Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lent 3 - Oculi

“Jesus, the Conqueror of Satan”
Luke 11:14-28
Oculi, Lent 3
March 14 – 15, 2009
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
Girard, Illinois

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

It is the way of the wicked to call what is good evil and what is evil good. We see that in our society today, where, for instance, those who are working to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion decision are called extremist, closed-minded, hateful; while those who support the right to kill unborn children are called mainstream, sensible, open-minded. We see this in the church where those who insist on doctrinal faithfulness to God's saving Word, are called unloving and legalistic and rigid and behind the times; while those on the other side are called inclusive and flexible and mature and loving. In this way the wicked portray themselves as good and noble and caring, while what is truly good and noble and compassionate is portrayed as something to avoid.

We see an example of something like that in today's Gospel. Jesus is doing something good. He is casting out a demon from a man who had been made unable to speak by it, freeing him from this dark power. When the demon had gone out of the man, he was able to talk again. The crowd that saw this marveled at the wonderful thing that Jesus had done.

But there were some there who hated Jesus, who out of envy couldn't stand or accept the goodness of Jesus. So they called good evil. They said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” In other words they were saying, “The only reason Jesus can cast out demons is because He gets His power from Satan.” They tried to raise suspicions about Jesus in those who saw what He did.

By doing this, the ones who accused Jesus of being of the devil showed themselves to be of the devil. For is it not the way of the devil to plant doubt and work against faith in Jesus? And they further showed that they were in league with Satan by testing Jesus and asking for a sign from heaven; for isn't that exactly what the devil did in the wilderness when he asked Jesus to throw Himself down from the temple and let the angels catch Him? Besides, they already had a sign from Jesus in the casting out of the demon. But unbelief always wants something more and different than Jesus and what He gives.

Later Jesus would say to this same crowd that it is an evil generation, which seeks a sign, and wants to walk by sight and not by faith. A people who trusts experiences and emotions more than Christ and His Word. Jesus said the only sign that would be given them is the sign of Jonah, the sign of a man submerged three days in the belly of death but who rose from the depths to new life. The sign which faith clings to, then, is the sign of the cross, Christ crucified and risen to save us sinners.

This sign of the cross has been given to you in your baptism, etched into your very bodies by water and the Word. At the font Jesus fulfilled the words of the service, “Depart unclean spirit; make room for the Holy Spirit.” Like the mute, you are conceived and born with an evil spirit. You are by nature in the possession and the dominion of the devil. The Epistle reading said, “You were once darkness . . .” However, Jesus has shined into your darkness and washed away your sins and rescued you from the devil's domain, bringing you into His own realm of mercy and grace. So that, “you are light in the Lord.” You have been released from the devil's grip. You have been brought into the kingdom of God's beloved Son; you are possessed by His Holy Spirit. Now your mute tongues are loosed to sing the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Truly, Jesus has done good to you.

But just as was the case in the Gospel, there are people now who want to call that good evil. They label baptism and the liturgy of Christ's preaching and supper as being mere ceremony; they want signs and visual excitement, not divine service. Others attack God's Word by calling it a man-made creation. Or they berate Christians as being intellectually foolish and psychologically weak. But in the face of such demonic temptation, we remember that it is written, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.” In a world that wants signs from heaven, we know that Jesus Himself is our sign from heaven. He is all that we need. For again it is written, “We preach Christ crucified, an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Jesus is that Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man, the devil. But our Lord shows His strength not with spectacular power or with an all out display of force as we might expect. In order to overcome the devil and rescue man, the Lord chooses to use Satan's own devices against him. Christ snares the devil with divine shrewdness and trickery and deception–but in a reverse sort of way: not evil disguised as good, but good disguised as evil. Jesus allows Himself to be hung on a cross, bloodied and beaten. He perishes as if he were an evil criminal. But in this way Jesus invades the enemy's domain of death and attacks from the inside out. From behind enemy lines He demolishes all of the devil's armor in which he trusted. Christ infiltrates the devil's kingdom and conquers him by means of the very death which the devil brought into the world. He turns the devil's weapons right back in his own face and destroys him. Man is released and set free.

It was by a tree that the devil overcame mankind, and so it is by the tree of the cross that the devil is overcome. It was by death that Satan sought to steal away man's glory; and so it is by the death of Christ that the glory of man is restored. Satan is caught in his own trap, bound and defeated. The strong man is out-strategized by the Stronger Man, Jesus. Our Lord after His death descends into hell–not to suffer, not to do battle, but to announce and proclaim his victory over sin and death and the devil. The war is over. Satan has been conquered. The devil's strongest weapon, death and all its terrors, is taken away. For we live in the sure hope of the resurrection of the body through Christ on the Last Day. Death is no longer the way Satan wins. For those who die in Jesus share in His everlasting life. That is the truth of Christ over and against the falsehood of those who call good evil. Satan is not divided against himself. But Christ has divided and conquered Satan's kingdom by the power of His holy cross.

