August 31, 2014

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

For whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.

Satan is real. I am beginning with that statement to make it clear that today’s discussion does not in any way diminish the reality that there is a being bent on destroying the work of God in this world. Our conversation today will look at Satan from another point of view, one that has become the prime focus of modern spirituality and justification for ignoring spiritual battle that continues all around us today. In a radio address in April, Pope Francis spoke about this very issue. “Some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!’ But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here… even in the 21st century!”

It is easier for us to blame human nature for the evil that we see happening in the world. Surely we are too advanced to suggest that there exists a being like the devil! I’ve never seen him, have you? The homily referenced by Pope Francis was using the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; in that text, the devil or Satan tries to convince Jesus to pursue a different kind of work in the world. Temptation is real, we all know that, but we moderns think that it is ridiculous to blame a character for our own limitations. We especially reject the notion that Satan is a dude with horns and a tail carrying a pitchfork around the world. This is a good thing, because Satan certainly is not a character. And sometimes, yes sometimes, human nature is to blame.

So, Satan is real and sometimes our neighbors cause us to sin. This does not mean that our neighbor is Satan. Satan is real and sometimes it is our own weakness that causes us to sin. This does not mean we are Satan. We are reminded that he is real so that we’ll be prepared, not only when we see him face to face, but when we are faced with the temptations that come to us through our neighbors and our own hearts. See, that’s the best way for Satan to accomplish his goals, with the help of flesh and blood people to do his dirty work.

We see this most humorously in the brilliant story of Screwtape and Wormwood, the insightful book by C.S. Lewis called “The Screwtape Letters.” Wormwood is an apprentice demon seeking for advice from his Uncle Screwtape. Uncle Screwtape tells him how to use human nature to his advantage.

Here is a quote out of the book: “[M]an has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”

And another, “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Screwtape advises his nephew to play upon the image of the devil as being a scaly red dragon with horns and a tail. The best thing for Satan to do is to convince us that he doesn’t exist, and what better way than to make the image so ridiculous that it just makes sense to ignore the reality of his existence? He’s done a pretty good job; many people, even Christians, doubt that Satan is real.

Satan is real. It is not old fashioned to think so; it would do us well to remember that the battles we face are not just physical; a spiritual war wages around us all the time and it is up to us to be prepared to fight against Satan with faith and hope and grace every day.

That said, the biblical word that is often translated ‘Satan’ does not always refer to the being. It means “an adversary, opponent, enemy.” Satan is God’s adversary; unfortunately, so are we when we follow our own path. Human nature is the enemy of God’s intention for His people. Temptation is real and we fall to it every day whether the temptation comes from Satan, others or from within our own hearts. We are His enemies when we fall to the temptations and sin against His will. Jesus cries, “Get behind me, Satan” when we stand in His way and do what we want to do rather than what He is calling us to. That doesn’t mean He’s calling us Satan, but that we are opposing Him in a way that is not only dangerous to ourselves, but will hinder His work in the world.

We are just like Peter. He was the one who opposed Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. Peter was not standing there as Satan incarnate, but he had been convinced by his own understanding and the expectations of the world that Jesus would be the kind of Messiah they wanted. Death was not in that plan. Peter was ready to fight for Jesus in the flesh but didn’t realize that he’d been deceived in spirit.

Jesus met Satan in the wilderness before He began His ministry. Satan, the devil, was there tempting Jesus to take a different approach to His mission and ministry in this world. Jesus rejected Satan’s temptations with the Word of God, but Satan did not go away forever. Luke tells us, “And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him for a season.” Poor Peter was the perfect opportunity.

I’ve always pictured this scene between Peter and Jesus as having that third character: Satan standing between them. Satan, whispering in Peter’s ear, sends Peter down the wrong path. “Tell Jesus that He shouldn’t die.” Isn’t that what Satan tried to do in the wilderness? “Jesus, dude, you don’t have to die. You can feed the hungry, prove God’s power and make an impact on the whole world.” Oh, and of course there was that little thing about worshipping Satan. But the devil didn’t even need to add that to make his temptations wrong. Satan wanted Jesus to follow the wrong path, and in today’s lesson we see Peter taking up Satan’s cause. Jesus came to die, and everyone who stands in the way of His purpose is an adversary, an opponent, the enemy.

So, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” It doesn’t matter whether Jesus was speaking to the being called Satan or to the fallible human part of Peter that was bent on opposing His purpose. Peter was a stumbling block; his mind was on the wrong things.

Isn’t it amazing that we have seen the rise and fall of Peter is a few brief minutes? After all, as we saw in last week’s lectionary, Peter had just given the most powerful confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter had, by the power of the Holy Spirit, spoken the truth about Jesus Christ, and yet in the next breath he spoke by the power of his own understanding. He spoke by the power of the adversary. He spoke words that meant to block the true purpose of Jesus’ ministry: to die.

