"Fighting the Powers" - Lent 1B
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
February 18, 2018 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Mark 1:9-15
Description

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: February 18, 2018 – Lent 1B

1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

 

Fighting the Powers

 

            My Christian Ethics professor stood in front of the room, “I have a question for all of you, and I’m going to ask David here to record the responses while I step out. How many of you believe that either Satan or a radical force of evil outside of humanity exists in the world?” The professor stepped out of the room. I did as I was asked. I got up in front of the room. “All right, how many think Satan or a radical force of evil exists?” About half the class raised their hands. “How many don’t?” The other half raised their hands. When the professor came back and saw the tally marks on the board, he said, “That looks pretty close to nearly every class I’ve taught.”

 

            As I look back, I’m fascinated but not surprised that so few students believed in a radical force of evil plaguing humanity. Most of us came from privileged backgrounds. Few of us had to deal with systemic racism, classism, or other hurdles. Without experiencing much evil directly, it was easy to chalk up evil actions to certain depraved individuals. What is especially interesting about this to me is that this survey occurred in the fall of 2003 – two years after 9/11, and six months into the Iraq War. And we still matched our professor’s expectations.

 

            Of course, there are a number of reasons why even Christians might be loathe to talk about Satan or evil forces today. Whenever I hear the term “Satan”, I think of the Church Lady on SNL equivocating a particular celebrity or pop culture phenomenon with the father of lies. Or the caricature of a goat-hooved, horned, tailed, red figure with a pitchfork pops into our heads. It sounds ridiculous on the surface. Satan? Get real.

 

            But the early church absolutely believed that evil forces plagued the earth. The New Testament witnesses to this so much that it almost seems embarrassing to us “rational”, “scientific” Christians today. Everywhere you turn in the Gospels, especially that of Mark, Jesus is casting out one impure spirit or another. There is clearly a hierarchy of evil spirits as well that Jesus himself affirms. In Mark 3, the scribes accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons, Satan. Jesus quickly quashes that, asking, “how can Satan cast out Satan?” Everywhere you turn in the New Testament, there are supernatural forces at work. Our reading from 1st Peter even extends this back into the Old Testament, linking “imprisoned spirits” to either disobedient humans or angels from Noah’s day.

 

            And even though the New Testament was written by men from a pre-scientific era, by the Holy Spirit’s guidance, they saw straight into the heart of the fallen world. They knew that evil was far more than human actions or random chance. Rather, evil is systemic. The world is in bondage to evil forces and cannot free itself. In Mark 10:45, Jesus tells his disciples that he came to give his life “as a ransom for many”. In other words, Jesus came to liberate the world from the powers that hold it captive – the powers of sin, death, and hell. The entirety of Jesus’ ministry is a battle against those supernatural powers. That changes how we read the Gospels; indeed, how we view Christianity. Jesus’ primary enemies weren’t the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the scribes, or even the Romans. All of those groups were held captive by the powers of sin, death, and hell. The same even goes for the disciples, Jesus’ hand-picked followers, who simply cannot grasp Jesus’ mission or the implications of his identity. They are chained by the power of their ignorance and hard-heartedness.

 

            Which means that certain human beings are not the prime enemy of the Christian, either. As Ephesians says, our enemies are not of flesh and blood. People (including and especially Christians) knowingly or unknowingly collaborate with the powers of evil, but they aren’t the main cause. The main cause is deeper than we know, greater than we understand. Jesus grappled with that cause out in the desert for those forty days. He wrestled with the heart of evil itself, the cause of all human misery, the basis for all atrocities from the beginning of civilization to the present day, including the massacre in Florida this week. The struggle continued through his ministry, where the powers, using human agents, put Jesus to death on a cross. For a moment, the powers seemed to have won.

 

            But Jesus rose again. The evil powers of the world did not triumph over him. And because of Jesus’ resurrection, those same powers will not triumph over us who belong to him. In our baptism, we are united with Jesus in everything he is and everything he did. We are with him in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. As Paul writes in Romans, “If we are united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

 

            That is the good news that empowers us to keep living the Christian life. We aren’t living a lost cause; we are living one that has already been won – we simply have not seen the fullness of it yet.

 

            Which means, if we’ve already won, that we are called to continue to resist against evil in all its forms, even though we make mistakes and sin ourselves. Just as a cornered animal is most dangerous, we shouldn’t be surprised if mortally wounded evil lashes out as it does. One of Luther’s most famous quotes applies here. In a sermon, Luther preached, “Sin boldy, but trust in Christ more boldly still, and rejoice in Christ who is victor over sin, death, and the world.” In other words, do something! We have a moral imperative to try to relieve suffering wherever it exists in our world, whatever it may be due to. Whether suffering is due to so-called natural causes or human agents, we are called to be Christ’s healing hands and feet in the world, bringing healing to a broken world.

 

            Evil rages, but Jesus will calm the storm. In the meantime, let us find courage in our meal together, and let our faith in him who saves be renewed.

 

© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.