5 February 2012 - Isaiah 40:21-31 - Epiphany 5

There is much sickness and sadness in this world. The older people get, the more of each they usually experience.

Youth, however, is often seen as a great insulation against those threats. When you’re young, you feel like you will live forever.

“He’s got his whole life ahead of him,” people say - with great optimism. It’s assumed that when you’re young, you don’t have to worry about your mortality.

You’re filled with energy and vitality. Your life has a million different potential paths forward. You will have countless opportunities to achieve your goals in life, to live life to the fullest.

The time of youth is a time for everyone to be care-free, and fun-loving. You don’t have to be serious or stressed-out about anything.

There’s nothing to slow you down, or get in your way, as you pursue all your dreams, all your ambitions, all your aspirations. Young people are happy-go-lucky, cheerful, unconstrained.

For them, the sky is the limit. The future is long and bright. Or at least that’s what we usually assume.

Until Wednesday, I was planning to preach today on the epistle lesson from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. I was going to preach a sermon on being all things to all men, for the sake of the Gospel.

That in itself is a theme that is filled to the brim with a youthful kind of dexterity, flexibility, and idealism.

But then, on Wednesday, Carol and I heard some news from Minnesota. My 23-year-old daughter-in-law is coming up on seven months in her pregnancy with her and my son’s first baby.

They’re really still newlyweds - married for about a year and a half. In the midst of all the joyful expectations that a young and energetic couple has at such a time in life, my daughter-in-law was diagnosed with gastric cancer.

In the shock and fear induced by that news, the attention of my mind and heart were immediately turned away from the epistle lesson, and were directed instead to today’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Isaiah:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.”

Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

The trial that my daughter-in-law and her young family are now enduring is certainly not the only example we could think of, of mortal danger coming near to those who are young. Whenever something like this does happen, it shakes us up, and bring us back to a realization of the true contours of life in this fallen world.

The Scriptures remind us that all flesh - old and young - is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls. It is only the word of the Lord that remains forever.

The strength of those who are young - if they do have genuine strength - is not based on their youth. Likewise, the true strength of those who are wise is not in their wisdom. The true strength of the wealthy is not in their wealth.

In our frail human nature, we are all actually weak, and heavy-laden. And it is especially true that we have no spiritual strength, of ourselves.

According to our old nature, we stumble and collapse under the weight of sin and death. And as far as a relationship with God is concerned, we are completely unable to pick ourselves up.

Those who are physically young may have the illusion of strength, and perhaps outwardly - for a time - that illusion holds up. But sooner or later, it comes crashing down.

Morally speaking, in the condition in which we enter this world, we don’t have the strength even to live up to the ethical standards we set for ourselves, let alone God’s perfect standards. We falter and fail. And sooner or later, we will have to admit it.

Often that kind of honesty before God doesn’t come until we get old - or at least old enough, so that we can no longer pretend that our youth makes us invincible or immune. Sometimes, we don’t have to wait that long.

But even when our youth is not marred by a severe tragedy or trial, we should still not wait until we are old, to face up to the importance of the ultimate truths by which our eternal destiny will be determined.

Especially to the young who are here today, I say: look at yourself as you really are. Acknowledge your sin. Acknowledge your deep and abiding need for God and his grace.

You are not immortal. You need, from God, the spiritual strength that everyone else needs.

And you need it right now. Your physical youth does not make you exempt from the universal call to repentance and faith that goes out from God to people of all ages.

Left to ourselves, none of us has any abiding bodily strength. Left to ourselves, we have no spiritual strength at all. But, in Christ, we are not left to ourselves:

“Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

We all came into this world weak, and - internally - in a fallen state of ungodliness. But as St. Paul writes to the Romans, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”

Christ is our life, and he is our strength. In his death for all sin, he destroyed the power of sin - for us. In his rising from the grave, he destroyed the power of death, and liberated us from its captivity.

As the crucified and risen Savior, he makes us strong: strong in grace, strong in faith. To a dying world, and to a dying race, Jesus offers and gives the kind of resurrection life that pulls us forward to eternity, with a hope and a confidence that we, too - like him - will rise again on the last day.

In this strength - the strength of this Savior, who has defeated death - we look in faith beyond this world, to the horizons of the next world. We look to a world where only goodness and righteousness dwells, and where the redeemed and forgiven people of God enjoy God’s goodness forever.