In this story we see the real battle that wages: the battle between God and Satan, the spiritual battle that we ignore or refuse to believe exists. It is a battle that continues to be waged in every one of our lives. Will we trust God and believe Him or will we follow our own path, tempted down the one that seems easier, practical, contemporary, academic? These are the things that Satan is whispering in our own ears, and when we listen we stop seeing Jesus as He is and start seeing Him through our own understanding and expectation.

We still wonder why Jesus had to die. As a matter of fact, too many Christians have set aside that confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God for more practical understanding. He’s our friend, our teacher, a wonderful example of goodness and grace. He is a radical, a community organizer, a miracle worker. Too many people, including Christians, have reduced Jesus to nothing more than a really great man, just as they have rejected the reality of Satan in this world. Jesus is more, much more.

Many people, including Christians, have reduced the rest of our passage to a frivolous motto. After telling Peter that he’s got his mind on the wrong things, the things of the world, He tells the entire group of disciples that they have to be willing to set aside everything for His sake. He says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” How many of us have used this verse to find comfort in the midst of suffering? “This is my cross,” we say. What are we calling our crosses? We use it to help us through a hard day at work dealing with a frustrating co-worker. We use it when we are sniffling and sneezing from the common cold. We use it when we can’t seem to pass that math test we need to complete to get our degree.

Sometimes the suffering requires us to make sacrificial decisions, like when we are taking care of an aging parent or selling our favorite piece of jewelry to pay our bills. We equate our cross to the hard things in life, to the things we don’t want to do but we do because we know they are right. We accept is as if we are being martyred for our faith because we are giving up something of ourselves for the sake of another. Jesus expects this of us, but in this passage He is demanding so much more.

We have to die to ourselves, our selfishness and our self-righteousness. We have to set aside that theology of glory and stop expecting God to give us the good things because we have enough faith. We have to stop looking at the world through our lenses of self importance and see the world through God’s eyes. We would rather be in control and wield the power. We like the words that Satan is whispering in our ear because they tickle and make us feel good, so we’d rather follow that path than the one to which God is calling.

The Gospel message, the message that salvation comes from spilled blood, is a hard one to take. We would rather our God restore the world by grasping onto the power that we want to give to Him through our works and our faith. We are like Peter, wishing God would do our bidding, provide for our every desire and ensure that we will never feel pain. However Jesus never promises them a life free of pain. As a matter of fact, Jesus tells His disciples that seeking after the glory will cause them to lose their life. Yet, if we lose our life for the sake of Christ, we will find true life.

Jeremiah had a tough job; it was difficult to be a prophet. He was persecuted, threatened and even called a traitor. He understood that the Babylonian exile was established by God as just punishment for the rebellion of God’s people and he encouraged the survivors to submit to the Babylonians. They thought he was being unfaithful to God by accepting the power of the enemy, when Jeremiah knew that God had all the power. They could not see the blessing in that time of exile because they expected that God would only bless them with success, wealth and freedom from oppression. How could a heavy burden be from God? Jeremiah knew that it would bring God’s people to repentance, submission and humility. Repentance means seeing God as God is, instead of how we want Him to be.

Jeremiah was persecuted for doing exactly what God called Him to do; the persecution led him to despair. He cried out to God in the midst of his pain. He begged God for retribution against his enemies. He laid out his own virtues as the reason why God should respond. He complained to the Lord about his pain and even blamed God for his troubles. “Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuseth to be healed? wilt thou indeed be unto me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?”

Perhaps Jeremiah had a right to complain. He had to preach a hard word to people who wanted to hear only warm fuzzies. He was persecuted for doing God’s work; he suffered at the hands of his own people. He lived in fear for his life and his future, but he had no choice. He had to do what God called him to do.

It is tough to read the book of Jeremiah because it is so raw and honest and personal. We identify with Jeremiah because we often feel the same abandonment and desperation. Jeremiah admitted to God that he was unhappy. How many of us do the same? God is big enough to hear our complaints. He’ll probably remind us, as He does to Jeremiah, to turn to Him (repent) and see the blessing in the midst of our pain, but He will listen. He’ll remind us that He’s called us to a difficult life, a life filled with danger and risk. He expects us to give up ourselves, even unto death.

The LORD answered Jeremiah, “Turn around and there you will see me. I’m right here with you. Times are tough but I will not abandon you. Speak what is good and you will see my hand do amazing things.” In his confession, Jeremiah was doing and saying what is worthless. Complaints do not change things. Accusations only make things worse. We all do it; it is part of our nature. Those of us who are honest admit that we do. But our complaints have no value. Even when things seem like they can’t get any worse, we find peace and hope in the precious words of God’s promises. Transformation comes from the utterance of God’s word. We may feel alone at the moment, but as we stand in the presence of God we will see His mercy and His grace in our lives and in the world.

Sadly, Satan blocks our vision. Whether the physical being is whispering in our ear, we are listening to the other temptations around us or we are following our own hearts, we can’t see God when we are too focused on ourselves. We can’t follow God if we are trying to make Him follow us. It is at those times when God says, “Repent, turn around. I’m here. Listen to me, not to them.” This is the real cross, the cross that says, “I will do Your Will, O Lord, not mine.”

