In the Collect we asked God to “be our defense against all our enemies.” The Sunday Gospels in the season of Lent show us what our enemies are. Two weeks ago we learned about the temptation of the devil. Last week we learned that God allows our faith to be tested so that it becomes the strongest it can be, and our flesh would rather curse God and believe the worst of Him, that He doesn’t care about us, refusing to see Him at work in times of trouble. Today, once again, we learn that our enemy is the devil who wants nothing more than to see to it that our last state is worse than our first. In other words, he doesn’t just want us to be sinners who did not know God’s Law and therefore didn’t know any better. He wants us to be hardened sinners who very much know God’s Law and intentionally, spitefully do the exact opposite.
That may sound easy enough to avoid. But it only sounds that way because we have a fatal misconception of the devil, especially in modern America. We think the devil is someone we can spot from a mile away—a talking snake or a little man on our shoulder, wearing red and carrying a pitchfork. If the era of Saturday morning cartoons taught us anything, it’s that we should avoid that guy. But it’s not that simple. Satan knows better; he knows he cannot make himself obvious. Instead he looks for weaknesses through which he can penetrate our armor. He especially loves façades. And this is the whole point of what Jesus discusses in the last half of today’s Gospel, and the reason for St. Paul’s admonition in today’s Epistle. The devil wants us to think we’re good Christians because we sit in church for an hour a week while we spend the rest of the week blending in with the world, giving into each temptation that pops up. In reality, what he is seeking to create in us is a hardened sinner, someone whose last state is worse than his first because he knows the Law of God, knows what things Christians are commanded to mark and avoid, but does those things anyways, thinking there are no consequences, that we can pretend to repent and ask for forgiveness while fully intending to continue in the sin, thinking God is none the wiser, that we can pull the wool over His eyes.
Nothing has changed in the nearly 2,000 years that have passed since St. Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians. We are still confronted by the same laundry list of sins and temptations as them—fornication, sexual uncleanness, covetousness, shameful defiance of the Law, foolish talking (almost literally translated as “moron words”), and coarse, vulgar jokes. Each of us is tempted by something in that list. And we all give into that temptation. It may be in varying ways and to varying degrees each time, but we still give in. We all must repent because we have not been imitators of God as dear children.
And it’s exactly that high standard where Satan tries to get us to create the façade. He knows as well as we do that the Law is unattainable. None of us, born in the image and likeness of Adam, can live up to what the Law demands. So Satan plays on that and then uses it to cheapen God’s infinite mercy and grace. He tells us that, since we can’t live up to that standard, we shouldn’t even try. He tells us to do whatever we want, act like we’re sorry when we show up here on Sunday, and then go right back to what we were doing. That’s the best we can do anyways, right? God said He’ll always forgive you as long as you say you’re sorry, right?
But isn’t that the same kind of behavior parents have spotted in their own children forever? Every single one of us have given our parents that kind of hypocrisy, and everyone who is a parent has received that same kind of hypocrisy from our own kids. Pretend you’re sorry, when you’re just doing it to get off the hook.
Living like that is not living as a Christian. Yes, God has promised to forgive the sins of all who are penitent. But repentance isn’t just saying you’re sorry to get off the hook. Repentance is saying you’re sorry and fully intending never to return to that behavior and pleading for grace, for divine strength to keep that promise. That is the Baptismal life! We all sin, daily and greatly. But the difference between the façade “Christian” and the true Christian is that the true Christian hates their sin, repents of it, and fully casts himself on God and His infinite mercy to convert, casts himself on the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about any good work, any ability to turn from sin.
That doesn’t mean we’ll be sin free in this life. But when we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. Jesus knows how easy it is to revert to our old way of living. He knows that those old desires that linger in our flesh will never go away, no matter what that desire may be. But He has died to forgive you for that sin. He has promised to forgive you, even when you return to your sin. He has promised that He will not abandon His children bought at the price of His own Blood.
In Holy Baptism He made you a child of God. Baptism uses adoption language because it’s best understood in light of this Parable in the Gospel Reading. Once you were held by the strong man, the devil, but the Stronger Man, Jesus Christ, came and took you away from him. He gave you a new Father, a new Family. But this new family has high standards. Your Father expects certain behavior. But He has not left you alone to do that, because on your own you never could. At your Baptism, the Holy Spirit swept your house and made you His temple. He dwells in you to cause you to live as a child of God, what Scripture calls sanctification. He helps you turn from temptation. He helps keep you from putting up a façade by bringing about the behavior your heavenly Father expects from you, the rejection of sin and rejoicing in doing what the Law commands. When you sin, He drives you to this place where you receive forgiveness, where you receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to strengthen you against temptation, to help you grow in your sanctification.
It’s when you refuse to come to this holy place that things go downhill fast. It’s when you don’t make use of Christ’s gifts of His Word, His Supper, Holy Absolution, prayer, and the like that the façade begins to grow. But as long as you are in this place, receiving the Holy Things Jesus comes to give, the Holy Spirit will work. Just like you don’t always see that the medicine the doctor prescribes is working, you may not always perceive that you’re growing in your sanctification, that the Holy Spirit is helping you avoid sin. But as long as you hear the Word and receive the Sacraments where He comes to you, He will help you. He has promised to do that and always will.
At the conclusion of His parable, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” “Keep” is better understood, not in the sense of obeying, but as holding fast or treasuring. The Word of God is the only thing that can save us from the hell we deserve, the only thing that can stop the crafts and assaults of the devil who would love to lead us off into sexual immorality, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, crude joking, and myriad other sins. That Word, the absolving Word of Jesus, removes our sins, frees us from the devil’s kingdom, and sustains us for the journey still ahead. Cling to that Word when the darkness threatens to overwhelm you. Through that Word comes Jesus Christ to forgive you, to give you life, and to give you peace.
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.