Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sermon: Invocabit (Lent 1)

10 February 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 4:1-11 (1 Samuel 17:40-51, 2 Cor 6:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s readings are exceedingly violent.

Samuel tells the story of the bloodthirsty Philistines and their bully-in-chief Goliath – as well as how he was felled by a shepherd boy with a slingshot. The text gives us details that may seem overly graphic and simply gratuitous – such as the stone sinking into the giant’s forehead and David beheading him with a sword.

St. Paul starts off with a sermon about salvation and repentance, and then abruptly speaks about being persecuted, whipped, and incarcerated. He recalls riots and sleepless nights, hunger and patient suffering. He talks about dying, being chastened, sorrow, and poverty. He tells of the treacherous deceivers who attack his reputation.

Finally, St. Matthew gives us an account of our Lord’s temptation, His battle against the devil. Satan tries to use the Lord’s hunger against Him, attempts to get our Lord to jump off the high point of the Temple, and then brings Him to a mountain to try to drive a wedge between Him and His Father in a vain attempt to create a civil war between the persons of the Trinity. The Lord defeats the devil in this skirmish, commanding him to depart. Angels came to minister to our Lord in the aftermath of this titanic clash with the general of the forces of evil.

It is fitting on this first Sunday of Lent that we be reminded of the violence of the Christian life. We are at war. Too often we forget. For our eyes usually don’t see the carnage. In fact, things are pretty good for us overall. Even the poorest among us lead pretty good lives. Nearly every person in our country enjoys running water, plumbing, refrigerators and freezers, television, telephones, air conditioning, and heating. Most have cars, cell phones, computer access, and ways of playing music and movies. We take luxuries for granted that would have been the envy of royalty only a century ago.

And although we are suffering a terrible upswing in violent crime, most of us simply barricade ourselves in the house and never really confront it. We have not had foreign troops on our soil in nearly a century and a half. We enjoy our sports, our shows, our vacations, and our time of recreation. It’s easy to forget that we are in a war of the most violent and vicious type.

The entire Bible is an account of a war between good and evil, between God and Satan, between angels and demons, between the holy and the unholy, between order and chaos, between the New Man and the Old Adam, between life and death. This is not merely a skirmish or even a world war. This war is cosmic in nature, and the ramifications are eternal.

The weapons in this war are not rifles, grenades, and bombs. Rather the ammunition is spiritual. Evil’s weapons are temptation and deceit, while Good’s power lies in Truth and the Word of God.

Look at our Lord’s battle with Satan. The devil uses the Lord’s hunger-weakened flesh as the battleground upon which to hurl deception. The father of lies tries to get our Lord to depend on His own power to turn stones into bread – rather than to depend on His Father’s mercy to sustain Him. Satan’s second weapon is a temptation to make Jesus test His Father’s love and reliability by issuing God a challenge. And finally, Satan appeals to the last weapon in his arsenal – a naked attempt to bribe our Lord with money and power.

And notice how our Lord repels each Satanic attack – by the Word of God. Jesus, who is the Word of God, cites the enscripturated Word of God like a shield to repel the devil’s darts. When the devil has run out of weapons, our Lord dispatches him not with an arrow or a sword, but rather with a Word: “Away with you!”

One little word can fell him.

Mere words against the author of all evil, a powerful monster armed with deception and hatred? Not mere words, but rather the Word of God – more powerful than any two-edged sword. Satan never had a chance.

For in the Kingdom of God, the victor isn’t necessarily the bigger, the stronger, or even the most clever. The victor is the one armed with truth and God’s promises.

Most people know and love the story of David slaying the giant. Everyone loves an underdog. We look up to people who exhibit bravery in the face of danger and poise in the midst of battle. David certainly had a steady hand, as well as five missiles to hurl at Goliath. But what made the shot connect was the will of God. David had faith in the God of his fathers. He did not allow the appearance of the situation to define the situation. For he knew and understood that God would not allow his people to be destroyed. David held God to His promises, and put himself on the line as collateral. “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin,” David shouts to the Philistine, “but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.”

Mere words against a giant of a man armed with weapons? Not mere words, but rather the Word of God – more powerful than any two-edged sword. Goliath never had a chance.

When evil comes upon us, breaking in on our fantasy that we are not involved in the cosmic battle between good and evil, we often don’t know what to do. We fret and lose sleep. We blaze in anger, and we sulk in depression. We fight with words that seem clever and with weapons of this world that are useless in the spiritual war we find ourselves in.

St. Paul’s account of his many sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, his many attacks of the devil, physical and spiritual, concludes curiously: “by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness.” Paul finds life in the midst of death, rather than complaining about his chastisement, he glories in not yet being killed. He speaks of rejoicing even in sorrow, and in seeing himself as rich even in the face of physical want.

This is because Paul understands the ramifications of this war. We Christians are not on the sidelines while others fight – we baptized children of God are the very ground zero of the cosmic strife between God and Satan. No matter how terrible things get, we have already won. No matter what temptations Satan may cast at you, these are all repelled by the Word of God.

Mere words against our sinful flesh, against the world, against the devil himself – all armed with power beyond what we can even imagine? Not mere words, but rather the Word of God – more powerful than any two-edged sword. Satan never had a chance.

Dear friends, St. Paul is pleading with us anew. Don’t give up. Don’t despair. Don’t let the evil one think he can defeat you. For you are baptized. You have the Gospel. You are equipped for warfare. You will struggle, you will doubt, and you will fall in this battle or that battle. But by God’s grace, you can confess, you can draw strength anew from the Holy Scriptures, from Lord’s Supper, by confession and absolution, by the hearing of the Word of God proclaimed, by living in the repentance of your baptismal grace. These five weapons of words seem weak in the face of the giant of the temptations and Goliaths we face, but like David’s five small stones, they are backed by the promise and the power of God.

St. Paul begs you “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” We may be tempted to either underestimate the power of God’s Word, or we may be deceived into taking the Gospel for granted. Avail yourself of the weapons the Lord has given you. Fight! Struggle! Beat back the foe! Rage against him, against the flesh, against hell itself with the fury of a soldier with his back against the wall, fighting for his very life with nothing more than a bayonet in desperate hand-to-hand warfare.

The Christian life is bloody and gory. The Christian life is violent. The Christian life is an epic struggle between cosmic forces far more powerful than we have of our own power. But thanks be to God that the blood and gore are not ours, but of our Champion, the Son of David, who instead of five smooth stones, hurls his five holy wounds at the ancient evil foe. Thanks be to God that the violence of the Christian life was poured out upon the holy Victim on the cross – by whose stripes we are healed. Thanks be to God that the outcome of the epic struggle was sealed long ago when the Son of David, the Son of God breathed out His victory cry: “It is finished,” crushed the serpent’s head, and then rose from the dead in cosmic triumph.

Dear brothers and sisters, to your battle stations – stations of the cross. To your posts – in battle formation on your knees. Prepare to present arms – the Word of God. The day is already yours, for you are the Lord’s. He has done it. We are called to remain steadfast in His service – even as He is steadfastly serving us – unto eternal victory over Satan, sin, the flesh, death, and hell itself.

“Away with you, Satan. For it is written…” Amen.

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

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