1 Lent 2019
Every year on the first Sunday in Lent we read the story of Jesus’s spiritual battle with the devil in the wilderness, and every year, after hearing this story, many in the congregation yawn and say to themselves, “That’s just a legend. No one really believes in the devil, do they?”
You know me well enough by now to know that I believe in the devil. To which many say, “Well, sure, you’re the preacher, you kind of have to believe in the devil or at least say you do.” But no, I don’t have to believe in the devil or say I do. Many clergy in this country today, Protestant and Catholic alike are educated “open-minded” liberals who not only don’t believe in the devil, but don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ ,or in the unique divinity of Jesus, or in the divine institution of the church. One man, who identified himself as a Presbyterian, explained it to me this way: “I go to church,” he said, “but I’m not religious.” The spirit of the modern age respects religion but denies divine revelation. In other words, we live in an age of agnostic unbelief, an age in which a majority of people say that they believe in God but who at the same time do not actually believe in the supernatural. If that sounds contradictory and confusing, it is. People today are very confused about religion. They aren’t sure who or what to believe. The confusion that characterizes the spiritual life of the American people has not happened by accident but by design. The work of the devil is to confuse people, and by confusing them make them vulnerable to doubt just enough that when it comes to making a decision for Christ they will hesitate and instead of saying, “Yes, I’m all in 100 percent for Christ” they will say,” I don’t know, I’m not sure.”
We can be sure of the existence of the devil for two solid reasons. One is that Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, who knew Satan before the creation of the world, taught his disciples that the world is in the grip of the devil. He called the devil “the father of lies” (Jn. 8.44). Since the Son of God, by virtue of his divine nature, cannot lie and always tells the truth (“I am the truth” he said [Jn. 14.6]), we can trust Jesus implicitly without doubt when he warns us that “your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1Pt. 5.8). But he also encourages us when he says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you” (James 4.7-8.) If you say that you believe in Christ but don’t believe in the devil you make him out to be a liar.
You don’t want to call Christ a liar because that is the unforgivable sin (Mt.12.22-31). Jesus made his reputation in Galilee initially as an exorcist. Following his example, the Catholic Church has priests who are exorcists, and the stories they tell are terrifying. An exorcist battles with the devil. It’s no joke. Demons sometimes possess a human soul, and when they do only an exorcist can expel them. Jesus performed an exorcism on a man in the synagogue in Capernaum (Mk 1.21-28). He exorcised a legion of demons from a man known as the Geresene demoniac. He drove the demons out of that possessed man and sent them into a herd of pigs which then leaped off a cliff (Lk.8.26-33). He did many other exorcisms openly in public. The Pharisees who witnessed Jesus’s exorcisms, however, did not trust him and said of him derisively, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Mt.12.24).That’s when Jesus asked them, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself, how then will his kingdom stand?”(Mt.12.26). Jesus not only knew Satan, the devil, but he had divine power over Satan and his whole army of demons. They were—and are—no match for him. Jesus taught a doctrine of the devil and proved it by performing exorcisms.
For those two reasons we can believe the devil exists but you must know this. God and the devil are not equal. Jesus is the Son of God. The devil is a fallen angel. Those creatures we call demons are angels who rebelled against God and were banished from heaven by God. Like all angels and demons, they are endowed with preternatural powers. Angels are stronger than humans but they are not divine; they are, like us, creatures of God subject to God’s judgment. At the time of the creation, when God created human beings in his image, many of the angles fueled by jealously and led by Satan, also called Lucifer or Beelzebub, rebelled against God. As punishment, God banished them to the realm of this earth to live among human beings of whom they are exceedingly jealous. As the story of Job reveals, the demons, under Satan’s direction, tempt, harass, and confuse human beings in an attempt to separate us from God. The devil’s greatest victory came early on in the Garden of Eden when, disguised as a serpent, he seduced Eve and led Adam into sin. This caused a split between God and human beings, making it impossible for human beings to have communion with God, thereby denying them the privilege of eternal life. The history of God and humanity could have ended there, with our permanent exile from God’s presence, with God remaining invisible to us and eternally distant from us. But God would not let his beautiful creation end in tragedy. God revealed the depth of his love for human beings by implementing a plan to redeem us from our sin by the offering of his Son. The Old Testament tells the history of how God announced that plan through the prophets of Israel and set the stage for Christ’s coming. God promised to send a Redeemer to liberate the heirs of Adam and Eve from captivity to the devil, a Savior who would rescue the human race from Satan’s evil grip and restore us to God’s good graces. Jesus Christ is that man. Christ came into the world to save sinners (1Tim.1.15) and to destroy the works of the devil (1Jn.3.8). What is the work of the devil? It is to drive a wedge between human beings, to harden our hearts against Christ and ultimately make us hate his one holy catholic and apostolic church.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking: Fr. String, really? This is the 21st century. You’re talking to us about angels and demons, the Garden of Eden and original sin, and a divine savior coming down from heaven to rescue us from the devil. This is obviously mythology. Come on, you don’t really expect us to buy into all this, do you? We’re educated people living in a modern liberal society. We’re not superstitious, illiterate peasants living in the dark ages. You can’t talk to us like this. It isn’t right.
