Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg on July 19, 2015.
“What’s the Deal with the Devil?”
One of the wonderful things I get to do as a pastor is baptize little children. It is truly special to share that moment with the parents and the congregation, as we acknowledge the mysterious, yet through the water, visible, grace of God – the mysterious, visible grace of a God whose steadfast love lasts forever. I love it that when I hold a little baby and come among you, I see huge smiles on your faces, and almost always tears as well. I love it that you see that God’s grace is a beautiful thing.
But I hope you are still paying attention after I place the water on the baby’s head and pray. I come down this center aisle, carefully coming into the center of the people, and I give you some baptismal instructions – some follow up work to do. I charge you to show this child, through your own lives and through the common life of our congregation, what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, because if that child does not see it in your lives, how will he or she know what it means to follow Christ?
Christianity is not contained in a book. You can’t learn it out of thin air. You can’t make it up for yourself as you go along. That child, and every one of us, learn it through the lives of other people. Parents, first of all, of course, and that’s a big part of what Bromleigh is going to be doing – helping parents take that responsibility seriously. But just as critically, the congregation, you. The parents can’t do it without you, and each of you is an example – a living breathing example of what this Christianity business is all about. What I hope is clear when I give you that baptismal charge is that your lives matter. The way you live your life, the way you practice your faith, it matters. Every day, your faith, your life, it matters.
That’s the core message of today’s scripture reading: your life matters. If you really look at Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians you are likely to conclude that it wasn’t written by Paul, wasn’t written to the Ephesians, and it’s not actually a letter. What it is, instead, is a collection of things people in the early church wrote, a piece from here, a bit from there, all sewn together to make short piece of teaching (the scholarly word is parenesis) for the whole church. It sounds to me like some of it was written for congregations as they celebrated baptisms, and in the part we heard today the message is: every day, your faith, your life, it matters. Big time.
I am sure that the lives of the people this was first written for were very different than ours, but I think there are some things we have in common as well. And one of them is that we lose sight of just how much this matters. We lose sight of just how much is at stake here. In fact, in our world today at least, this kind of amnesia about what is at stake here seems sadly intentional. We have made Christianity respectable, nice, accepted, even pleasant. As my teacher Stanley Hauerwas says, we in the church have worked a miracle: we have taken the life of a guy who obviously challenged the authorities, upset just about everyone he came into contact with, who at first excited the crowds, then angered the crowds, and who ended up getting executed for what he did and taught, and we have worked a miracle and made this guy boring.
When you really dig into the faith of young people today, seriously trying to figure out why they are mostly uninterested in church, why the Christian faith just isn’t compelling to them, you often find them say that Christianity, or at least the church, just isn’t interesting, it’s not challenging. Their main complaint isn’t that we don’t have the right music or that the service is too early or too late. They are not turned off by formality or tradition. Their real complaint is that we aren’t engaged in stuff that really matters. They are turned off when we are just as complaisant about what is going in the world as every else.
But I don’t want to make this just about young people. Because I bet that this is probably the same issue most people have with the church today, whether you still come and sit in the pews most Sundays or not. We want this to be interesting, to be truly relevant to stuff that matters, even to be challenging, but we are afraid. The primary form of Christianity in this country is nice, respectable, accepted, and pleasant, so we are afraid of being a little loud or controversial. We are afraid of disagreement. We are afraid of holding people accountable. But Jesus surely wasn’t afraid of those things – of being a little loud, stirring things up, disagreeing with people, holding his own disciples accountable. Why can’t we do the same?
I’m not saying I want to create trouble around here. Heaven knows we, and probably most congregations, have had enough unpleasantness in the past. But there are different kinds of trouble. Different kinds of unpleasantness. When we are engaged in things that really matter, a little tension is okay.
So what really matters? Each of our lists would probably be a little different, let start with the things Jesus started with:
- he fought against a system that allowed the people at the top to accumulate more and more wealth, while those without power are left with nothing;
- he challenged people who thought that violence could fix things, condemning violence both by the oppressor and by the oppressed;
- he worked against every social convention that separated people because of their background, or their past sins, or their ethnicity;
- he criticized a religious establishment that was quite happy with the unjust status quo;
- he sat at table with tax collector and sinners, to show that anyone, everyone, could be drawn into the life of God.
Or, to put that in today’s terms: Jesus worked against economic injustice, he rejected violence, no matter the form, war, riots, and police oppression, he rejected racism, he fought against complaisance, and he worked to befriend people, no matter who they were.
Doing the kinds of things Jesus did is how we show that what we do matters. That it is interesting, and even challenging.
Doing the kinds of things Jesus did is how we fulfill those promises we make when we baptize children in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
To close I want to go back to today’s passage from Ephesians. Because what Ephesians wants to make sure that we understand what is really at stake here. This isn’t just about us and our church and making life more interesting. This is a battle: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” You are not going to hear me say this too often, but this is a fight against the devil.
We have a lot of images for the devil…(talk about the images shown on the screen: cartoonish character with horns, humanish and ugly, overly sexualized woman, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, etc.)
But the best image for what the devil is works something like this… (an image where the absence of color makes the image of the devil). Healthy theology has always proclaimed that the devil doesn’t exist, that evil doesn’t exist – or to put it more formally, the devil/evil has no formal existence of its own. The devil is the absence of God. Evil is the absence of good. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t powerful of course. A vacuum in space is “nothingness,” but it is powerful enough to shape galaxies. When a loved one dies, the emptiness left by their death can cause great grief and struggle. Non-existence can be powerful, indeed. But it, and the devil, and evil, do not stand a chance against the God who is.
The struggle against this nothingness is s active every single day of our lives, in the big decisions we make and in the little things we do. We are called to draw upon the power of God to fight the good fight everyday. We are called to see that what we do matters – life is not just one darn thing after another. It is the critical fight against the devil, against “the spiritual forces of evil in this world.” Acting as God’s faithful followers matters, doing what is right in the little stuff matters, and the big stuff matters – being kind and truthful with the those we love, fighting the embedded injustice of our society, not cheating on your taxes, loving your enemies, being honest at work, raising your children well, not spending money on stuff you really don’t need, all of it matters, because all of it is part of God’s work against the cosmic forces of evil. This is not a battle that is fought in the sky up above the clouds. This is a battle that is fought in everything we do.
Now that may seem like a lot of pressure, a lot of importance to put on everyday life. And, in a sense, it is. We can not live casual lives. But it is also important we remember that we are not the ultimate force at work here. In fact, we do not even fight by our own power. Rather God is the ultimate force at work here. This is God’s battle, for this is God’s creation.
The ultimate victory is certain. God can’t fail. In the end, God will not simply manage to stuff heaven full. More importantly, God will manage to redeem this whole creation, this whole universe, to bring it around to the place of vibrant, beautiful, harmonious peace God intends it to be. That’s where God is taking it. That’s where God is taking us. For now, we battle, drawing upon the immeasurable power of God. In the end, we rejoice, for all is in the loving hands of God.
Come on people, let’s make Christianity interesting again.
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