Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus
2nd Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38)
The man entered the arena to the sound of deafening screams and cheers. The huge crowd was happy he was brought in. The feeling was not reciprocated. That man, whose name was Polycarp, didn’t want to be there at all, and he wasn’t looking forward to what was coming.
There in the middle of the stadium the Roman Pro-Consul, the one leading the entire event, quieted the people down. Turning to Polycarp, he asked a question Christians would be asked throughout the Roman Empire. Would he renounce his faith in the one called Christ? Pressing him, the Consul said, “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ.”
There was never a question in Polycarp’s mind. “For eighty-six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong…how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
With that answer the crowd knew what was coming. “They found it good to cry out with one mind that [the Pro-Consul] should burn Polycarp alive.” So the Roman soldiers prepared the wood, stripped Polycarp, and bound him to the pyre.
At at time, when everyone wondered why he would allow himself to be burned alive for his faith in Christ, Polycarp summarized the eternal situation, “You threaten with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.”
The Roman Pro-Consul, his soldiers, and the angry mob wondered how Polycarp could be so short-sighted. Why not recant what you believe and live? Polycarp, in turn, wondered how those around him could be so short-sighted. They lived only for this life while an eternal, unquenchable fire was awaiting them.
It is quite a different world-view, isn’t it? A man stands alone, about to be put to death, holding on to his faith in Christ. And he meets it with such confidence. His willingness to suffer for God is surpassed only by Jesus himself.
One generation earlier, Jesus talked to his disciples about the cross Jesus himself would endure. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” The Gospel of Mark adds that “He spoke plainly about this.”
That might be an understatement. Jesus laid it all out – why he came and how his ministry would end. He didn’t leave out any grueling detail. And it was too much for Peter to take. He couldn’t stand by and listen to his teacher, his leader, talk about himself this way. So He does the unthinkable: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
Can you imagine rebuking Jesus? The scene became instantly awkward. But because the lesson was so important to Jesus: “He rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’”
To avoid hardship because of God’s Word is a very worldly mindset. To try and stop Jesus from suffering and dying for the sins of the world is a very devilish objection. That’s why Jesus said those surprising words: “Get behind me, Satan!”
Here’s what it means to follow Jesus. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The words are so straight-forward! And yet they remain impossible for us to perfectly follow. Jesus says we must deny ourselves, but that attitude doesn’t come naturally. In fact, by nature I think of myself first. I want my life to follow my pattern and fall into place for me and my benefit.
Jesus says we need to take up our cross and follow him. But why would I want to carry something that is so heavy and so painful for my entire life? If it were up to me, I would make my life as easy as possible – no pain, no hardship, no strife, no arguments. That’s the world’s idea of living. That’s the devil’s deception hovering down around us.
But that isn’t what Jesus is saying. In fact, he is telling us to expect just the opposite: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” But are we really ready to give our lives for Christ? Are we really ready to suffer for our faith? Not always. Sure, Jesus says, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” But there sure are times when we choose what the world has to offer. “Give up our soul you say? I’ll think about it.”
It was never a thought for Jesus. He doesn’t just describe what it is like to carry a cross. He really carried his. He really suffered on it. He really endured our punishment and our hell. He really died. And just as he promised, he really rose again.
And now he who carried his cross for you encourages you to carry your cross for him. There is a man named Arthur Blessitt who has accomplished something amazing. Arthur has walked over 42,000 miles, through 324 countries, on every continent – including Antarctica. It has taken him a lot of years to accomplish this – in fact, this year marks the 50th anniversary of his walking. But he isn’t just walking around taking in the sights. For every one of his 84 million steps he has carried a cross.
Through rain and snow, across mountains and rivers, through crowded thoroughfares and empty deserts, Arthur Bessitt continues to carry his cross. It is his way of preaching a sermon without having to say a word. Christ endured our cross to save us. Now we carry our cross as we follow him.
