Tag Archives: Satan

Why Was The Cross Necessary?

I used to ask myself why Jesus had to die such a brutal death. It is hard to imagine a death more cruel than this one. If a death were required in order for humanity to be redeemed, why couldn’t it be more like a lethal injection, or why couldn’t he simply drink hemlock?

I think Christ’s death had to be brutal in order for human beings to take it seriously. After all, Bible could have said, “Jesus fell asleep one Friday afternoon, and he was declared to be dead, so they put his body in a cave. Then on Sunday morning, they discovered it was gone. Christ had risen from the dead.” This story might be the truth, but who would believe it? Who would take it seriously as a sacrifice for all of us? Even if God did not require blood, people do. Plenty of people doubt the death and resurrection of Christ to this day. The story would be even less compelling if the death had been painless and comfortable.

There is more. Christ’s death had to be brutal, because Satan had to be shamed. Satan is, above all things, proud. There would be no way to defeat him with finality without shame. The brutality and inhumanity of Christ’s death was among other things shameful. It was intended by the Romans to be shameful. Humiliating. Cruel. Satan needed to know that God cared for humanity so much that God himself would lovingly endure this shameful death to set people free from Satan’s grip.

And the resurrection? Without the brutality of the death, the resurrection would have meant little. Jesus brought people to life many times during his ministry, but none of those resurrections did anything for humanity. The deaths may have been painful and miserable, but when those people came back to life, Satan simply grinned. When Christ endured the horror of crucifixion and then took up his life again, Satan was done. He still had his freedom to afflict us here in time and space, but that freedom has limits. The world where Satan runs free will come to an end, but Christ’s kingdom has no end. The resurrection promises us that life here and now is changed forever by the resurrection. Those who follow Christ live in time and space, but they live at the intersection where eternity pierces the envelope and redeems creation.

Mike Glenn writes, “In the resurrection Christ brought into reality all the promises God had given to his people.”

What promises is Mike talking about?

Start with Abram in Genesis 21:2-3

I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

The deaf shall hear and the blind shall see Isaiah 29:18

On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.

Nobody needs to go hungry any more 

Isaiah 55:2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.

God is the God of life

For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: Seek me and live.

God will never leave us here at the mercy of evil, all alone

To Joshua in Joshua 1:5, I will not fail you or forsake you

To Joseph in a dream foretelling Jesus’ birth Matthew 1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

And many more.

Some people say that Jesus was a great teacher just like other great teachers. However, if he rose from the dead, then he is very different from all the other teachers. He knows things no other teacher knows. If he says we must love our enemies, then we need to listen. A man who suffered on the cross, died and rose again, knows things about both enemies and love that we need to learn. The beautiful thing about the resurrection is that it not only showed us that Christ has power over physical death, but he also has power over “all other forms of death in [our] lives, such as relationships … and opportunities.” Furthermore, “the Risen Christ is not limited by time and space, so he is with us in the present, and he waits for us in the future.”

Some might try to argue that God could have arranged for Christ to die a less brutal death than the crucifixion, and I won’t argue, but I will say that anything less would not get our attention. Human beings are cruel. We don’t like wimps. Jesus was no wimp. He faced death in the most brutal fashion, and then he overcame it. He faced Satan, with love and grace, and then he overcame Satan. From the moment the first nail was hammered into Christ’s body, Satan’s last days were begun. The image of the great dragon lashing his tail and sweeping stars out of the sky in the book of Revelation reminds me of a three-year-old’s tantrum. Satan is much more dangerous and vicious than any toddler, but he felt as impotent as a toddler when Christ faced the brutality of the cross, and won. Because he did that, we all can join in that great crowd of people, myriads and myriads of people in the new heaven and the new earth at the wedding feast of the slaughtered lamb, the One who suffered shame, excruciating pain and death in order that we might live with him forever and ever.

Jesus said “Yes” to death in order that he might say “Yes” to life, “Yes” to redemption, “Yes” to transformation. Without the cruel cross and the resurrection, we would all be subject to Satan’s permanent “No.”

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All or Nothing

Sunday Readings:  Genesis 3:8-15     Psalm 130     2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1     Mark 3:20-33

 

When we first read about Jesus in the book of Mark, it says that Jesus came into Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist and his message was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” John the Baptist had preached repentance, but he was not able to give people the good news that Jesus brought. It was good news to suffering people, but it was not good news to Satan. Jesus’ words announced that the war between good and evil, a clash between kingdoms battling for universal triumph, was on.

