Good is regarded as evil. It happened to the Prophets and it happened to the One whom the Prophets foretold. Our Lord casts out a demon and instead of thanks, instead of acknowledgement that God Himself is in their midst, the people respond with unbelief. Their hearts are hardened. Some say that Jesus is in league with the devil, sent by Beelzebub to do showy things. Others treat Jesus like an entertainer and demand more signs and wonders under the thin veneer of trying to make a decision. They are like the people standing at the free sample carts in the grocery store, eating as much as they can, claiming “I’m not quite sure if I want to buy this. Give me another bite and maybe I’ll know.” Jesus rebukes both parties in no uncertain terms. To the first group, claiming Jesus was from the devil, He says that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Satan isn’t going to let himself be defeated for any reason. And besides, if Jesus is using demonic power to cast out demons, what kind of demonic power are their dear children using to do the same thing? To the second group He makes the declaration that there is no place for religious fence-sitters. You are either for Jesus or against Him. There is no contemplation, trying to make up your mind, seeing what each god has to offer. You are either for Jesus, gathering with Him, or you are working against Him, scattering what He has sown.
All this is to say, Jesus is a dividing line. Remember what we learned last week, that these Lenten Gospels were part of the catechesis, the instruction in the faith for those preparing to be Baptized at the Easter Vigil. This week we are taught, along with them, that when we make a confession of Christ it will not be popular. There will be those who support us, helping us to be imitators of God as dear children. But there will be even more people who will work against us. They will try to draw us back into a fence-sitting life, looking good on Sunday morning while the rest of the week embracing St. Paul’s laundry list of fornication, uncleanness, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talking, and coarse jesting, all the things that shouldn’t even be talked about among us. Others will openly hate us. They will call our good evil. Jesus heals a man and is called demonic. We support the lives of the unborn and are called bigots.
The Church of Christ and her members have always had sharp opposition. Jesus Himself foretold it. Though He promised that the gates of hell would not overcome His Bride, He didn’t promise that life would be easy. There are days when it seems that hell will win, that Satan is prevailing. He’s going to try. He is angry. In Jesus’ parable He talked of a strong man who lost his goods to a Stronger Man. That parable is about you. You were Satan’s goods, kept safely by Him. But along came Jesus, the Stronger Man, who by His death and resurrection and His Holy Spirit working through the Word, stole you away. Satan doesn’t take that news and surrender. He lets peace exist for a time, but comes back with seven friends more wicked than himself and does what he can to reclaim you as his own.
Satan and his friends are powerful. They are those ones who call good evil. They lure you with a false peace, enticing you to return to a simpler day when you didn’t have to fight. “Wasn’t life happier when you could do what you wanted?” they ask. “Remember the days of dirty jokes, gossiping, overindulging? You didn’t have to say no all the time. You didn’t have to tell your body ‘you don’t want that anymore.’ You just did whatever made you happy.” Part of what they say is right. Life was happier then! You sped from thing to thing, doing whatever made you happy without a second thought. There was no conscience, no guilt. And how difficult is this Christian life! Temptation to fornication, uncleanness, filthiness, and all the rest haven’t gone away. If anything, the temptation has gotten worse. And it’s gotten worse because the battle isn’t just inside of you, it’s coming from the outside, from those who you used to do those things with. They want to pull you back in, draw you away from the Faith, away from the Good One they think is evil.
When you were Baptized, you became a part of the Church, Christ’s dearly beloved Bride. That Bride has two parts. Our loved ones who have already departed this life are in the Church Triumphant. They are no longer receiving these temptations, fighting the battles. They rest from their labors and are safe with the Lord. But you, you are in the Church Militant. You must fight. The hymn we just sang is full of battle imagery. You sang of your foes’ banners, envenomed darts, armor, war, and rage. Dear Christian, you must fight! You cannot be passive. Jesus did not make you a member of the Church Militant on accident. He did it on purpose. So do what He has called you to do. Wage war against the unholy trinity of the devil, the world, and your sinful nature!
The fight will be fierce, the warfare long. God knows. Because He knows He has not left you helpless. In days of old when people went to war a banner went before them. It may have been the nation’s flag or a royal seal, but that banner reminded them for whom they fought. You, too, have a sign that goes before you in your battle. What goes before you is the crucifix. It is no empty cross, but one bearing the image of your Lord Jesus Christ. That picture of Christ the Crucified goes before you to give you strength and courage. It reminds you that you are not fighting alone, not fighting in vain. Jesus Christ has gone before you. He has fought with the devil and won! He withstood Satan’s temptations, silenced the world’s allurements, and by His Blood redeemed your flesh. He is victorious against the unholy trinity, and because He goes before you, because you are made a part of His Body, the Church, you are victorious! That cross on the Altar is not a sad remembrance of death, but a glorious sign of victory, an encouragement for you that your battle is won.
Because you must fight, God has not left you helpless. At the start of this service you prayed, “O Lord, remember us who bear the burden of the flesh we wear; Thou who dost our souls defend, be with us even to the end.” He answers that prayer with Himself. He has promised to be with you always, and is always here with His great Gifts in Word and Sacrament. He comes to you with His Word to strengthen your faith with the remembrance of the great things He has done for you. He comes to you with His Body and Blood to forgive your sins and to strengthen your resolve in the face of your enemies. He has promised to hear you when you pray, when you cry out to Him in distress, in need, and in thanksgiving. He grants you His help to fight against your enemies and will be with you to the end when He grants you peace and rest in His heaven.
One day your membership will be transferred to the Church Triumphant. You will rest from your labors, you will be free from all demonic attacks. Until then, the Lord will stretch forth the right hand of His majesty to be your defense against all your enemies. Because He fights with you and fights for you, you will be victorious.
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.