I don’t have to tell you how hard that can be. Your faith in Jesus gives you all sorts of painful splinters in this life. Your faith in Jesus as your Savior brings arguments from family members. It invites laughs from people in our own community. You post a Bible passage on Facebook only to receive angry comments about how you are “close-minded” or “ignorant.” You high school students and college students speak up about how you believe that God created the world – that it wasn’t evolution – and you almost fail your class because of it.
That cross on your back has led to the loss of friends and friendships, anger and despair, depression…and maybe one day, like that Christian man Polycarp, even death. That is when the devil will creep in, trying to convince you to gain comfort in this life by giving up your eternal life.
Don’t give in! Tell him what Jesus told him: “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Fix your eyes on Christ and the heaven he has won for you. Carry your cross willingly, and remember that you are never alone. Walk through this life with a skip in your step and a song in your heart:
“Since I know God never fails me, In his voice I’ll rejoice When grim death assails me.
Trusting in my Savior’s merit, Safe at last, Troubles past, I shall heav’n inherit.” Amen.
Armed with Your Baptism Fight against Temptation
1st Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2018
At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, 13and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. 14After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15”The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Every time we meet together for worship, we pray these words together to the Lord: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And we believe them. Why shouldn’t we? After all, the Lord promises to not hand us over into sin. He promises to protect us from the devil.
That is what makes our Gospel reading so striking. After Jesus began his ministry on earth with his baptism we hear in the Gospel of Mark: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert.” Someone was waiting for Jesus out in that desert. He wasn’t a follower, and he certainly wasn’t a fan. He was the Foe – the devil. And he had a mission of his own. He would stop Jesus in his tracks. In that desert, the devil would end Jesus’ ministry before it began.
The only way to do that would be to make Jesus slip up. The devil probably felt somewhat confident. After all, he had been pulling people into sin for thousands of years – with great success. Sure Jesus was perfect, sure he was the Son of God. But the devil had gotten perfect people to sin before.
He already seemed to have the upper hand on Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus had been fasting for 40 days and nights. These were hardly the best circumstances for defending against the devil’s greatest temptations.
Yet there Jesus was, standing before the devil himself. Then the devil lobbed his first challenge: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Such a simple ruse, and yet how tempting! The Bible tells us that Jesus “was hungry.”
Hunger has caused a lot of sins over the years – especially in the Bible. When the Israelites traveled to the Promised Land they found themselves in a desert much like Jesus was in. Their food and water had run out. In the midst of their hunger they angrily cried out against Moses and the Lord: “You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Had they been able to turn stones to bread they would have done it immediately – even if it meant turning their backs on God.
But not Jesus. “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’’” Trust that the Lord will give you daily bread – because he promises to!
First temptation defeated. The devil quickly regrouped: “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” If Jesus was going to quote Scripture, then so was the devil. The problem, however, was that the devil took this passage out of context. He likes to mix truth with lies – it makes his temptation more effective.
There is an animal that lives in Mexico and South America called the margay. It looks like a cross between a leopard and a cat. But it is the sound of a margay that can send chills down your spine. In the middle of the forest a margay will make a call that sounds just like a baby monkey that is injured.
The sound is so convincing that adult monkeys come to help the crying baby. That is when the margay pounces, killing the adult monkey.
The devil does the same thing. He makes the sound of God’s words, but he twists it and changes it to mean something completely different. The only way an adult monkey can defend against the trickery of the margay is by knowing the difference between a real baby monkey crying and an imposter.
So it is with us. The only way we can know the difference between what God says and what the devil says is by studying the Bible. On this Christian education Sunday we see just how important God’s Word is believe, to know, and to memorize. Jesus has effectively answered two of the devil’s temptations with Bible passages.
Now comes the third one. And if we were ranking the difficulty of temptation, this one might be the considered the most tempting of all. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Then the devil said the lie to end all lies. “All this I will give you…if you will bow down and worship me.” Gain all the power and riches and glory in the world – and all you have to do is sell your soul!