The kingdoms first clashed in the Garden of Eden. In that battle, Satan appeared to win. He deceived Eve. She lured Adam to join her. God’s supreme creation chose to reject his wisdom and do what felt good to them. It looked good, because Satan made it look good. Even as God pronounced judgment on his rebellious children, however, he served notice on Satan. In today’s Old Testament reading God says, “I will put enmity … between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head.” Those few little words were God’s promise of hope for humankind.

When Jesus showed up with his message that “the kingdom of God has come near,” Satan knew that his days were numbered. In fact, the image of Satan hearing Christ speak for the first time, recalls to us the image in the book of Revelation where the great dragon lashes out with his tail and stars fall.

In the Revelation story, the terrible dragon stood waiting for a son to be born, and as he waited, he twitched his tail, seemingly destroying stars as he did so. To be able to drag stars out of the sky made him appear powerful, but his seeming power was short-lived. The child escaped. Instead of devouring the child, the dragon was confronted with an army of angels, and soon he was utterly defeated. In the Revelation story, the dragon was thrown down to the earth. Ultimately the story says that he “went off to make war on … those who keep the commandments of God.” Using the imagery from that dragon story, it is easy to imagine that great dragon raging and lashing out with his tale when he hears Jesus speaking to people saying, “The kingdom of God has come near.” The clash of kingdoms had begun.

In Galilee, people who suffered mental illness, incurable diseases, social ostracism, fear, hunger, and hopelessness heard those words, and they came running to Jesus. Families and friends brought people who could not bring themselves. The excitement mounted. The crowds surged around Jesus, crowds of people who wanted to be healed, crowds of people who wanted to observe the healings, and crowds of people who wanted to figure out how this charlatan was pulling off such a masterful show. In the last category were quasi-religious leaders who could read and write for hire, who accused Jesus of complete fakery, of trying to lure people away from God to himself by working in cooperation with Satan.

When Jesus heard the accusation, he famously replied, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet this dramatic moment is sandwiched between the hints of some family conflict that raises a confusing image. The crowds drawn by the spectacle of healings and exorcisms were so huge Jesus could hardly get a moment to eat. His family made early attempts to rescue him, because people were starting to talk as if Jesus were the madman, not those he had healed. And the religious leadership joined in the fray. The family understandably wanted him to be safe and to take time for a little R&R. It is hard to know if they stood outside because they could not push through the crowd, or if they stood outside, because they were actually afraid to get too close to such a controversial figure, but whatever the reason, they remained at a distance. They sent a message to Jesus asking him to come to them, but Jesus responded by dismissing them. His earthly family was, therefore, immediately divided.

As if the obvious division were not enough, Jesus went one step further. He looked around at the people crowded close, watching his every move, listening intently to his every word. He looked at the people who needed healing, and he looked at the people who had brought patients for him to help. Mark doesn’t try to read his mind, but when I read his words, I conclude that his mind was thinking, “The kingdom of God has come near. I can’t take it away from those who need it.” Aloud Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” These are shocking words. His family only wanted what was best for him – some rest, some food, some quiet, maybe even some sleep. How harsh those words must have sounded.

Yet this is not the only time Jesus said such things. When Jesus was calling people to serve him, some made excuses. They had work to finish. They had parents to take care of. They wanted to get their rest and their sleep and just a little bite to eat before they headed out to follow Jesus. Jesus told them, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In another place, Jesus said, “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” In today’s story, and in all these other instances, Jesus was talking about priorities. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than doing the work God gives us to do. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” We must put Christ above everything. He summed up this teaching one day when someone asked him what the most important commandment was. Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The Christ who tenderly looked down from the cross and made sure his mother would be cared for after his death, looked up from the center of a needy crowd and dismissed that same mother. Priorities.

So when Jesus’ mother and siblings showed up in the middle of his work, he wasn’t being petulant and egotistical. He was showing us where our priorities must lie. He was not rescinding the commandment to love and honor our parents. He had not lost his mind. He was busy fighting the battle with the kingdom of evil on behalf of people who needed to know that God’s kingdom was more important than anything else. It really was the pearl of great price. It really was worth more than life itself.

Because a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.

That is the real message. When we work for the kingdom of God, everything else is secondary, maybe even less than that. We must do the work God gives us and fill our place in the kingdom. We can’t be partly committed to the kingdom and partly devoted to our own comfort or to pleasing our parents or our children. The battle between good and evil demands full commitment. Jesus said it very simply, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The kingdom of God has come near. God will not permit his kingdom to be weakened by half-hearted promises. If you want to be part of it, you must commit yourself to God alone.

