Invocavit (Lent I) 2020
In his Large Catechism, when discussing the Lord’s Supper, Martin Luther made this keen observation: “If you could see how many daggers, spears, and arrows are aimed at you every moment, you would be glad to come to the Sacrament as often as you can. The only reason we go about so securely and heedlessly is that we neither imagine nor believe that we are in the flesh, in the wicked world, or under the kingdom of the devil” (LC V 82).
This statement is an appropriate one for us to remember as we begin this season of Lent and focus on spiritual warfare and our sin. As we consider our enemy, the devil, there are two main schools of thought and we are equally guilty of holding both opinions. At times we make the devil more powerful than he really is. The rest of the time we picture the devil as a sort of cartoon character, dressed in red and carrying his pitchfork. There are dangers in both perceptions because neither is accurate. Believing one over the other can either make our situation hopeless because we can never stand a chance against someone with the same power as God who uses his powers for evil, or it can lead us to get into bed with the devil because we don’t see him as the threat he really is.
The danger in making the devil all-powerful is that he isn’t. We think things like “The devil knew that I was struggling, so he put the sin right in front of me. I had no choice!” That gives Satan omniscience, knowing our thoughts even before we do, when that power belongs to God alone. Basically, our response in this view is much like Adam’s in the Old Testament Reading: “It’s not my fault. The devil made me do it. You can’t hold me responsible!” We become victims, not willing participants. This is to deny an essential power given us at Baptism. By our Baptism into Christ we are given the Holy Spirit and the power to do just what Jesus did in the wilderness—tell Satan to leave us alone. When temptation knocks, all we have to do is say “I am Baptized into Christ! Satan, you have no power over me!” We can pray the Lord’s Prayer, ask to be delivered from evil, and God will do it. Instead we choose to act like impoverished orphans. We possess the greatest power, the Word of God, and choose not to use it. What Jesus did in the wilderness we, too, can do, but we figure the devil is going to make us sin anyways, so we give in willingly.
The more dangerous opinion though is that the devil is nothing, that he is insignificant. We think that we’ll know him when we see him because he’s going to show up as a talking snake or a man with horns, a red cape, hooves, and a pitchfork. We have all seen enough cartoons to know that you never take that guy’s advice. This view of an impotent devil is what lets us think things like “I can stay home from church. I know what’s going to happen—I’m a sinner, I’m forgiven, sing some songs, and go on my way. A couple weeks off won’t hurt anything.” It’s the same line of thinking that leads us all down the dark roads of hatred, sexual immorality, coveting, gossip and slander, and all the rest of the things the Ten Commandments forbid. We think we can dabble in sin, stick our toes in and be just fine because we’ll realize when the devil is getting too tempting and we’ll walk away. Only we don’t realize we’re drowning until we notice that our mouth and nose are below the water and we’re being dragged deeper and deeper. We cannot serve two masters; we cannot willingly give ourselves into the lusts of the flesh and think we’ll still be able to pull ourselves away. Repent! Confess to the Lord that, while the devil is not all-powerful, he is far more powerful than we gave him credit. We have listened to his lies, drank his Kool Aid, and we cannot free ourselves from his deadly grip.
Thanks be to God the devil is already defeated. All the way back at the Fall, in the Garden of Eden, God promised the devil that his days were numbered. The Seed of the Woman, the promised Messiah would come and crush the ancient serpent’s head. Jesus has come, He has withstood every dagger, spear, and arrow of the wicked one, refused to give into temptation because you could not. He has stood faithful in your place. He has made the devil’s temptations powerless, his promises empty lies. On the cross as Jesus said “It is finished” His nail-pierced foot stomped on the devil’s head and defeated him once and for all.
He gave His victory over Satan to you at the Font. As the water was poured over your head and the strong Name of the Trinity was placed upon you, that defeat was given to you. By water and the Word “Christ’s Incarnation, His baptism in the Jordan River, His cross of death for your salvation, His bursting from the spiced tomb, His riding up the heavenly way” (LSB 604:2), all were bound to you, made yours just as if you had done them. Because you possess the Word of God you also possess its power. When Satan dangles sin in front of you, tells you “You will not surely die,” tells you that it will feel good to sin, Jesus Christ has given you His crushing defeat to use against the devil. “Satan, hear this proclamation: I am Baptized into Christ! Drop your ugly accusation, I am not so soon enticed. Now that to the Font I’ve traveled all your might has come unraveled, and against your tyranny, God, my Lord, unites with me!” (LSB 594:3)
Yes, the devil should be feared. Yes, the devil is your enemy. But he is a defeated enemy. He must be taken seriously because, even though his head is crushed, his tail thrashes wildly until the Last Day when he will be cast into the abyss of hell. That day will come. Soon the devil will have no power over you, over anything in all creation.
Until that day, Jesus Christ gives you His Body and Blood which strengthen your Baptismal armor. He gives you His Holy Spirit who strengthens you, body and soul, for battle against the devil. He has not left you defenseless. Quite the opposite! Because you are Baptized into His Name, you can call upon that Name in every trouble and He will silence the devil’s accusations and temptations. You have been given armor and weapons that make all the might of the world’s greatest military powers look like cheap plastic.
Luther was right—the daggers, spears, and arrows of the old, evil foe are pointed at you every moment. But remember his other great words which you just sang: “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us. This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none, he’s judged, the deed is done, one little Word can fell him.” Come, receive that Word in Body and Blood that defeats the devil, that makes all his daggers, spears, and arrows harmless. Your victory has been won.
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Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.