That’s more tempting that we realize. Who wouldn’t want to get everything your heart desires? If you could just snap your fingers to get whatever it is you want, how quickly would you do it? Vacation in a beautiful, distant land? *Snap*. New car? *Snap*. More money? *Snap*. New toy? *Snap*. No more strife? *Snap*. Pain forever gone starting right this instant? *Snap*.
Jesus, the only one able to snap his fingers to instantly get what he wants, now faced that temptation. How would he answer? “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
Perfect. Every deceit, every trick, every temptation drops harmlessly to the ground when it hits Jesus. He makes it look so effortless. But make no mistake – it wasn’t easy. The Bible tells us that Jesus “has been tempted in every way, just as we are.” But unlike the rest of us, “[Jesus] did not sin.” Not even once.
And that’s a good thing. To be our perfect Savior, he couldn’t sin – not even once. To die on the cross as our perfect substitute, Jesus had to be the “spotless sacrifice.” And there, on the cross on Good Friday, we see Jesus finally defeat that old, evil foe – the devil. We see him wash away every wrong, every sin we have ever committed.
Now we find ourselves locked in a deadly, spiritual battle with that same devil. He fires those same temptations at us like arrows. He tempts us to covet and steal what is not ours. He tempts us to test the Lord. And he tries to pull us away from the Lord through distracting us with the money and power and possessions of the world. And often he succeeds.
Now look at Jesus. He arms you for battle in the same way he was armed: at Baptism. Jesus entered his battle against temptation armed with the Holy Spirit from his Baptism. You have been baptized with that same Holy Spirit. You are protected and armed for battle against every temptation. We have those same Bible verses Jesus used to throw back at the devil in our moments of trial.
Above all, our foe, the devil, stands defeated already. Knowing that, we continue to sing to our Lord:
“Jesus, send your angel legions When the foe would us enslave.
“Hold us fast when sin assaults us; Come then, Lord, your people save.” Amen.
The Difficult Road of the Anointed One
Transfiguration Sunday – February 11, 2018
David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. 2 All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him.
3 From there David went to Mizpah in Moab and said to the king of Moab, “Would you let my father and mother come and stay with you until I learn what God will do for me?” 4 So he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him as long as David was in the stronghold.
5 But the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not stay in the stronghold. Go into the land of Judah.” So David left and went to the forest of Hereth. (1 Samuel 22:1-5)
“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, Great David’s greater Son!” We began our Transfiguration worship this morning by singing those timeless words. On this special Sunday we can readily see the Lord’s Anointed. Through our readings and hymns we can imagine the brilliance of “Great David’s greater Son”, Jesus.
That word “great” is quite a description. Not everything in this world is considered “great.” Places rarely get that distinction. The “Great Wall of China” has to be seen from space to warrant its designation of greatness. The great pyramid of Egypt has had to stand for thousands of years to hold on to its name.
And not many people have been given that surname “great” either. Alexander “the Great” conquered most of the known world to achieve his “great” status. Constantine “the Great” changed the Roman Empire forever. People and places earn that “great” label by being impressive and accomplishing amazing feats.
This morning we called King David “great.” He probably didn’t feel “great” by the time of our first lesson this morning. Although David had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel, he was running for his life from King Saul. It had not been easy for David. On two occasions Saul had thrown a spear at David, trying to kill David while he played music for Saul. David was forced to beg priests for bread at Nob. When none was available, he had to eat the bread reserved for the priests themselves.
Like any man on the run, David was looking for safety. So he went to the last place Saul would look for him, in a Philistine town called Gath. It seemed like the perfect solution. David could hide out for a while. Then, after Saul died David could return to Israel as king. But Gath was no place for anointed Israelite kings. Achish, the king of Gath, recognized David when David arrived! What was this lone fugitive, this scourge of the Philistines to do? He did what he thought any sane man would do. He acted insane. Immediately, David was throne out.
That brings David’s journey to the moment of our first lesson this morning. “David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam.” He couldn’t be alone any more. Thankfully, wouldn’t be. “When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there.” His family weren’t the only ones who arrived. “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him.”