Free from Oppression

The lesson of the American Revolutionary War is that human beings want to be free and they will endure a great deal of suffering if suffering is the price of freedom.

The founding of Christianity also cost a great deal of suffering, and that suffering purchased freedom for all people. The American Revolution set British colonists free from oppression by a tyrannical king. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ set all people free from the oppression of a tyrannical demon.

Peter, an eyewitness to the work of Jesus during his ministry, described Jesus’ work as ‘healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” (Acts 10:38). He lumped together the sick, the lame, the deaf and the demon-possessed in a single group – those who were oppressed by the devil. Peter saw the devil behind all human suffering, with good reason, because human suffering only began when humans were cast out of the Garden of Eden after Satan successfully lured them to reject God.

Suffering of any kind narrows people’s horizons. Anyone who has had any serious illness knows that it can be a major task simply to drink a sip of water. The same thing happens when people are overburdened with stress or fear. You might get up one morning and feel that anything is possible, only to discover that someone else was given the promotion you worked toward for three years, and suddenly your world closes in and feels very small and dark. This is the way people feel when evil imprisons and oppresses them.

The message of Easter is that Christ’s death and resurrection set people free from that imprisonment. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus told us that evil will always be part of the world, but in Christ, we can be set free from its oppressive power.

When Peter went to visit Cornelius he told the people gathered there what Christ had done. Peter told them about Christ’s death and resurrection, and as he was explaining that he and many others had shared meals with the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit fell on the whole group. Peter said simply, “everyone who believes in [Christ] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.´ (Acts 10:42) Forgiveness of sin is the experience of being set free from the oppression of the devil.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he could only heal those he could reach. He was God incarnate, and in that incarnation, he did not reach out to everyone. However, the resurrected Christ is available to all. The risen Christ is the promise to everyone that God wants us to be free. When we enter into a relationship with Christ through baptism, we are released from the prison of sin and our world becomes spacious. God created each person with gifts for service and fulfillment. When we belong to Christ we are set free from Satan’s constraints that suppress our achievements and our fulfillment. Free from Satan’s power, we can become all that God had in mind for us.

This is true freedom.

A Bright Promise

Today’s readings:

Genesis 9:8-17     Psalm 25:1-10     1 Peter 3:18-22     Mark 1:9-15

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, People often think of it as a dark time, a time of deprivation, a time to endure some pain. I think the texts we read today give a somewhat more hopeful view of this season. It is certainly a season to examine ourselves and to think about what is in our lives that might need to be relinquished in order to remove one more barrier between us and our deeper relationship with God. But viewed as an invitation to draw nearer to God, Lent looks like a brighter time.

Today’s text from Genesis at first strikes us as misplaced. The rainbow after the flood in the story of Noah is one of the most colorful and delightful images in the Bible. With the rainbow, God announced that he would never again cleanse the earth of sin by destroying humankind. As we read Mark’s rapid-fire, high-level narrative of the beginning of Christ’s ministry, it is easy to miss the point that when Jesus began to preach, he was fulfilling God’s plan never to crush humanity again in an attempt to wipe out sin. Jesus came, and began to preach the simple message Mark records, because he was God’s solution to sin on the earth. He was the fulfillment of the promise of the rainbow. God could not tolerate the fact that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” He sent Jesus to die instead of destroying human beings.

Jesus’ message invited us to draw near to God, because God had drawn near to us. He said, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The problem everyone has with that message is that everyone knows he is sinful. People want to get closer to God, but they don’t dare. They know how unworthy they are. They feel that they have done too many bad things. They have made too many bad choices. They know they need to clean up their act, yet they feel incapable of doing so. Mae West once said, “I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it,” and most people know exactly what she is talking about. People know that God hates sin, and because they feel they can’t resist sin, they are afraid to draw near to God. They even get mad at God for being so judgmental. They think he has no idea how hard it is to be a human.

They are wrong. As Jesus came up out of the water at his baptism, the Holy Spirit manifested itself to him in the form of a dove, and God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” That sounds like quite a lovely sight, but Mark says that the Holy Spirit “immediately” drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus was about to find out exactly how hard it is to be human. For starters, he fasted for forty days. He was human, and he needed food. The wonderfully designed human body has immense resources to promote life, even in times of great deprivation, so this long fast did not kill Jesus, but it would have made him profoundly hungry and miserable and weak. It was in that vulnerable state that Satan came to tempt him, when he was as weak and miserable as you or me.

