Sunday, May 25, 2008

Remembering the Last War

Texts: Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 1:1-3; 17-24

TOMORROW, AMERICA WILL BE CELEBRATING Memorial Day. I remember as a small child going up to a cemetery in a small town in eastern Kansas and decorating the graves of dead relatives with peonies from our yard. Peonies in mayonnaise jars for the departed Zickefooses: that’s what Memorial Day meant to me.

But then I grew older, and I learned that Memorial Day used be called "Decoration Day," and it was the day to honor the soldiers who’d died fighting the Civil War. And that later, after World War I, it was the time to remember the service of any deceased veteran who’d served in any of America’s wars. And that eventually, it was called "Memorial Day." And even though we take time on the last Monday in May to think of all our loved ones who have gone before, the day is fundamentally about remembering those who have served in our armed forces, especially for those who died in combat.

It’s a fine and noble thing to remember our war dead. It’s a grim and difficult thing to think about war. But this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I want you to think about and remember war, the last war.

No, I’m not talking about Desert Storm. Or about the conflict in the Balkans, or Viet Nam, or Korea, or World War II. I’m talking about the last war, the final war that will be fought on this earth, the war that’s ongoing now, the war you and I and every human being are all in.

This is the war of wars. Its theater isn’t just the Middle East-- Iraq or Afghanistan-- it’s being fought everywhere believers in Jesus Christ are confronting and being confronted by our old enemy, the Devil. The weapons in this war are not guns and missiles and supersonic jets and tanks, they are the Word of God and the Cross of Christ. And the stakes are not land and resources or even human lives and freedoms in this world; at stake in this war is the everlasting destiny of God’s church and His own divine name and glory.

We get frustrated and angry with our leaders when a war lasts more than a couple of years. But the war we need to remember today has been going on since before the beginning of time and it will not end until sin, death, and Satan are finally defeated and all things are put under Jesus’ feet.

In Isaiah we learn that Satan was once the most beautiful and glorious of the angels, Lucifer, the son of the dawn. But he wasn’t content with that. He said in his heart,

"I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars [that is, the angels] of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, . . .
I will make myself like the Most High."

This was Satan's first shot in his war of rebellion against Almighty God.

In Genesis we see his tactics. He attacks God by tempting Eve and Adam to sin against God’s command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Job we see that even though he’s lost his home in heaven, Satan still can appear in the council meetings of the angels of God and accuse God’s people of wrongdoing, wrong speaking, and wrong motives.

In fact, that’s what the word "Satan" means. He’s like a nasty prosecuting attorney who’ll say anything and twist your words any which way to force the judge to declare you guilty and condemn you to death. His accusations are one more weapon he uses in his rebellious war against God and His saints.

We’re in this war, right now. Every human being is on one side or the other. The tragic thing is, ever since our First Parents said Yes to Satan and No to the Lord God, all of us are born into Satan’s army. The Holy Spirit, speaking in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, says that the default nature of man is to

"[Follow] the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient."

Our Lord Jesus Himself, as recorded by the Apostle John, frankly states that those who reject Him as Messiah and King are not children of His Father in heaven. No, they are children of their father, the devil, and they want to carry out their father’s desire. They fight on Satan's side.

The odds in this cosmic war seem awfully stacked against Almighty God! Not only are all of us born in rebellion against Him, not only do we all naturally pledge allegiance to Satan, but as Ephesians says, naturally we’re spiritually dead in trespasses and sins. We couldn’t switch over to God’s side even if we wanted to! And in our natural human nature, we don’t want to!

But don’t forget: Satan’s war against God is a rebellion, not a civil war. Most civil wars involve some sort of rebellion; that is, as brother fights against brother there’s generally a sense in which one side is defending the constituted government and the other side wants to overthrow or change it. But rebellions always involve the subjects of a government fighting against the government’s leaders and authorities with the idea of becoming the leaders and authorities in their place.

That’s what Satan is doing and has been doing from before the start of human history. Satan is not equal with God. He’s only one of God’s created angels, and he’s a fallen, debased angel at that. God is the one who is all-powerful and all-sufficient. Almighty God is the sovereign of the universe; He has the wisdom, strength, and authority to see that His will is done. God can make a way where there is no way, and He can win battles and wars that we think are totally lost.

And He wins them with the strangest of weapons. St. Paul says in First Corinthians that "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

At the cross-- when Jesus the Son of God was hanging there dying and Satan and all the demonic forces thought they’d won, they’d won!-- it’s there that Almighty God was breaking their power forever. At the cross, where perfect Goodness was mocked and humiliated, it’s there that the rebellion of Evil was put down forevermore. At the cross, where our Lord offered up His body to be broken and pierced for the sins of mankind, God was bringing His chosen ones to His side.

The people of that time might have thought, "Oh, just another criminal gone to be crucified." Crucifixion was a common, if horrible, form of execution in the Roman world. But God proved His victory over Satan by raising His Son Jesus Christ from the dead. He poured out His Holy Spirit to bring convict us of our rebellion and sin and to confirm to us the life-giving power of the death our Savior died.

