Sunday, June 7, 2015

Proper 5b - Mark 3:20-35 sermon, Who is the Devil Around Here

            “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”  At least that is what one movie character says.  And certainly, that is one of his tricks.  A 2009 poll of those identifying themselves as Christians found that almost 60% think that the devil is no living creature, just a personification of evil.
            Whatever works is what the Devil will do.  If he figures that his best bet to separate you from God is
In The Screwtape Letters, a supervising demon advises
an underling to keep his human victim in the dark.
"The fact that 'devils' are predominantly comic figures
in the modern imagination will help you.
If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind,
suggest to him a picture of something in red tights,
and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that
(it is an old textbook method of confusing them)
he therefore cannot believe in you.
to terrorize you with his diabolical tricks, then he will do that.  But if you believing his lie that he poses no threat to you – if that will get you away from Christ, then absolutely that is the way he will lead you straight down the broad path that leads to destruction. 
            In an article[1] about the spiritual beliefs of the ¼ of Americans who report no religious affiliation, there was this quote from a young person helping to provide clean water in Africa: “I don’t need ‘magic trick Jesus.’ I’m not interested in that, and I’m not interested in ‘saving my soul.’ I’m not about saving myself.  I want to save the world.”  You do not think you need Jesus to be God if you do not think the Devil is any sort of problem.  A human Jesus who inspires to be good to others – that is all they are interested in.
            Is Satan’s greatest trick convincing people he does not exist?  Perhaps.  Or maybe it is convincing people that God is a devil.  That happens in the OT text where the Devil had persuaded Adam and Eve that God was being rude to them by forbidding them the fruit of knowing good and evil.  And it happens in the Gospel text today when the enemy scribes from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of having an unclean spirit, saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out demons” (Mark 3:20-35).  Meanwhile Christ’s flesh and blood family figure something evil is going on in His brain, giving Jesus delusions of grandeur. 
            In our own day, God still gets accused of being a devil.  A Christian woman who had suffered domestic violence told her story on the radio last week.  She said as she struggled in the months after she left her abusive husband, she could not believe in God – because it was easier to believe there was no God than to believe that God would allow her husband to abuse her.  She now is glad that God did not abandon her, but had loved her in Christ through and past it all. 
            Also this last week was the sad story about Bruce Jenner.  Now if I were to go get plastic surgery so I could look like an alien, people would recognize I was not right in the head – and at best they would hope I would get mental help.  At worst they would mock me.  It would be wrong for people to go along with my lies and say that in fact I was an alien.  Likewise with Mr. Jenner, who needs our prayers, not mockery nor approval.  The surgery does not change the fact that he still has the male chromosomes God gave him through his dad.  Which brings up the worst part about this mess – whether people realize it or not, Jenner’s actions are an accusation that God got it wrong giving Jenner a man’s body. 
            You and I accuse God of getting it wrong with us too.  Just consider how each time we break God’s
holy Commandments, we are accusing the Lord of giving us bad rules.  Just like Jenner, each sin has us pretending to be something different than we are – as if we did not belong to God.  Or think of how we have mocked and insulted our fellow humans – people whom God created.  We might not go so far as to call some brother or sister in Christ “evil” – but our hatred has made monsters out of them, so that we can imagine they deserve for us to treat them as less than human.  We label them as “closed-minded,” “liberal,” “old-fashioned,” stubborn, or just plain dumb – all to make ourselves look good and to hurt their reputation.  The rest of the world does it this way.  But brothers and sisters of Jesus, among us this lack of love must not be!  How can the same mouth praise God and insult those whom He created? 
            Why God made Satan and his demons in the first place is a mystery we will not know the answer to in this life, though we do know that God created them to be holy angels.  However, the demons turned away from goodness.  Satan became envious that God made humanity to be the crown of creation.  Judging God to have gotten it all wrong, the Devil declared war on God to take over the Universe – and quickly recruited Adam and Eve to his side, seeking to turn man away from God.  His weapons are deception and murder – which is why our Savior Jesus calls the Devil the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning.
            When Jesus tells the parable of the strong man in today’s Gospel (Mark 3:20-35), He describes the world as the Devil’s home territory, a world in bondage to that evil and powerful warlord who does not want you to praise the Lord’s holy name, nor let God the Father’s kingdom come.  The prince of demons hoards his plunder in the courtyard, protected by the walls of his fortress, like some legendary dragon asleep on his piles of golden treasure.
            In this case the treasure is not silver or gold or precious gemstones.  The plunder is you.  And me.  The story Jesus tells is no “once upon an imaginary time” fairy tale, but a real life once upon a historical time.  Jesus tells the one true story that makes sense of this messed up world as His Word cuts through Satan’s lies.  Our Lord and Savior tells us that we are right to cry out when the world goes wrong, because it was never meant to be this way.  Tragedies should not have happened.  God, after all, had created humanity in His image for good.  He put us in this world for far more than the meaninglessness of modern life.  However, humanity has lost its way, falling into sinful pride or self-hatred; lusts and cravings that only hurt us in the end.  The human race fell under the spell of the lie of the warlord and we are enslaved – stripped of the true freedom and life God gave to us.
            But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.  And so Jesus says, “No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.”  Jesus Himself is this Stronger One who has come behind enemy lines like soldiers
storming a beachhead to bind the strong Devil for us.  The spoils of this war are you.  Jesus fights indirectly against the Devil when He teaches the words of eternal life in the face of Satan’s deceptive propaganda.  And He fights head on against the Devil as He casts out demons and ultimately crushes the Devil’s head at the Cross.  
            Jesus does all that for you – for you are His treasure.  You are worth everything to Him, in spite of your sinful rebellions.  You are worth dying for, worth redeeming, worth forgiving.  Brother Jesus has taken care of your evil.  “Truly, I say to you, all sins [and blasphemies] will be forgiven the children of man,” is His promise to you!
            But what about that unforgiveable sin?  That is enough to keep a person up at night, worried they are guilty of doing something that could lock them out of Heaven.  However, the very fact that a person gets worried about sinning against the Holy Spirit is evidence that the Holy Spirit is working on that person and has not abandoned them.  The sin against the Holy Spirit is to be completely unconcerned about being opposed to Jesus, consciously unrepentant, stubbornly unbelieving – as the Pharisees were that day.  After all, as we heard on Pentecost, the job of the Holy Spirit is to grant us faith in Jesus – and if we reject that work of the Holy Spirit, it will not go well for us. 
            No matter how many other people think Satan is imaginary, you are in good company to believe the demons are real.  Jesus treats them as real too.  And more importantly, even while the Devil rages and the world continues to live all sorts of lies, you know that Jesus is the Truth, and He is the Stronger One who has already conquered and chained up the Devil.  You belong to Jesus.  You are free from Satan’s chains.  Yes, you and I have ignored God’s goodness, and misjudged His actions to be evil.  However, you have also confessed yourself to be a sinner before God.  You do not claim your sins are good.  You call them evil and pray that God the Father will deliver you from them.  And you also confess the goodness of Jesus and His Cross, and His power over death and the Devil.  You expect and receive forgiveness from Him.  And so even as He is arisen after death, so you shall live forever.  A life that is not meaningless, but eternally meaningful – for you live in Jesus the Stronger One, and in Him you shall die, and you shall be His forever.  Amen.