Jesus makes it clear to the crowds and to us that there can be no sitting on the fence in this matter. Our Lord says, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” There is no stance of neutrality when it comes to Christ, no middle-of-the-road, moderate position. Either you're with Him by faith, or you're against Him through unbelief. Either you take refuge in Him who is the Stronger Man, or you refuse Him and seek other shelter that draws you back into the devil's hands. There are no third options.

And yet many people live as if there were a third option, don't they? They're not really sure about God or the teachings of the Bible, but they might go to church anyway from time to time just in case, sort of like an insurance policy. They figure it would be better to go to church even if there is no God than not go to church if there is a God. That way they're covered–or so they think. But I ask you, is that true faith or is that just hedging your bets? Is that someone who is with Christ or not? There are many people who try to live like that, somewhere in-between faith and unbelief. What they don't realize is that the in-between is unbelief. Such people are still set against Christ in their hearts and exposed to the power of Satan. For they live outside of the protection of Christ with nothing but their own wisdom and strength to shield them.

You see, even though the devil has been defeated and man's salvation has been won–fully and decisively–he still runs about making like he is strong, acting like he still controls death. He seeks to lure people away from the salvation of Christ, leading them into doubt and despair. And many fall for the trap, believing the strong man rather than trusting in the Stronger One. And so the evil spirits return to many a person from whom they were cast out. For the Holy Spirit given in baptism has been grieved and rejected. “The last state of that man is worse than the first.”

It is not enough simply for evil to be cast out. The unclean spirit must be replaced with the Holy Spirit of Christ. Otherwise, one opens himself up to subtler and deeper sin, darker and more dangerous spirits. And so our Lord urges us here to remain steadfast in the faith. He says, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” To keep the Word of God is simply to hold on to it, to cling to it, to treasure it and trust in its promises. Those who do so are blessed, for the Word of God is living and active and powerful to save. Ultimately, to keep the Word of God is to hold on to Christ. For He is the Word made flesh. Blessed are those who hear Jesus and cling to Him; for He is your refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Blessed are those in whom the Word of Christ dwells richly through holy absolution and preaching. Blessed are those who trust in Christ and who are filled with His true body and precious blood. Over such the devil has no power. He can't touch you. For you are in the Strongest One, the Lord over death and the devil. Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your life out of death, who conquers your enemy, who is your sure defense.

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lenten Midweek for March 11, 2009

Midweek Lenten Service
March 11, 2009
“To Know and Believe in God” (The Creed)

Can you believe that 92% of Americans say they “believe in God or a universal spirit.” 92%! Big deal. That doesn’t really say much. Who is this God you believe in? Allah, the false god of the Muslims? Sorry, I bear witness that there is no god called Allah, and Mohammed is his false prophet. Is this “god” you believe in some “universal spirit” or “higher power”? That won’t do you any good, either. Is it “god” as you have created him in your own image? A god who winks at sin and suits your personal opinions and is impressed by your “spirituality” and essential goodness? Sorry, Oprah, that is not the God revealed in Holy Scripture.

Just the fact that you believe that one true God exists, that by itself will do you no good. On that point, you are no better than the demons. St. James says as much: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder!” You see, the devil and all the demons know who God is. They even know who Jesus is, “the Holy One of God.” They believe that God exists. But that is not the same as knowing and believing in God in the way that we have just confessed in the Creed.

“I believe in God.” That’s what we all have just said. But what does it mean to “believe” in him? Let’s do a little “pew” survey of our own: That long piece of wood there--and there are a bunch of them in this room--do you believe that that right there is a church pew? Do you believe that a church pew exists in that space? Yes? Well, that is not belief or faith in the biblical sense. If you truly believe in that pew, then what will you do? You will sit in it! You will entrust your life to it and place yourself in it, trusting that it will hold you and support you. That is more like the idea of “I believe” as we say it in the Creed. Not just that God exists, but that you are trusting in him for your life and salvation.