“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” The emphasis is not on the waiting, but on the one for whom we wait.

In our trials, sometimes we seem to be waiting a long time for the Lord’s help, as the Lord teaches us patience; as he purifies our faith, and purges away all false props of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Ultimately, we will continue to wait for the Lord’s help, all the way to the end of our pilgrimage on this earth.

And those who have fallen asleep in the Lord, in a sense, also wait. In peace, they await the trumpet call on the last day, when all flesh will rise.

But whether we are talking about the renewal and healing in earthly life that the Lord gives to those who call upon him in faith, according to his good and gracious will; or about the miraculous renewal and resurrection that, on the last day, will be bestowed on those who now rest from their labors; this eternal truth remains: “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.”

Jesus says: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son, and believes in him, should have eternal life. And I will raise him up on the last day.” That is when the final renewal of our strength will come.

On this side of eternity, we are strengthened in spirit when the Gospel of Jesus Christ fills us with the power of his resurrection. On this side of eternity, our bodily strength waxes and wanes, but mostly wanes.

And at some point, for both old and young, that bodily strength will give out. We will all, in the end, lose that strength. All of us, old and young, will die.

But on the other side of eternity, in the new heavens and the new earth, our bodies will be restored. We will be raised. Our strength, in the true and ultimate sense, will be renewed.

And while we await that day, Jesus, in his Holy Supper, bestows upon us a pledge and a guarantee that his resurrection promise is true.

We receive the gift of his own resurrected body, placed within our frail and weak bodies. We receive the gift of his blood, by which he atoned for us, and washes away all our sins.

We come to the Lord’s Supper to wait for the Lord - to seek blessings from him according to his Word - forgiveness, life, and salvation. And in this sacrament, our waiting is satisfied. The Lord renews our strength.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.”

Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Amen.

12 February 2012 - Epiphany 6 - 2 Kings 5:1-14

What are you willing to believe? In general, people are willing to believe the things that they already believe - things that they already assume to be true.

The rub comes when we might consider changing our beliefs. What kind of influences would make you become willing to believe something different from what you believe now?

As today’s lesson from the Second Book of Kings tells us, Naaman, a successful and famous Syrian general, became afflicted with leprosy. The physicians of the day knew of no cure for this.

But the wife of Naaman had a Hebrew servant girl, who gave Naaman the idea that a certain prophet in the land of Israel might be able to do what the medical science of the day could not do. So, with his own king’s blessing and encouragement, Naaman decided to pay this prophet a visit.

Naaman, of course, knew a lot about priests and prophets, and religious rituals. Or at least he thought he did. He was accustomed to how “religion” was done in his own country.

As in other pagan lands, the king was the chief religious leader and high priest of the nation - the pontifex maximus, as the Romans would later call their emperor. The soothsayers and conjurors worked under the king, and did his bidding.

A spell-caster who could produce observable results could also become a very rich man. His achievements as a wonder-worker would attract people who were willing to pay him handsomely, to tease out from the gods the blessings they desired.

Naaman knew how this sort of thing was done. There would be an elaborate ritual, with lots of hand-waving, gyrations, and incantations.

Among the pagans, these sorts of displays were calculated to make an impression on the deity whose attention was sought. And they made an impression on any human observers as well.

So, with his fully-formed beliefs and expectations concerning what would likely happen when the Hebrew prophet healed his leprosy, Namaan set out for Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. He was carrying a letter from his king to the Israelite king, requesting the healing for Naaman. And he brought a lot of silver and gold with him to pay for it.

But Naaman was puzzled and even angered by what he encountered when he got there. First of all, the king of Israel didn’t have any idea what was going on when he read the letter from the king of Syria. He feared that Naaman’s king was trying to provoke an international incident, in order to have an excuse for an invasion, or some similar action.

In Israel, the true prophets of the Lord were not under the thumb of the kings. The faithful ones actually criticized the kings for their many sins and heresies, on a regular basis.

In Israel, no king, no politician, nobody at all dictated to God, and to God’s ministers, what should or should not be preached or done, in God’s name.

Before Naaman had had enough time to digest all of this, however, the prophet Elisha heard about his visit. Elisha sent word to his frightened king that he should send Namman to him for the healing he needed. So, Namaan went to the home of Elisha.

Naaman was an important person in Syria. He was accustomed to being treated with a high level of respect.