[1] Elizabeth Drescher, “The Gospel According to the ‘Nones’”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Homily for Lent 1 - Mark 1

(adapted from a 2007 sermon by Rev. Todd Peperkorn)

          “We know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose,” - Romans 8:28.  That is important to keep in mind as we plunge into the holy season of Lent.  You need to recognize that when Jesus is tempted, suffers, and dies – it is all done to benefit you, to be worked for your good.  It is all going according to God’s plan for you.  Jesus does not get caught by surprise in a hidden trap laid out by the devil.  Martin Luther said, “Even the Devil is God’s devil.”  In other words, God will work even the devil’s works for the good of God’s people.
          That is so easy to forget in the midst of temptations – both when you are pressed up against it, and also when you hear today’s Gospel text.  Still wet behind the ears from Baptism, immediately Jesus goes to
spend His 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil.  Note that Jesus does not accidentally wander into the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was not His idea to go there, but the Holy Spirit “drove Him out into the wilderness,” as St. Mark reveals.  Matthew and Luke let us know a few specifics, detailing three of Satan’s attacks, trying to lure Christ away from righteousness and into selfishness, fake faith, and idol worship.
          However, St. Mark skips those details to get to other things.  As we listened along to the rest of Mark chapter 1 this past month, it might have seemed like everywhere Jesus went, He was battling against demons.  And that is St. Mark’s point.  He wants you to see the temptation as the opening battle of the Kingdom of God invading the stomping grounds of the Devil – and as Jesus casts out more and more demons, the battle intensifies until He gets to the Cross, where He decisively defeats the Devil once and for all people.  Even though Christ’s death looked nothing like a victory – until Easter that is, when Christ’s resurrection proves that Satan does not win in the end.
          Knowing Christ wins in the end strengthens you as you find yourself in this battlefield of sin, the arena between God and the Devil.  Day by day the prince of darkness works to recruit you in his rebellion against the King of the Universe.  “Come, join me, and we will throw God off His throne all on our own.  And you will not have to put up with Him telling you what to do anymore.”  He tempts you to reject, neglect, forget about and revolt against the Kingdom of God that comes to you in Christ Jesus our Savior.  In both good times and bad, Satan would convince you that God is too far from you – so that you falsely believe that God cannot help you out of your failures, or have any hand in your successes.  That serpent constantly asks you, “Did God really say…?” until your thoughts question God’s Word, your words contradict it, and your life shows more concern for what the world says than what God says.  After all, the world that you can see and touch is so much more real to you than the God whom you only know by faith.  But when you fear offending the people at work or in your home more than you fear offending the Holy God, you have broken the First Commandment.  You have committed idolatry.
          St. James warns, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and
enticed by his own desire.”  Lured and enticed are the words of hunters and fishermen – baiting the hook with the lure, enticing into the trap, to make the beast or the fish to want to come unknowingly into the danger zone.  And you know what is to happen next to the victim.  This is how St. James describes your sinful nature, your own desires, as baiting the hook to catch and kill you.  “Sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.”
          When it is not just the Devil out to get us, but we serve as our own worst enemies when our evil desires get a hold of us – who will save us from these bodies of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord who gives us His victory.  When Jesus went out to be tempted by the Devil, He did not do it for Himself.  He is led by the Holy Spirit to face these temptations for you.  Where you fall into the snare of seductions, Jesus remains steadfast under His trials to give you the crown of life.  He went into the wilderness of this world so He could be your substitute, stand in your place, and earn the credit for you to be counted as blameless and free before God.
          More than just forgiving and cleaning up your past failures at temptation, Christ’s testing in the wilderness also strengthens you for the trials you will face later today and throughout the rest of your life.  Listen to what Martin Luther beautifully said when he preached on this Gospel:
