more contemporary language, “Nobody crosses the king.”

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That is why it is so very hard for so many to see the kingship of Christ. Here is a king who is crossed. It is the cross that confounds our notions of kingship. Here on the cross is a man seemingly completely bereft of self-determination, literally nailed down so that he cannot move, stifled and in pain so he can hardly breathe. For those who see control and self-determination as the sign of kingship, it is the powerlessness and immobility of the crucified Christ that render him incomprehensible.

Many don’t understand him now, as they didn’t understand him then. And this is why the voices rang out through our Gospel today, echoing three times. “Save yourself!” cried the religious leaders, the soldiers, and even the criminal at Jesus’ side, three points of view representing the whole world, civilized and uncivilized.


The religious leaders, even while they acknowledged Jesus’ power to heal and save others, called upon him to prove himself Messiah by saving himself. They echoed the doubting words from the very start of his ministry, when the leaders of his hometown challenged him to do for them the same sort of miracles he’d done elsewhere. How ironic that religious leaders should show such a lack of faith!

Those who say, “Prove it and then we will believe!” fail to grasp that the kingdom of God is built upon faith, not evidence. The kingdom of God is based on love, not proof; freedom, not compulsion. The kingdom of God is not about force, but invitation — it is not make believe: no one is made to believe. But all are given the gracious opportunity to come to the banquet; to taste and see, and seeing, then believe. And so those who looked for proofs could not recognize the king when he came to them full of faith in his Father, full of love for them, came not to lord it over them but to set them free. Instead of being lifted up by its astounding and shocking glory, the religious leaders stumbled over the scandal of the cross.


The soldiers mocked Jesus, and said to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” These are the worldly wise. They don’t know from religion, but they do know from authority. They know Caesar; they know what kings look like and what kings can do. The soldiers who mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross knew what it meant to have power, to be able to issue orders, and take command. And they knew that this poor, naked, pitiful figure was no more like a king than either of the helpless criminals crucified to his left and his right. And so to these Gentiles the cross was simply foolishness, an absurdity to be laughed at, a sick joke at the expense of a madman who thought he was a king.

And so the civilized world, Jewish and Gentile, rejected the cross and the one who hung upon it, rejected its scandal and its folly.

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And what of the uncivilized world? They have a voice in this drama as well, in the person of the thieves, men who have rejected civilized behavior in return for satisfying their own needs and desires over and against those of society, who have chosen themselves ahead of others, breaking the golden rule of the social fabric.

So it is that finally, one of the criminals, himself condemned to death and hanging on a cross, challenged Jesus to save himself — and him — if he was the Messiah. The irony is that this criminal had it partly right. Jesus was there to save him, to save him and all who had erred and strayed, to save even those who nailed him to the cross, to save the entire world, for that is just how much his Father loved that fallen world, loved it so much that he gave his only Son — not to condemn the world, but that all might be saved. Jesus was there to save them all, but he could only do so by not saving himself.


It was in this act, in his not saving himself that his true kingship was revealed. It was his self-determined self-sacrifice that crowned his divine kingship. The only perfect individual ever born, the Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, for whom and in whom all things were created, made the one possible perfect act of self-determined self-sacrifice — not in showing his power over others, but in revealing his power, his power to choose for others. Only the offering of his perfect self in perfect sacrifice upon the cross could restore the royalty that once belonged to all humankind, made after the likeness of God’s Son, the express image of the invisible God. Only the act of a true king acting in true humility could bring peace to a world gone out of all control, through the misuse of the power to choose, God’s gift to his human children, spent in seeking to control others rather than in loving them.

Humankind had abused the royal power to choose, and robbed itself of its own majesty by choosing selfishly instead of for the sake of others. But one man, one perfect man, showed us there was another way. This, my brothers and sisters, is the royalty of Jesus: that he chose not himself but others, chose completely and utterly to give himself — for all of us. In Christ, and him crucified, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Even if he was unrecognized by those who stood mocking in his presence, taunting him to save himself while he was busy saving them, his kingship is nonetheless real.

It is not the kingship of power, but the kingship of sacrifice, the kingship of the hero who saves someone else at the cost of his own life. Such heroism will be embarrassing or scandalous to those who wouldn’t think of dirtying their hands to help another; such heroism will be foolish to those who see power and control as the only marks of a person’s worth; such heroism will be outrageous to anyone who thinks only of himself at the expense of others.

But such is the heroic kingship of Jesus Christ, the heroism that chooses freely to give up its freedom so that others might be free. This is the kingship of Christ our King, through whom — in this one great act of self-determined self-sacrifice, laying down his life for all of us — God was pleased, as Saint Paul said, to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Do you want to know what a real king looks like? You need look no further to see all might, majesty, power and dominion, than to that cross, that Christ, that King.+

Decisions Decisions

SJF • Proper 18c • Tobias Haller BSG
Moses said to all Israel, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

Human life is full of decisions, some trivial and some important. Some of the decisions that we face day by day, and the choices we make, will have little impact on our lives. Other choices will have consequences so serious that we can even find ourselves paralyzed and unable to choose out of our fear of making the wrong choice.