To believe that one God exists does not yet tell you who this God is or how he is disposed toward you or how you are put right with him. Luther explains it like this in the Large Catechism: “Even if all people outside Christianity--whether heathen, Turks, Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites--believe in and worship only one true God, they still do not know what His mind toward them is and cannot expect any love or blessing from Him. Therefore, they abide in eternal wrath and damnation. For they do not have the Lord Christ, and, besides, are not illumined and favored by any gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

In the Creed, therefore, we are saying much more than just “there is a God who exists.” We are saying that this God has revealed himself to us, so that we know him and believe in him, that is, trust in him. That we do know what his mind toward us is and that we can expect love and blessing from him. That is Christian faith, and it is created and nurtured by the revealed Gospel.

To begin with, we are saying that God is our kind and loving heavenly Father, who created us and provides for us and preserves and protects us. Now how would we know this, except that God has revealed himself to us as such in the Gospel? Otherwise, we might think that God is kind and loving toward us--if our crops are good, our health is good, and everything is sunshine and roses. And we might think that God is treating us well because of how good we are.

But what about those times when our finances go south or the doctor’s diagnosis is grim and the sunshine and roses have turned to gray clouds and dandelions? What about then? Well, then we might think that we have to try harder to get back into God-or-the-gods’ good favor. We might offer up sacrifices to the gods or really work on our behavior. But we would always be looking over our shoulder, and we could never be certain that we had done enough to please God and be right with him. And death would always be lurking out there as the Great Unknown.

This is where Jesus comes in. It is only through Jesus that we know a gracious God under all circumstances. Christ, the Son of God, came from the Father’s side to reveal God to us, to reveal the Father’s kind and loving heart toward us. This is what Jesus taught his disciples: “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”

Jesus taught the love of the Father, and he put it into action--above all, by going to the cross for us. This is how we can be sure, in all circumstances, that we have a God who loves us: by looking to the cross of Christ. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” In other words, if God has shown us the greatest love of all by sending his Son to go to the cross for our justification and eternal salvation, then we can be absolutely certain that God loves us in any and every circumstance, even when things aren’t going so well. God’s love is sure. Look to the cross. See there the Father’s heart of love for you.

For this is what God has done for you in Christ: He has saved you for eternal life. Remember those Ten Commandments we talked about last week? They cannot save you. You cannot earn your way to heaven by how good you are. You do not keep those commandments of love for God and love for your neighbor. The Commandments show you that you a sinner. Nor can you make it into heaven by how soft God is. No, judging simply according to his Law, God’s punishment for sin is death. There’s no getting around that; there’s no sweeping it under the rug.

But again, this is where Jesus comes in. He comes in like a Lamb, like the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world--who takes away your sin by carrying it for you to the cross. There he dies as your perfect substitute, taking the judgment and the death you have earned. Christ alone sets us free from the eternal death that would be our lot otherwise. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

So we know the love of the Father only through the Son. This is why Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” And this is why the Apostle John writes, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. . . .Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Alright, so we know and believe in a loving heavenly Father only through his Son, Jesus Christ. But now, how do we know Christ? Now we move from the Second Article of the Creed to the Third Article and the work of the Holy Spirit. Notice how Luther begins his Explanation of the Third Article: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.” Think of what you’re saying there! “I believe . . . that I cannot believe!” Yes, you would know nothing of Christ except that the Holy Ghost has preached him to you. And with that preaching, the Spirit has created saving faith in your heart. It is all by grace, a gift: both Christ dying for you and the Spirit giving you the faith to believe in him. All of it, the whole ball of wax, a gift.

The Holy Spirit delivers Christ to you, brings Christ to you, along with all of Christ’s blood-bought benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation. What Jesus won for you on the cross the Spirit delivers to your doorstep, right to your address, with your name written on it.

How does the Spirit do this? Through means. Through the means of grace, the Gospel, in Word and Sacrament. In other words, through the ministry of the Church. This is why you need constantly to be in the Word, living from your Baptism, fed with the Sacrament--constantly being strengthened by the Gospel, so that your faith will remain strong to the end.

And so now we come full circle. We know a kind and loving heavenly Father, who cares for us even when it looks like he doesn’t--we know the Father only through his Son, Jesus Christ, whose cross displays the deepest divine love. And we know Christ only by the Holy Spirit bringing us to faith in him through the Gospel. Luther sums it up like this, again from the Large Catechism: “God has given to us His Son and the Holy Spirit, who brings us to Himself. For we could never grasp the knowledge of the Father’s grace and favor except through the Lord Christ. Jesus is a mirror of the fatherly heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But we couldn’t know anything about Christ either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit.”

To know and believe in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Not a vicious circle--by no means! But rather an unending, eternal circle of love and grace! In the Gospel, we come to know this God, this Holy Trinity, as he reveals himself to us. In the Creed, we gladly confess this faith for all the world to hear. Amen.