          Christ has served and helped us by His fasting, hunger, temptation and victory. Also, whoever believes on Christ shall never suffer need, and temptation shall never harm him. Instead, we shall have enough in the midst of want and be safe in the midst of temptation because the Lord triumphed in our behalf. Christ’s fasting also encourages us to believe that, by His example, we can cheerfully suffer want and temptation for the service of God and the good of our neighbor, like Christ did for us. Therefore this Gospel is sweet consolation and power against the unbelief. It awakens and strengthens our conscience, that we may not be anxious about the nourishment of our bodies, but be assured that God can and will give us our daily bread. (Luther)
          Note that Luther does not promise an easy life to those who follow Christ.  If you want to avoid suffering then maybe you should be looking to find a different religion.  For a Christian will face many temptations away from faithfulness to God and love for your neighbor.  However, what Luther does say is that even in the midst of hard, dark, and difficult times, you do not need to worry.  Christ’s temptation,
fasting, hunger, and victory demonstrate for you that God will always take care of you too.  You do not need to worry about tomorrow, because God will be there with you.  Christ has come to be your shield as He suffered the brunt of God’s wrath against our sin on the Cross. 
          Now the Lord feeds you not only with daily bread for your body, but also with the bread of His very body to keep you body and soul in Him.  At His Supper, the Son of God calls us in a special way to assure us that He is in communion with us in our battles against temptation.  Not only does Jesus know what we are going through because He was tempted like we are, but as one pastor put it, Jesus shares with us all that “He is and has, in all He has done and will do for our salvation.  His invincible power against temptation is ours... He sat down on the right hand of God and received power over all His and our enemies, also over Satan.  In this power we share, He is at our side in every battle.  With Him at our side, fighting for and with us, we must conquer” (Lindemann, vol 2, pg 60).

          “Even the Devil is God’s devil,” said Martin Luther.  There is so much comfort in those words.  While that evil foe is trying to bring down the Son of God, the Son in the wilderness successfully does His work to save you.  Satan is much more powerful than us, yet his power only goes as far as God will let it.  Even to the point that God actually uses all the evil things Satan does to bring about good in your life – with no greater example than the Cross, when the devil attacked Jesus with death, and the Lord produced life eternal for you. 
          Amazing, right?  What kind of wonderful God do we have who can turn even the evil things of this world for our benefit?  This is none other than the true God come down from Heaven to save you.  Trust that when He gave you His Spirit in Holy Baptism, you are now in His hands – safe from the assaults of the Devil, even when God tests and tries you to strengthen your faith.  When your own sin, or other people’s sin in this world attacks you, take heart.  Find peace in knowing that Christ has overcome the world, and He creates a new world for you.  Believe it for Christ’s sake.  Amen.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

January 3 - Luke 2:21 (and Homily for New Year's Day)

            Today’s is the shortest Gospel of the year – and yet Martin Luther found so much beautiful Gospel in our little Lord Jesus being circumcised that Luther’s sermon is over three times the length of mine this morning.  But it is so good, I have stolen most of Luther’s points.  [Also credit goes to Rev. William Weedon, whose sermon I adapted for this.]
            He starts off with the silliness of circumcision.  What man would ever do that to himself – or to his sons – if God had not commanded it?  Even with a command, human reason sees it as ridiculous.  Other nationalities were bound to say, “Can you believe it?  Those Jews think their God wants their men to mutilate themselves there!”  And even in our day, can you imagine if a friend tells you about how great their pastor's New Year sermon was, about how people have been really mean in 2014 and need to be nicer this year, and they ask you what this sermon was about, can you imagine how "eager" you will be to say, "Uhhhhh, circumcision"?  Even Luther makes note of how strange it is.  “Man is made no better by it, for everything depends upon the soul.”
            However, that is the way it goes with all of God’s commandments and works – they appear foolish and useless, so that our proud reason can be put to shame and die.  If God chose something that made sense to us, our know-it-all natures would be left unconfronted and have no reason to surrender.  Then there would be no room for faith.