And so, by the preaching of the cross, God raises up in this world soldiers for His holy cause, sealing them for service by the power of His Holy Spirit. God is not alone in His warfare against that old serpent, the Devil. His army includes all the holy angels. And it includes you and me, all those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and made holy by His righteousness alone.

We see this in our Scripture readings today. The language of the book of Revelation is metaphor and symbolism, and it’s wise not to be too absolute with how to interpret it. But some things are very clear. If you back up in chapter 12, it describes what led up to the war in heaven in our reading. Verse 5 speaks of the birth of a male child, "who will rule the nations with an iron scepter." This refers back to Psalm 2, and designates Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. After the coming of Christ, everything is different. After Christ’s death and glorious resurrection, the Devil-- called the dragon in this passage-- no longer has any place in heaven. No longer can he stand in the council of the Most High and accuse the saints of God day and night. It doesn’t matter if you were an Old Testament saint looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, or a New Testament saint-- and brothers and sisters, that includes us-- who lives after the cross, God isn’t listening to Satan any more. The devil can chatter all he wants about our shortcomings and our failures to live up to the measure of Christ. But he’s firing blanks. He’s wasting his own time.

For us who believe in Jesus Christ, Satan is a defeated enemy. As the Scripture says, we have overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony.

But let’s be very clear about what the Scripture means by "testimony." Some folks think it means telling people stories about themselves, where Jesus is the means whereby they got a happier, healthier, more prosperous life. No! The testimony that overcomes Satan is our witness to Jesus Christ and what He did to bring us from death to life. It’s the truth about how the blood of the Lamb washed away our rebellion and replaced it with His perfect obedience. We can’t fight the powers of darkness by showing people our higher bank balance or our perfectly-raised children! We can’t even do it by claiming what nice people we’ve become, now that Jesus is in our hearts. No, the only way to spike the Devil’s guns is to remind him and all his angels of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. We fight our part in the great war by constantly saying, "Yes, I am a sinner-- saved by grace. Jesus took the punishment I deserved and made me acceptable to God. There is now no condemnation for me. Satan, you cannot bring any charge against me. Jesus has paid the whole penalty and set me free."

We stand only on our Lord’s total faithfulness and we’re strong only in His strength. The Scripture speaks of the martyrs, who "did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." Christian martyrs around the world even today are able to give up this earthly life, because they know that Jesus Christ their crucified and risen Lord is able to give them the resurrection life He has promised.

Verse 10 says, "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom or our God, and the authority of his Christ." Jesus, shortly before He ascended into heaven, told His disciples that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." Satan’s ultimate power is broken.

But the war is not over. The Devil has been cast down to earth, and he’s determined to make life as miserable for God’s people and for humanity in general, as long as he can.

You may remember, or maybe you’ve heard, about the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June of 1944. Historians are agreed that that was when the tide of World War II turned against the Nazis and their power was effectively broken. But it wasn’t the end of the damage they would do. In the Battle of the Bulge, the following December and January, over 19,000 American troops would be killed. And even more would die before Germany finally surrendered in May of 1945.

It is the same way with our enemy Satan, and will be up to the time when death and Satan and hell with be thrown for good and all into the lake of fire. He’s going to keep on fighting against us, because he knows his time is short.

He’ll fight against you by confusing you on what being a Christian is all about. He’ll get you thinking that it’s about having "your best life now" or about being nice to other people. He’ll try to make you embarrassed by talk of sin. He’ll whisper that it’s offensive to believe that we all deserve the wrath of God and the blood of Jesus is the only thing that can turn it away. He’ll make you go through persecution, financial trouble, or emotional and physical pain because you belong to Jesus.

Or he’ll be even more subtle than that. He’ll try to get you to be proud of your spirituality or your good deeds. Or he’ll try to make you into one of those people who goes around "sacrificing" themselves for others, whether the others want to be sacrificed for or not. He’ll even allow you to think you’ve got special power in yourself over him, if by doing that he can corrupt your relationship with God.

In the tenth chapter of the gospel according to St. Luke, seventy-two disciples return from preaching the kingdom and they’re joyful, because "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!"

It’s an innocent joy, but Jesus does not want them or us to put our focus there. Rather, He says, "Rejoice because your names are written in heaven." We did not write them there, He did, by the blood of His cross. He has given us power to trample on all the power of the enemy, but the power is not our own, it is His. We are like little children totally dependant on the strength and provision of our wise Father, and for that Jesus thanks the God of heaven and earth.

And we should thank Him, too. For by that we know that whatever Satan may throw against us, he will lose. The Father has given us to Christ the Son, and no one, not even the Devil himself, can snatch us out of His hand.

We are all in a war, of good vs. evil, life vs. death. God our Father has chosen to fight it with an army composed of holy angels, little children, and most of all, a Lamb that was slain. When you remember that war, remember most of all that it is the blood of that Lamb that guarantees us the victory. Trust in Christ’s perfect death. Accept the salvation He has won for you. And rejoice in hope, for by Him, with Him, and in Him alone, Satan is defeated and your name is written in heaven. Alleluia, amen!

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