The problem of solitude now gave way to the danger of the crowd. It was one thing for David to run from Saul by himself. What could he do now that his family was with him? How could he keep them safe? To answer those questions, David did what we might have done. “David went to Mizpah in Moab and said to the king of Moab, ‘Would you let my father and mother come and stay with you until I learn what God will do for me?’” The king of Moab, an enemy of Israel, agreed. “So [David] left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him.”
Logical sense is not always synonymous with the Lord’s will. There is something missing in this account of David that we might have expected. On the run from the priests at Nob to the Philistines in Gath and now to the Moabites we have not seen David ask the Lord for guidance once. Leaving Israel with his family seems to be a tactic David devised.
While did not take the time to go to the Lord for guidance, the Lord now patiently takes time to go to David to give him guidance anyway. “The prophet Gad said to David, ‘Do not stay in the stronghold. Go into the land of Judah.’” That could not have been easy for David to return to the land of Saul, covered with Saul’s spies and soldiers looking to kill David.
Would we have done things differently? We like to think that we would stand firm when a crisis of faith threatens us, but that isn’t always what happens. The callings the Lord has given each and every one of us – as students, as employees, as fathers and mothers, as grandparents, as officers in the church, as pastors – are often difficult. Perhaps like David, even our livelihoods are threatened because of what we believe. When those moments come the devil loves to tempt us with the desire to run away. “Escape your difficult calling!” he say. And we are often convinced.
We have had our “David moments” of running from our callings. And like David, we have used the excuse of “saving ourselves” to gloss over what we are actually doing – looking out only for ourselves. David had been anointed for a position far greater than fugitive or refugee. He had been anointed king. Now God was moving him to act like one.
Jesus wasn’t. The anointed one, “Great David’s greater Son” took Peter, James and John up the mount of Transfiguration. Jesus wasn’t escaping his calling. He was fulfilling it. “[Jesus’] clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Soon Moses and Elijah were standing on the mountain as well, talking with Jesus.
Then Peter started talking. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter might not have known what he was saying, but we might have said the same thing. Who wouldn’t want to escape this world and stand in Jesus’ glorious presence on that mountain? Who wouldn’t want to hear God the Father speak from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”?
Then, all at once, it was over. “Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.” Why would Jesus and his disciples come down the mountain from that glorious transfiguration? Because Jesus refused to escape his mission. Jesus came down the mountain in order to be lifted up on to the cross. And he willingly walked that difficult road for you. For all the times men and women like David ran away from their calling, for all the instances when you and I were tempted by the escape from living our faith, Jesus walked down the mountain. By doing so, Jesus would fulfill the words King David wrote in our psalm this morning: “You are my son; today I have become your father.”
King David was not always “great.” Like us he was a sinner in need of a Savior. Thanks be to God the Father that he sent his one and only Son. May he help us see anew this Lenten season Jesus’ “great” sacrifice of redemption and unconditional love. May he help us never run away from confessing with believers past and present: “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, Great David’s greater Son!” Amen.
Be All Things to All People
5th Sunday after Epiphany – February 4, 2018
Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.
19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:16-23)
There was once a faithful pastor who prepared his sermon. He put together his Bible Classes. He spent hours getting the church building ready for Sunday. Everything seemed perfect. Then on Sunday, the people came. The scene was picture perfect. But if you were there, you would have noticed right away that something was wrong. The pastor faithfully preached and taught in English, but this was a mission in India – and nobody understood a word he said! All his preparation, all of his study was for nothing because he didn’t come to the people in their own language. He didn’t meet the people where they were.
The Lord always comes to people where they are – even if that means doing something he has never done before. There was once a man traveling with a couple companions on horseback. These men were on a mission – and it wasn’t a good one. They were looking for Christians. Everywhere they went, they hunted down believers in Jesus and locked them up. This trip would be no different. Or so they thought.
All of a sudden a light flashed from heaven all around them. Each man fell off of his horse onto the ground. Then a voice boomed from heaven. The message came specifically for one of them. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul had lived during the ministry of Jesus. He had heard about Jesus’ death on the cross. He knew the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection. He heard about Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit brought 3,000 people to faith.