And, let’s face it, even simple decisions can sometimes be hard to make. There is an old story of the Queen of England attending tea at an English lord’s manor. The butler in attendance was understandably a bit nervous, as it was his first time serving a royal. He asked, “Will you take tea, Ma’am?” The Queen answered, “Yes, thank you.” “India or China, Ma’am?” “India, please.” “Darjeeling, Assam or Nilgiri, Ma’am?” “Darjeeling, I think.” “Yes, Ma’am. Milk or lemon, Ma’am?” “Milk, please.” As the butler paused to turn away, he had one last thought. “The milk, Ma’am... Hereford, Guernsey, or Jersey?”

It is easy to see how having too many choices can make it difficult to make a decision even over such trivial matters. Part of me dreads going to the KFC, because I often find myself transfixed and overcome by what has become an entire wall of menu choices. It used to be so easy — just one piece, two or three! But now there are so many things to choose from. Perhaps that’s why they added that new dish — the bowl that contains layers of everything piled one on top of the other — a perfect solution when you can’t make up your mind. Believe me, there are times I am grateful that there’s a long line so that I can sort out what it is I want to order before I have to do so!

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Yes, many of the choices in life are trivial — and if even these can sometimes cause us to pause, with how much greater fear and trembling ought we approach the kinds of questions set before us in today’s readings from Scripture.

Even the choice that Saint Paul offers Philemon must have been difficult for him to decide upon — and it is a little frustrating that we only have Saint Paul’s side of the story, and so have no final word of how this story ends. Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to Philemon. He asks the slave owner to receive him back, and not only not to punish him for having run away, but to accept him back as a brother in Christ — as an equal.

As I say, we don’t know if Philemon followed Saint Paul’s urging. The fact that Philemon preserved this letter (so that it could later be included in the Scripture) suggests that he did — after all, if he had rejected Saint Paul’s urging he would be unlikely to advertise that fact! We also know, from the writings of Saint Ignatius, that the bishop of Ephesus was named Onesimus — so it is possible that this former slave not only became a beloved brother to Philemon, but a bishop of the church.

Choices have consequences; and Paul’s choice to make this appeal and Philemon’s choice to hear it — as we hope he did — are remembered to this day.

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As are the choices made by the people of Israel as they approach the promised land. And here the choices are even more momentous than one person’s freedom. Moses offers the Israelites a literal life and death choice — the decision to follow the commandments of the Lord their God, walking in his ways — or to abandon the Lord who has delivered them, and follow other gods.

Now, you might say, this is a no-brainer! Who would choose death and destruction rather than life and prosperity? And yet, as we know, even though the people say they will choose life, and hold fast to God and follow in his way all the days of their lives, it isn’t too long after they cross the Jordan and enter the promised land that they begin to stray, setting up pillars and posts of wood and stone, bowing down to gods made by their own hands. And the consequences soon follow.

The reason they make this choice, strange as it may seem, is actually quite understandable when you consider human nature. Human beings have an amazing capacity for wishful thinking, for thinking they can live a life without consequences, for the freedom to choose what they want when they want it, even when they are told what their choices will lead to.

I don’t know if anyone here has ever been in the position of needing an organ transplant, but I’m sure you know that there are waiting lists and significant costs involved. But I am sorry to say, I once knew a man whose heavy drinking destroyed his liver, and who was lucky enough to get a liver transplant — but then drank his way through that liver too, and was dead within five years. And I’ll tell you, even many members of his family, as well as many of the doctors and nurses, were furious, and even said, “He didn’t deserve to get that liver; it could have gone to someone else who respected the gift of life they were offered.”

So it is for the Israelites — delivered from bondage in a land with many gods by the mighty acts of the one true God — they find it easier to slip back into their old pagan ways, than to follow the ordinances and commandments that could bring them a blessing instead of a curse.

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In our gospel today, Jesus doesn’t make things much easier for us. He tells those who followed him that if they want to choose him it will mean giving up all kinds of other attachments. He even uses the word hate — and he applies it to things we have always been told we should love: parents and spouses and children and siblings — and yes, even life itself. Jesus tells us to crucify all of these things, to give up all of our attachments to seek only him, taking up the cross to follow him.

This is a hard saying; hard to receive and even harder to put into action. How much easier simply to honor Jesus with our lips, rather than devoting our lives to his service. But he assures us that such halfway measures will not do. As I said in my sermon last week, simply acknowledging him as Lord or even inviting him to your home for dinner, even coming here one day a week to gather at his table, will not be enough. Jesus wants all of you, all the time, not just on Sunday morning but 24/7: just as God said to the Israelites, God wants “all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” Just as with air travel, getting out halfway there won’t do.

And so, Jesus is up-front and tells us to count the cost, lest we end up like a foolish man who tried to build a tower but didn’t have the resources to complete it; or a king who takes account of the number of his troops and the strength of his adversary before he dares to commit those troops to a war he cannot win.

This is not a decision about what kind of tea to drink, or whether to have original recipe or extra crispy. This is a decision that will affect the rest of my life — the rest of your life — the rest of many lives — not just in this life but in the life of the world to come. This is a matter of life and death, eternal life or eternal death.

Decisions have consequences; choices have outcomes. Directions taken lead to destinations reached. Not just for us but for all with whom we come in contact — our families, friends, and neighbors; those who serve us and those whom we serve — or refuse to serve. Hear the voice of God to all who truly turn to him: love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself — your whole self, all of you, 24/7. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. Choose wisely, by taking up the cross of Christ, by which alone we can overcome the world. By it we are delivered from slavery to freedom, and made part of a family and given a heritage to outlast any merely earthly tribe or people. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to choose him and to follow in his way.+