Mark doesn’t provide any detail about the temptation, but Matthew fills in the story. Jesus was tempted over and over to build up his human self rather than trust and serve God. Every temptation is ultimately that one temptation: do what will make you feel good right this minute instead of doing what God created you to do. The story of Jesus’ temptation is like the story of the rainbow, however. It is not intended to make us feel guilty, because we have problems resisting temptation; it is intended to help us understand that God loves us even though we have those problems.

We can be blessed by the story of the temptation of Jesus in three ways:

  •  It comforts us, because Jesus knows what it is like to have Satan in your face, preying on your greatest weakness, pushing all your buttons, teasing you about what you want and daring you to believe that you deserve to get what you want, because God is not fair.
  •  It encourages us, because Jesus, a real human being, was able to prevail. He responded to Satan and resisted the temptation. There is hope for us in the model he gives us. Maybe, just maybe, we can sometimes resist.
  • It helps us understand the calamitous depth of Jesus’ confrontation with Satan on the cross. In the wilderness, at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, we are allowed to see the Satan clearly, starkly contrasted to Christ. In the wilderness, Christ suffers great privation, but no torture. Satan was frustrated in the wilderness, but he did not give up. If we want to know what was happening with Jesus on the cross besides great physical suffering, we have only to look back to the wilderness. The voices at the cross screaming, “Okay, if you really are the Messiah, just climb down off that cross. Show us your stuff,” were animated by the same voice that said in the wilderness, “Why should you be hungry? You could turn these stones into bread if you wanted to.”

 If Jesus had not been tempted in the wilderness, his preaching about repentance might have rung hollow in our ears. After all, what would he know about how hard it is to live a righteous life? The temptation reminds us that Jesus knew exactly how hard it is. When we remember that story, we can put our own temptations in a different perspective. When we think about our problems in the light of Jesus’ experience, then it is easier to see how we might need to let go of some bad attitudes and self-serving behavior in order to be more like Jesus. If we didn’t have the image of Jesus in the wilderness to show us how serious God is about fighting Satan, it would be harder for us to understand that Christ’s death on the cross is the real fulfillment of God’s promise in the rainbow. Every time we see a rainbow, we should remember the price God was willing to pay for his decision not to crush us because of our sins.

The rainbow is a beautiful image. We don’t need to see one in order to think about it. It is easy for us to see a rainbow in our heads whenever we want to. Even little children can do that. When we feel tempted to give up on ourselves because we keep failing to be the people we want to be, we should remember the rainbow. In the rainbow God tells us that he knows all about our problems. He knows how hard it is, and he loves us anyway. In the rainbow, God says, “I love you so much that I’m going to fight that war for you.” When you think of it that way, the Lenten season is not so dark after all.

 Try reading today’s Psalm as your own prayer, thinking about the rainbow promise as you pray.

The War Against Evil

The Harry Potter novels chronicle a fantastic parallel universe in which the crusade against evil is fought in the person of a young man who unknowingly carries an element of his adversary within. That war culminates in a final battle worthy of a James Bond movie. In that story, the kingdom of evil ends with a bang. The confrontations with evil that most of us recognize are much less dramatic. Our gospel for today points us to a sure strategy to experience victory in those battles whether they end with bangs or whimpers.

Mark’s gospel, the one that led the way for many others, is quite concise. The reading today is a brief but dense telling of a powerful story. Its subject might seem a bit quaint to modern readers who do not believe in demon-possession. It is included in the book for an important reason: We need to know how Satan feels about us, and we need to know what to do when we see him at work.

Describing the beginning of Christ’s ministry, a few short verses before today’s story, Mark introduces the message of the ministry. He says, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15) Before the story we read today, Jesus called some of his disciples, so we have reason to believe that Peter, Andrew, James and John, and possibly others, were with Jesus on the day he first preached in Capernaum. On that day they were introduced to the warfare that would be the central feature of the rest of their lives.

The story of this day is extremely important. Jesus’ message of the kingdom and repentance and good news was not good news to Satan. Satan had already tried to appeal to Jesus’ human nature in numerous temptations that would have put a stop to this message. Satan tried to turn Jesus into a traveling medicine show that would have been great entertainment without changing lives or freeing people from Satan’s grip. Even though Satan had lost the day, he never gave up, and today’s story is only one of many episodes in which he continued to attempt to take Jesus off message. He would have loved to see Jesus explode in rage or fly out of control like Moses at the waters of Meribah, and he never stopped trying. To this day, Satan never stops trying to squelch Christ’s message. He never wants to hear the words  “the kingdom of God has come near.”          