And he had been angry about all of it. He had thought that these believers were liars. He thought Jesus was nothing more than a deceiving lunatic. But Saul had been wrong. And now it was that very Jesus who stood before Saul. Saul didn’t recognize him. “‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.” Then came Jesus’ telling response: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
On that day in Saul’s life, on that road he was traveling, Jesus met a persecutor of Christians, and he converted him into a believer. On that day, Saul became Paul – a missionary for the Lord. Jesus met Paul right where he was.
Ever since that day, Paul had been doing the same thing. He would travel to towns and go into the Jewish churches, talking to people about who Jesus is and why he came. He sat with people next to rivers and shared the good news. He spoke with Greek philosophers and Cyprian sorcerers. He spoke with lowly servants and on one occasion he spoke to the Roman Emperor himself.
The people were all different. They spoke different languages. They had various concerns. They held different jobs and lived in vastly different places. But they all had two things in common. The first was that every one of these people Paul met was a sinner who needed to know about Jesus. The second thing they all had in common was that Paul found a way to talk to them.
This morning Paul reveals the secret behind his mission work. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Now listen to some of Paul’s mission examples. “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”
It sounds simple enough – doesn’t it? If you are around Jews, respect what they respect and pretty soon they will respect you, too. To Gentiles who don’t follow the Old Testament law, speak to them on their terms. Don’t mandate that they have to sacrifice animals – because they don’t have to. To those who are weak, meet them where they are.
It all sounds so simple. But we need the reminder, because we aren’t always mindful missionaries. In our own mission fields, to the people around us, we can sometimes be like that missionary we heard earlier. We do the work, we set everything up, we get prepared…only to speak the wrong language.
Paul says he became a Jew in order to speak to the Jews. But what if there are people we don’t want to talk to? That gets in the way of sharing our faith. Paul lived as a Gentile when he was around Gentiles in order to talk to them about Jesus. But sometimes we struggle to give up our rules. I want to talk and act like a Lutheran – even if the people around me have no idea what that means. That also gets in the way of sharing our faith. When it comes to the weak, Paul said he made himself weak. My sinful nature wants me to act strong in front of the weak to impress them. But God isn’t impressed…and neither are those who need to hear the word.
When we fail to meet people where they are at, and we have failed, we are forgetting what mission work is all about. It isn’t about me. And it isn’t about you. Paul reminds us: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel.”
Now comes the ultimate example. Jesus met everyone exactly where they were at. He came to a Samaritan woman who had been committing adultery and sat by her at a well in order to share the good news. He walked along the Sea of Galilee to catch fishermen to be his disciples. And even while Jesus suffered on the cross to take away your sins and mine on the cross, he was thinking of others – meeting them where they were. He turned to the thief on the cross next to him, a man who was being punished justly, and saw his faith and said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Just look at where Jesus meets you. He came to you through the waters of baptism. He comes to you this morning through his word. He will come to you through the sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus meets you where you are at, and he promises to help you meet others where they are in their lives.
That might mean talking to that family member you have been avoiding, so that you can tell him about Jesus. It might mean walking over to your new neighbor’s house and introducing yourself. It might mean getting coffee at a place you haven’t for a while. Sharing your faith isn’t always easy. It doesn’t always feel comfortable. But it is so important. There are people around you that may never hear about Jesus unless you tell them. Don’t let your sinful nature get in the way. Don’t let your pride keep you from talking to some people. Share Jesus. Make Paul’s mission refrain your own: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Amen.
Deliver Us from the Evil One
4th Sunday after Epiphany – January 28, 2018
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, 24”What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25”Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. 27The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” 28News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28)
“Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” What is the devil capable of? Our initial answer might simply be “anything.” It certainly seems so. The devil is willing to go to any lengths to work against the Lord, against his word, and against us. He will use whatever means necessary to accomplish that purpose. He uses distraction. He uses deception. And, on rare occasions, he uses direct attacks.
