Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn
It’s not often we hear Onward Christian Soldiers.
This song came up at the hymn sing Tom Foster led two Sunday’s back in the Great Hall; which gave Tom, Kate, Diane and myself cause to reflect on it during liturgy meeting. I pulled out the Hymnal and took a good look at the words.
What I found is that it isn’t a hymn about Christian triumphalism, or the Crusades, or the war in Iraq.
It is a song about fighting Satan…
“At the sign of triumph
Satan’s host doth flee,
on then Christian soldiers
on to victory…”
Tom suggested I not sing that line if I didn’t want the sermon to be humorous. (!?) I’m not sure what he was getting at, but I reminded him there is nothing funny about Satan; who, I might add, is the subject of today’s sermon.
Here is the difficulty in talking about Satan… no one really believes in him.
But theologically that doesn’t matter. It is not that we need to believe in Satan, we just need to know why he is important. There are two reasons: One is unity, the other salvation.
But before I get into that, I need to make a confession: I have spent a lot of time over the years trying to make sense of Christianity without Satan and I am coming to see that is simply not possible. So today we are going to examine why Satan is too important to overlook.
Now to understanding Satan we need a little background.
First, it is important to know that if we remove him from the Gospel’s we’ve removed a chunk of the story. He is a pretty prominent player in the whole shebang. He shows up right at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. After John baptizes Jesus in the river Jordan, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert, where he battles Satan for 40 days and 40 nights.
The number is important in understanding Satan’s stature in scripture. It is the same number of days it rained as God washed evil from the world in the time of Noah. And it is the same number of years the Israelites were in the desert after their victory over Pharaoh, before entering the promise land.
The number 40 meant something to those who heard the story of Jesus. It linked him to the victories of God over wicked tyranny.
After Jesus’ beat Satan, he returns home to Galilee. There he proclaimed-
The Kingdom of God is here!
I want to pause around this idea of proclamation for a minute. A proclamation is a statement that changes reality. An example of this would be The Voting Rights Acts of 1965 which outlawed discriminatory voting practices.
When it was proclaimed everyone knew that everything had changed. Now it has taken time for that proclamation to fulfill its promise, and while some still challenge it, as we know from the news in Texas, it seems that with each challenge the proclamation becomes more and more well established.
When Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God is here, he was saying “God has won.” “God is king and in charge of all things.” It was no accident that this proclamation came on the heels of Jesus victory over Satan in the wilderness.
Here is the story flow:
Jesus is baptized.
He beats Satan.
He makes the proclamation.
He gathers disciples,
and goes off to Nazareth where he enters the synagogue to preach, as was his habit.
But before he can get a word in edgewise a man possessed by a demon cries out:
“What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
It seems the demons know there is a new king in charge and things are going to change. Satan, the strong man has been bound up, and now Jesus is just going around mopping up any of his remaining lackeys.
While the demons were cursing, the people of Israel were singing for joy. The king has come. The Messiah is here. In their collective mind they linked Jesus to Moses, who had defeated the wicked tyranny of Pharaoh, and they believed Jesus would defeat the wicked tyranny of Rome.
Rome was the bad guy after all. In the days of Jesus people believed there were good guys and bad guys. The good guys were our people, our tribe. The bad guys were that tribe over there.
Now it is because of this worldview that Jesus got into trouble. Jesus beats Satan.
He makes the proclamation. He gathers disciples, and goes to Nazareth. There he enters the synagogue, and casts out the demon, and then begins to preach.
And what he says is this…
The kingdom of God is here.
The victory is won.
And everyone gets to share in it.
Including the widow from Zarephath, a Gentile.
Including the Syrian general, Namaan, a Gentile.
And when the people of the synagogue heard this they grabbed Jesus and tried to throw him off a cliff because the enemy he identified wasn’t the enemy they wanted. Rome was their enemy which was inconvenient, because Jesus came, not to conquer Rome, but to conquer Satan.
Which leads us back to the two theological necessities of Satan: unity and salvation.
First unity. By making Satan the enemy Jesus then frees up everyone else to be on the same team. By focusing on Satan as the bad guy, Jesus can embrace everyone else as the good guy. Which achieve an important theological shift away from Moses, the Old Testament and tribalism to Jesus, the cross and eternal inclusion. The shift is toward the Kingdom of God, where everyone is included; where there are no insiders or outsiders; and where the unity of humanity is not only possible, but it is preferred by God.
And still we see there is some mopping up to do. There are still some demons on the loose. I heard one splashing around on NPR recently. They were asking a woman her opinion of Barack Obama. She replied: “I just don’t like him. Can’t stand to look at him. I don’t like his wife. She’s far from the first lady. It’s about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady.”
This is a statement about tribe, our tribe and their tribe.
It is a statement about insiders and outsiders, and smacks up against the proclamation of Jesus. This woman’s name is Bobbie Lucier and I imagine she is a Christian. I am equally certain she doesn’t understand the role of Satan or the victory of the cross.
Which brings us to the second theological necessity of Satan – as the enemy from whom our salvation is won back.
The battle begins in the Garden of Eden. You may remember the story. God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge or they would die. The serpent, Satan, begged to differ and convinced them otherwise. They ate, and after they did the serpent was quick to point out they did not die. Which, typical of Satan, was a half-truth. Adam and Eve didn’t die… right away. They died later, after suffering through a rather difficult life.
In the Garden of Eden Satan wove a curtail of deceit and used it to cover our knowledge of our own immortality. The curtain is death, and has became the canvass upon which Satan paints his half-truths to confuse the mind, as we heard from the mouth of Bobbie Lucier.
For her Obama is the enemy. He looks different. He comes from a different tribe, and so unity is broken and Satan wins.
The political polarity in our country today is, I dare say, the work of demons.
• Differing opinions are fine.
• Differing ways of doing things are fine.
• Different political parties are fine.
But we must remember as Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians:
“Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” (Eph 6:12)
I do not know what all of that means, but I am sure of two things: First, that if we’d stop fighting amongst ourselves we’d find out; and second, that Jesus has equipped us with everything we would need to deal cosmic powers and spiritual forces.
After all, he won this victory on the cross. The proclamation has been made. The kingdom of God is here. We are back in the Garden. God walks in our midst, like us, as a human, with a name, which is Jesus.
We are no longer subject to the half-truth of death, nor bound by the perceptions of tribalism. We are whole, full and complete just as we are, and so is the other guy.
And so, when temptation drives us toward division, know that we have been lured this way by a demon spouting half-truths that must be stamped out. So gird yourself with the belt of truth; strap on the breastplate of righteousness; tighten the shoes of peace; and fasten the helmet of salvation. For you are carrying the shield of faith, and the sword of the spirit that is the word of God.
The victory has already been won;
The proclamation made:
The kingdom of God is here.
It is Jesus who wins and Satan who loses.