Oculi (Lent III) 2019
There is no middle ground. That’s the moral of today’s story, the point of today’s Gospel. “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” So says Our Lord. You can’t sit on the fence when it comes to your Christian life. A divided household falls. Today’s Gospel asks you who you will choose to hear: Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus or Satan. Of course, we know the answer in a Romans 7 kind of way—the good I want to do I do not do, and the evil I do not want to do, that I do. The new man created in each of us by Holy Baptism wants to hear Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus, and rejoices in what they say; he is happy to receive guidelines and boundaries. But the Old Adam, the flesh we all wear, cringes at those things. The Old Adam hates Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus. Today’s Gospel is a warning that it’s possible to fall away even after faith is created. It’s a reminder to guard our life and conduct. It’s an admonition to be one who hears the Word of God and keeps it.
But that’s not an easy prospect, which is why we are given the Holy Spirit and need Him so desperately. Jesus shows us how vicious the devil is. In Jesus’ first parable in today’s Reading He speaks of a strong man who is overcome by a Stronger Man. That strong man is Satan, and you are His goods that he keeps safe. By virtue of your birth in the flesh, in the image and likeness of fallen Adam, you were blinded and bound in the devil’s kingdom. And he was happy to have you. But he didn’t want you so he could treasure you. He held onto you so he could torment you, so he could lead you down all the dark, twisted, harmful roads of sin. He held onto you so he could watch the pain and agony brought on by your own sin and the sin of others. He sickly delighted in your torture, in your descent into the living hell life was never meant to be.
But then Jesus came. The Light shone in the darkness and Satan could not overcome Him. Jesus attacked and overcame Satan, He took away the armor, and He carried off the spoils, that is, you. In each battle Jesus had with Satan—His temptation, His sham trials, His mockery and beating, His crucifixion—Jesus, piece by piece, took away Satan’s armor. And just when Satan thought he had the victory, Jesus crushed his head. His precious Blood flowed and paid the price sin demanded. Not with gold or silver, but with His very self, Jesus bought you and claimed you as His own. He, the Stronger Man, brought you back into fellowship with the God who created you and loves you.
And wouldn’t it be nice if it stopped there. But Jesus lovingly warns us. Yes, Satan was defeated at the cross. Yes, Satan was exorcised at your Baptism, but he doesn’t give up easily or at all. He declares “I will return to my house from which I came.” He thinks you are his. And he’s going to try to win you back. He’s going to tell you that you can fence-sit, that you can play for both teams. He’s telling you, just like he told Adam and Eve, “You will not surely die.” Tell the dirty jokes. Have the affair. Put money above family. Line your pockets at your company’s expense. Cheat on the test. Put your name on someone else’s work. Gossip away, because they’re just so annoying and it’s your job to whisper about them and turn everyone else against them too. Covet your neighbor’s life and give it your all to one-up him. As long as you go to church, say sorry, and look like a Christian, it’s all going to be okay. But it won’t. Not only does that take you right back into the devil’s kingdom, but he fills you with seven more evil spirits and your last state is worse than the first. Why? Because you knew what was right. You heard the Word of God, heard His Law, heard His call to holy living. You knew at what price you were purchased and won, but you thumbed your nose at God. You told Him that His Son’s death in your place didn’t mean anything. You rejected the gracious operation of His Spirit calling you to repentance, back to grace. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
This is why Dr. Luther taught us that “the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” In other words: remember your Baptism. Take another bit of Luther’s advice and begin and end your day with making the sign of the holy cross upon yourself, remembering that you are Baptized into Christ. At the Font your spiritual house was swept clean and put in order. But it wasn’t left uninhabited. God, in His mercy, has given His Spirit to fill you, that you be made the temple of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of love and life and holiness.
Your God knows how violent the battle for your soul really is. He sees what surrounds you, the hungry billows, the unfurling banners of your foes, their fiery darts that they hurl without ceasing. And in His great love for you, He is not willing to lose you or any other person whom He has created. So He fights for you. God the Father sent His Son to step into the fray in your place. He sent Jesus to fight the devil in your place. He sent Jesus to be pierced through with nails and spear, to bear the cross for you. And Jesus sends the Spirit to create faith in you. He sends the Spirit to continue to fight with you and for you. He sends the Spirit to call and gather, to bring you into the safety of the Holy Christian Church so you can be bandaged and healed and strengthened by Word and water and bread and wine all carrying with them Jesus Himself to give you His victory.
It’s not an easy life. In this world there is no lack of sin and trouble. But you’ve come to the right place. This is where peace is given. It’s not an earthly peace, make no mistake. You won’t leave here with a full bank account, a clean bill of health, and a family that could grace the covers of magazines. But you get Jesus’ peace here. You get His Word of absolution. You get His Word, “This is My Body; this is My Blood” by which He comes to dwell inside of you. You get His abiding presence with you always. He is with you in each temptation to provide you a way of escape. He is with you even after you sin to hear your confession and grant you full forgiveness. And then, at the last, His angels will come to bear you home. He will support you until your final strife, and He will, by His grace, lead you out of death to life.
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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.