At times, the devil uses the distractions of this world to lure believers away from the Lord. In that way, the devil operates like an angler fish. The angler fish is a deepwater, monstrous-looking fish that dangles a light in front of its mouth. The light lures its prey in. By the time the fish realize the light is a trap it is too late. The angler fish has gobbled them up.
The distractions around us don’t appear venomous or dangerous. That’s by design. The devil wants to slowly distract us into desiring the temporary things of this world. Once we’ve placed our faith as a lower priority the devil pounces.
At other times, Satan uses deception by blending into the background, so that we forget him entirely. In this way he acts like a giant octopus, hiding so well that it remains unseen. By blending into the background, a giant octopus can grab hold of any unsuspecting sea animal, from small fish to sharks.
This type of deception through camouflage might just be Satan’s most effective tactic. More and more the world around us calls the devil “a myth” or “something made up.” Over the years the devil has slowly blended into the background. The French poet Charles Baudelaire put it best: “the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
But there is a third tactic of the devil. It may not be the most effective, but it certainly is the most frightening. There are times when the devil puts aside his deceptions and distractions and directly attacks.
There is Satan’s rebellion in heaven against the Lord; his attack on Job and Job’s family; his work through the witch at Endor; and his fight against the Archangel Michael. But these all happened in the Old Testament. Now in the New Testament Jesus, the very Son of God, had arrived and begun his ministry. While the devil had tried different tactics to trip Jesus up, none of them worked.
So Satan dispenses with the camouflage. There are no more tricks. Instead, the devil declares all-out war. And the battlefield is the last one we would expect: the Synagogue.
“[Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” Jesus had begun his ministry. His disciples were with him. Fittingly, he goes to worship on the Sabbath and begins to teach in the synagogue in the town of Capernaum.
While the people had heard Jesus teach before, they were not prepared for what would happen next. “Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!’”
While the man was yelling at Jesus, the crowd must have been wondering the same thing we are. How did a demon-possessed man get into their church?
Perhaps the better question would be “Why is a demon-possessed man in our church?” It is the last place we would expect the devil and his demons.
But again, that’s the point. The devil works his hardest here. Those not here, those not listening to God’s Word, are already making other things their priorities. They are already distracted. The devil is at work here and now, trying to pull our thoughts and our hearts away to something else. Here he does it quietly from behind the scenes. He is appealing to our sinful nature and its desires.
All too often he has been successful. We have been distracted by what isn’t important from what really is important. We have been lulled into sleep, forgetting our enemy, the devil, is constantly trying to tempt us. We forget that he is “filled with fury.”
It was that fury that stood before Jesus in the synagogue on that Sabbath. Notice that when false doctrine is taught the devil is quiet. But when Jesus speaks the truth of the gospel, the devil is on the attack. And what an attack it is.
The devil actually tells the truth! Jesus is “The Holy One of God.” But he doesn’t need the backing of the devil and his demons for people to know that. The devil was waging an all-out attack of confusion right there in the synagogue.
Then the demon asks the question: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” On that day, in that synagogue in the city of Capernaum, Jesus answers that question both for the demons and for you and me.
For the demon the answer was swift and simple. “‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.” Such is the power of God over the devil and his evil angels. It is easy for us to forget that our Lord has complete power even over our enemy, the devil.
The devil knows this. He knows he has been defeated by Jesus. He knows that Jesus’ death on the cross crushed his serpent head, just as God prophesied to him in the Garden of Eden. And he knows he is running out of time. “He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”
Now it’s our turn to ask the question. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Thanks be to God that his answer to us is the exact opposite from the devil’s. “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
The devil still prowls around churches, looking to distract, looking to pull away. He wants you to fall. He wants you to fail. But remember that your enemy is defeated. Jesus also continues to stand in the midst of the sanctuary, speaking to us by his word, strengthening us through his gospel in word and sacrament.
The people were right when they said about Jesus: “He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” Jesus continues to protect you today. He helps you fix our eyes on him, casting aside the devils deceptions and distractions. And now he points us ahead to the heaven he has won for us.
“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb.” Amen.