Today’s psalm is a prayer of one who has been falsely accused. David faced persecution from Saul because Saul knew that he was no longer in God’s favor. Saul suspected David of conspiring against him and did everything he could to demean David in the eyes of the people. The reality is that the accusations of Saul about David were a mirror to Saul’s soul. I once did a study on the word “seek” as it is found in the story of David and Saul. In every case, Saul sought after David while David sought after God. Saul wanted David dead; David wanted to follow God’s heart. We see that in the last verse of this passage as David says, “Jehovah, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwelleth.”

God is calling us to the life that seeks Him above all else, even if seeking Him puts us in a risky or dangerous place. His path may not be easy, but He is there with us. His path may lead to physical death, but He has promised a life that will last forever. When we die to self, we are free to live for Him.

If you asked a hundred believers what it means to be a Christian, you might be surprised to find how many different answers you would get. Some people think being a Christian is about being an advocate for the poor. Others consider the church a family and think of themselves brothers and sisters to other believers. Some think it is an intellectual lifestyle of study and debate. Yet others consider it a call to separation from the world, either in a monastic community or some other fellowship of believers. None of these ideas is wrong, but they aren’t complete. As Christians, we are called to be in the world but of another world. We are called to be advocates and to be students. Our Christian life will have grand moments of inspiration and great acts, but it will also be filled with those little daily acts of faith. Most of all, it will not be easy. The life Christ calls us to live is hard and usually nothing like we will expect it to be.

We all have expectations for our life in Christ. There are many who pursue the vocation of pastor with the expectation of making grand things happen for God – larger churches, more active disciples, vast outreach into the community. When they get into a parish, however, they suddenly realize there are hundreds of small, seemingly insignificant tasks that need to be accomplished. They become discouraged and give up. The Christian that realizes that the Christian lifestyle is about living in a relationship with God, when we realize that it is about love, we won’t mind taking care of the hard things, the menial tasks, the humble acts of faith because we live in the love of Christ for the sake of others, not to accomplish our own agenda or fulfill our desires.

The Christian life is hard as Paul notes in this passage to the Romans. But it is the life that God is calling us to live. It is a life of active love, joy in hardship, compassion, forgiveness, humility and peace keeping. These words are not easy, for I know I could not bless my enemies without the help of God. Nor do I find it easy to rejoice when I am sad or mourn when I am happy. I don’t do a good job about living in harmony with my neighbor, I am often proud and I prefer to avoid those who are different than I. Sometimes I am conceited. But then aren’t we all these things sometimes? This is why Christ died, so that by His grace we are forgiven and reconciled to God and one another, so that tomorrow we can try again.

Paul tells us what it means to take up our cross. It means to love genuinely. The cross calls us to do what is right not for the reward it will bring but rather because love demands it. Love often demands what is hard. We are to rejoice in hope – not hope in the glory but rather the hope that comes from the cross. How many of us really want to be patient in suffering or persevere in prayer when it appears God is unwilling to answer our way? Paul's words get even harder. How do we bless our enemy? Is it really possible to be humble in this world of ours? What if, like Jonah, we know God will not avenge us but will seek our enemy's repentance? How can we let go and treat our persecutors as if they deserved our compassion and mercy? How can we let Christ die for the sake of all human flesh when most people will never deserve His grace?

We do so by picking up our cross and following Jesus. We do so by laying down our lives for the sake of His Gospel and speaking God's Word into the lives of all whether we want them to be saved or not. We trust in God by humbling ourselves before His throne of grace realizing that we ourselves have no reason to expect His incredible blessings on our lives. Sometimes the blessings will come through pain. Sometimes they will come in joy. Through it all, we are called to speak what is precious, the message of the cross that brings true life to those who believe. We will not see the glory in this flesh, but we will live in the assurance that God is always faithful to His promise and we walk in the hope that eternal life is ours today even while today might seem out of control.

Satan is going to whisper in our ear. The world is going to give us temptations that we just don’t want to refuse. We will want to follow our hearts even when we know that they are leading us down the wrong path. Like Peter, we’re going to tell God what we think He should do. Like Jeremiah we will complain when things don’t go our way. We’re human. We fail.

Jesus says, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” He’s not calling us into a life of suffering and pain or even death. He is calling us to reject the whispers of Satan and the temptations that threaten to lead us astray, to focus on God and to be obedient to Him. That’s what Jesus did, despite all the opportunities to follow a different path, Jesus went to the cross for our sake. He was tempted by Satan, by Peter and even by His own heart in the garden on the Mount of Olives, but in the end He did exactly what God sent Him to do: to die on the cross.

Our cross will never save the world, but as we die to self we will discover the incredible blessing of being raised to new life in Christ. That new life will not always be pleasant; as a matter of fact, we are more likely to see persecution as we are obedient to God. But the new life to which we are raised is one that will last forever even if we suffer death at the hands of our enemies. We need not fear Satan, the world or our own hearts. Let’s just keep our eyes on Jesus and though we lose our lives we can rest in the promise that Jesus has already saved it.

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