When Jesus strolled into Capernaum, Satan was ready and waiting. Jesus went to synagogue on the Sabbath, as anyone who knew him would expect. Because word had gotten around that he was a teacher, he was invited to teach that morning, just as any other wandering rabbi might have been invited to do. We already know the substance of his message. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” People were quite impressed and began to talk among themselves about this unique message and this unique teacher. Why, he taught as if he knew what he was talking about. He didn’t waste any time quoting old rabbis. He taught with authority.

But Satan was ready. Satan did not want people to hear the good news. He did not want them to repent of self-worship. He did not want them to enter into the kingdom of God. He had placed someone in the crowd to put a stop to this nonsense. Right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching, this man interrupted with scornful words. “What are you doing here?” he shouted.” Who do you think you are? I know who you are, you Holy One of God.” Spoken in this tone of voice, those words sounded like an accusation of fraud and deception. Spoken at this particular time, those words were intended to divert people from thinking about Jesus and distract them to think about this demented man. Satan wanted them to turn away from Christ’s message that had inspired them. He preferred them to look at this wild man whose behavior might be entertaining. Satan wanted the people turned away from the message of Christ. He also hoped that this interruption would take Christ off his message.

Satan failed. Jesus did not get angry about the intrusion, and he did not speak scornfully to the man whose state of mind might have earned him a rebuke from most scribes or rabbis. Jesus loved the man and hated the demon. Instead of rebuking the man, he rebuked the demon. The rebuke itself reinforced the message that the kingdom of God had drawn near. Jesus said to the demon, “Muzzle yourself!” It was the same command he would use later to calm the Sea of Galilee in a storm. It emphasized to the demon that the words of Christ were the words of God, the words that nourish the hearts of men and terrify demons. Christ ejected the demon from the man and from the situation. He took back control of the circumstances. He modeled for the assembled worshipers the message he brought to them.

When Christ healed a man possessed of a demon, he showed everyone what repentance could do. He said very clearly, if you turn away from evil, you, too, can be healed like this man. When he sent the demon packing, he showed the people that he actually had the authority he seemed to have when he was teaching. He was the real thing. They could rely on his words. Look what his words could do. When he acted with love toward the man while exerting his authority against the evil that had imprisoned him, Jesus showed them what it took to face down evil. The old saying about hating sin and loving sinners is so very true, and Jesus demonstrated in Capernaum exactly what that looks like. When we say that we want to be Christlike in our daily lives, this example is quite important. We meet evil every day of our lives in the words and deeds of people around us. Many people serve the cause of evil and work for Satan’s goals without even knowing it. It is not for us to malign the people and belittle them or even for us to shout at them in righteous rage. Our call is to love them, just as Jesus loved the demon-possessed man used by Satan that day in Capernaum as an emissary of the kingdom of hell. Yet even as we love people enslaved by evil, we must not allow the evil to succeed.

We are called to confront evil every day. Satan’s emissaries are everywhere. They may be intentional servants, who delight in saying they worship Satan, but those are few in number. A lot more of Satan’s emissaries claim humanist values and decry religion of any kind because of the failings of people of faith. A number larger than we might like to acknowledge are fellow believers whose weak faith and weaker resolve are overridden by Satan’s relentless onslaught. Regardless, we will encounter a lot of evil in our lives. When it happens, we need to remember this story. However, we are not likely to be asked or even expected to perform exorcisms. We must trust the One with the power and authority to do that work. We must follow Christ’s example and demonstrate that the kingdom of God is near.

When God in the person of the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we are emissaries of the kingdom of God wherever we go. When we face evil, our mission is to be like Christ. We must demonstrate the fruits of his work in our hearts — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and trust him to eject the demons. We stand firm in word and deed against evil and its whole agenda. We love the people and hate the evil.

We can never vanquish evil by resorting to its attitudes and behaviors. Evil shows itself in greed, lust, aggression, vengeance, hatred and destruction. Christ shows himself when we act like him. When Christ faced the victim of evil, he loved the victim and vanquished the evil.

Satan never rests. In the time/space universe where we live, he roams free. He still wants to put a stop to Christ’s message. He still does not want anyone to hear that the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

We see him at work in individuals and nations, in disease, in fractured families, in economic crises and personal despair. He uses any weapon that comes to hand in his attempts to make us doubt God and turn away from the kingdom. Christ shows us in today’s gospel that he has the authority and the power to defeat Satan if we trust ourselves and our warfare to him.