           Like in the days of Noah, when he preached in word and deed that there was a flood of God’s judgment on the way, so find salvation on the Ark.  How long did Noah’s neighbors think he was a fool as they never saw any flood – until it was too late?  Or what about Lot leaving all his property behind in Sodom and Gomorrah?  Or Moses and Aaron sounding like fools by threatening Pharaoh with destruction?  The list goes on and on.  Yet we see who was right in the long run – the ones who trusted God’s wisdom and promises over human reason. 
            And we also have this going on now in our lives – with a baptism where God calls us to believe that we are really cleansed of our sins and saved with that little bit of water; “also, that Christ’s body is in the bread of the altar; also that we worship the crucified man as Lord and God.  All this is immeasurably far above – and contrary to – reason.”  
            But why mark that member of the body?  Dr. Luther asks, “Why did [God] not command to circumcise a finger, hand, foot, ear, or eye, or some other member?  If evil was to be cut off, then certainly the hand or the tongue… for by the tongue and hands all wickedness is perpetrated among men.”  The answer is that what is wrong with us has to do with our whole nature, our whole being.  We come from corrupted seed, inheriting our sin when we were conceived.  It is not that we do sins and then that makes us sinners.  Rather, we are sinners first, and then out of our sinner hearts comes all sorts of wickedness.  The tree is not good, and so neither are our fruits good.  Circumcision shows that the problem comes to us right at the root.  Done to the infant boys to  make the point that it was done for the sake of original sin and for the future actual sins – and that the original sin is the bigger problem.
            What needs to be changed in your life and mine?  New Year’s resolutions focus on behavior – and
that is a good place to start.  However it is your very nature and mine that really needs the change, our hearts, the core of our very being.  A new nature will automatically lead to a new behavior.  And so we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” – asking God to give us that which circumcision signifies.
            Jesus did not have this corrupted nature at all, however.  Like us in every way, except without sin.  Fully human and holy, so He did not need circumcision.  And yet He chooses to receive it.  Which sounds funny since Jesus was 8 days old – how could He choose anything?  And yet from eternity God chose to be born of this Jewish family, destining Himself to be circumcised even before He gave the sign to Abraham.  Christ “was born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).  His blood that is shed for the first time today points ahead to the greater bloodshed – when death would take Him. 
            However, death was completely wrong to take Him because it had no claim on the Sinless One.  And because Death owes Jesus big time for the wrong it did to Him, Jesus is now the Lord over it.  This point Luther makes was one that really struck me – that this is how death loses its power over all people who are in Christ as Jesus gives us His victory.  All believers in Jesus will rise at the last day and proclaim
that Death was wrong to take them also!  Because in Christ, we have become completely innocent.  So Death has no right to take us captive!
            Luther relates this to why circumcision happened on the 8th day of life.  “Seven days signify the time of this world until the Last Day, because this present time is measured by the week or seven days described in Genesis 1.  The eighth day is the last day after the present time, when weeks, months, and years will cease and there will be only an eternal Day… when not only the soul, but also the body, shall be redeemed from sin, death, and all impurity, and shall shine as the sun.”
            Lastly we note that the name of Jesus is given on this day of His life – for He will save His people from their sins, as the angel announced before His birth.  As Christ received this name as His own, so also on that day when you were baptismally put into Christ, you received all that belongs to Him, including His Name.  “Therefore we are all called ‘Christian’ from Him.”  A name by which we God has known us from all eternity.  Before the world began, God wrote this name for us into the Lamb’s book of life.
            Dearly beloved children of God, let this New Year be for us a true feast of the Circumcision of our Lord, a true living in our Baptism.  Let us in Christ put down our old sinful selves, corrupted by its deceitful desires.  Let it drown and die in the waters of Baptism.  In its place, receive from our Lord our new self, our new and clean hearts whose desires line up with those of God.  Let this new year be for us a time of living by faith in the promises of the Christ who shed His blood for us – no matter how much human reason thinks it is foolish.   For there is no way to measure the dignity and honor given to us by the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit.  “These [dignities and honors] are superabundant riches of His goodness, which He pours out upon us, so that our heart may be free, joyous, peaceable and unterrified; and [eagerly] and cheerfully” live according to His good and holy will.  Amen.