Ok. You win. I just have one question for you. What do you think Christ meant when he said, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven?” What do you think his disciples meant when they said to him, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name” (Luke. 10.17–18).
Jesus taught us by word, (and his word is absolute truth), and by the example of exorcism done openly in public, to recognize that angels are as much a part of the created order as we are. He taught us that there are good angels who serve God and assist human beings on the way to salvation, that each of us has a guardian angel, for which we ought to give thanks daily in our prayers. He taught us also that there are legions of rebellious angels called demons who seduce human beings into sin and who conspire by tireless scheming to separate human souls from our Maker.
In other words, he taught us that if we want to attain salvation, we have to be willing to fight for it. God has fought the battle for us and on the cross God has won the victory. God has given us the victory through Our Lord Jesus Christ (1Cor. 15.51). But for us to share in that victory and for us to reap the rewards of that great battle, we must remain through life faithful to Jesus, completely faithful to Him. That is why he said to all those who would be saved, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” We live our faith in Jesus by living as he did, resisting the devil. And we resist the devil by choosing every day and every step of the way to live for God trusting his word and obeying the teaching of his church. Attaining salvation is not easy. Christ suffered to the point of death on a cross to win our salvation. That’s the encouraging part of the gospel and the reason for our hope. But the gospel also challenges us to follow his example. We only have faith to the extent that we become like Him. And he warned his church from the start that following him would be difficult. When Our Lord said to Peter “On this rock I will build my church,” he praised Peter for receiving through faith the revelation of God and confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the True and only Redeemer of humankind, announced by the prophets and come in the flesh. But then he added this ominous warning that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt. 16.16–18). In other words Jesus warned his disciples and the future church that demons will stop at nothing to destroy our faith and to turn us away from Jesus. The church is constantly under attack from demons that wage relentless spiritual warfare against us.
There is no institution in the world more loathed and hated than is Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic church. Why? Because there is no one is in the world more loathed or hated by the demons than Jesus Christ. They hate him because he came into this dark world like a light from God to expose the paganism and idolatry of this world for what it is. The demons had everyone in this word worshipping everything and everyone but God. As the psalmist said, “All the gods of the Gentiles are devils.” (Ps. 95.5 Douy-Rheims). There is only one true and living God and Jesus Christ has made him known. That is why the church is the most hated institution in this world. The church is the visible body of Christ in the world, the assurance of his real presence among us. Before Jesus ascended into heaven he promised his church “I am with you always even to the end of the age.” And on every altar in every church where the sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered and Christ’s body and blood is kept in the tabernacle, Jesus Christ is really present. He is here disguised humbly as bread and wine, but he is nevertheless really present among us in body, blood, and soul. And therein lies our joy because he is our rock and our salvation. The church he founded is the one true religion instituted by God. That is the meaning of redemption. Christ freed us from worshipping false idols to know the one true and living God.
The point of this sermon is a simple one. In this world with devils filled, (as Martin Luther said in that hymn we sang this morning) we have much to fear. But we have nothing to fear as long as we allow Christ’s Holy Spirit to possess us. As long as we keep our baptismal vows and remain loyal to Jesus Christ, allowing him to abide in us and we in him, we have in Him the assurance of salvation and the hope of eternal life. Many people are losing their salvation. The devil is having tremendous success in Europe and America today persuading people that they don’t need Jesus Christ; that his church has been to blame for most of the evils of this world, and that one religion is a good as another. Even the pope is going about now singing the praises of Islam and teaching people it doesn’t matter what religion you are—as long as you’re a good person, it’s all good. My friends, if that were true, Christ would never have had to become incarnate and die on a cross for our sins. When even the Pope is preaching blasphemy and sacrilege, you know the spiritual warfare in the heavenly places is intense. I emphasize to you: pray every day. Ask God to strengthen your faith and the faith of your loved ones. If you wish to see your family and friends in heaven, pray for them daily, fight for them because God knows, even if they don’t, that the demons are fighting against them. That is why Saint Paul admonished the church with urgency to “Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood” he said, “but against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph.6.10–12).
The secular socialist onslaught that is rapidly transforming this nation into a Christophobic pagan empire not unlike first-century Rome is systematically poisoning millions of souls against Christ and turning them away from his one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Christ created the church to continue his mission, to save souls from the eternal fires of hell that Jesus said God has prepared for the devil and his allies (Mt. 25.41). This work takes courage; this work takes faith. This work takes prayer. The story of Jesus confronting the devil in the wilderness confronts each of us with this question: Do you have what it takes to be a Christian in this increasingly Christophobic and post-Christian age? When the devil looks you in the eye and asks you, “ “Do you have what it takes? Are you sure? Are you really sure you want to believe in that little Jesus of Nazareth. I nailed him to a cross. I can do worse to you. Why do you want to have me for your enemy, when I could so easily be your friend?” When that day comes and it will, remember that the answer you make to that question will reveal the depth and maturity of your faith.