I wonder what Naaman thought, therefore, when Elisha didn’t invite Naaman into his home, or even step outside of his house to speak to Naaman. Instead, he sent a lowly messenger to speak to the Syrian general on his behalf, and to tell him what he must do in order to be cleansed.

Naaman had been humbled by his affliction, but not so much that his pride would not have noticed this slight. But his irritation with Elisha’s lack of deference to him was soon replaced with outright anger, when he heard what it was that Elisha told him to do.

It wasn’t what he expected at all. It wasn’t what he had traveled so many miles for. It did not fit in with his long-held beliefs. We read in today’s lesson:

“Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.’ But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage.”

Naaman was not yet ready to change his beliefs. If he had remained in this state of stubborn refusal to do as Elisha directed him to do, he would have become increasingly disfigured and consumed by the leprosy, until it brought him to a miserable death.

However, Naaman had at least some servants in his retinue who were wiser than he was. We continue in our reading of the text:

“But his servants came near and said to him, ‘My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, “Wash, and be clean”?’ So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

Naaman finally saw the folly of his ways. He ceased to be so self-assured, arrogant, and presumptuous, and humbled himself instead before the Word and power of the God of Israel. He admitted that maybe he didn’t know as much as he thought he knew, about how something like this would be done.

He now listened to what Elisha had said. He did what Elisha had told him to do. And he was healed.

In the verses that follow today’s appointed reading, we are told that Naaman actually learned many important things on this day. He learned that the grace of God cannot be purchased, when Elisha declined to accept the gold and silver he had brought.

And, most important of all, he was led to see and believe that the God of Israel is the only true God. He renounced the false gods of Syria, and pledged to worship only the God of Israel - who was now recognized to be, in truth, the God of the whole world.

Naaman now believed - he now knew - that the Lord Jehovah is not just a convenient healer of leprosy. He is a God who puts his claim on a man’s entire life - on every man’s life - in body and in soul.

And he is a God - a redeeming and forgiving God - whom Naaman would now trust, for the remainder of his days, in all things - for physical and for spiritual healing.

What are you willing to believe? I had a conversation once with a man who told me that he was a Lutheran because he was raised to be a Lutheran.

I replied, “What if you had been raised to be an atheist? Would that mean that you should remain as an atheist for the rest of your life, in spite of the claims of the Gospel on your life?”

He didn’t answer. He believed the right things, I suppose. But he believed them for the wrong reasons.

Naaman was raised to be a worshiper of the deities of Syria. But the Holy Spirit caused him to become a believer in a totally different kind of religion, and in a totally different way of salvation.

Back in Syria, Naaman probably didn’t know anyone else who believed these things - except for his wife’s Hebrew servant girl. Everyone else he knew would have thought that he was weird or even crazy for worshiping a God that no one else worshiped.

But he was willing to change his beliefs, because God had touched and changed his heart.

Would you be willing to change your beliefs, if God’s Word would impress upon you that what you currently believe is wrong? Would you be willing to change your ways, if God in his Word told you to make such a change - even if most of the people you knew would think you were weird or crazy?

Let’s consider just one example of this sort of thing, that gets rubbed in our faces all the time in our society. It is increasingly difficult to find people who still believe that the proper sequence of events in a relationship between a man and a woman is: first, dating, followed by marriage, followed by living together, followed by intimacy.

It seems as if just about everybody today believes that the order is supposed to be this: first, dating, followed by intimacy, followed by living together, followed by marriage - maybe.

Many who still identify themselves as Christians, have adopted the world’s approach toward such relationships - both in what they approve of for others, and in what they shamelessly embrace for themselves.

This has to change. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never before believed in the virtues of chastity, honor, self-control, and self-respect.

It doesn’t matter if almost everyone you know believes in, and practices, a lifestyle of self-indulgence and moral license. If you have embraced the world’s beliefs regarding these matters, you’ve got to change what you believe.

If you don’t, your conscience will be seared, and you will close yourself off from God and his Spirit. The spiritual leprosy of this sinful way of thinking and living will consume you, and you will perish.

And, if it’s necessary, you’ve got to be willing to change what you believe about how God brings his deliverance, help, and forgiveness to people who have come to see their need for his deliverance, help, and forgiveness.

Naaman was indignant when God’s prophet told him to wash in the Jordan River, in order to be healed of his leprosy. In your own mind, do you, at least in some respects, react in an indifferent or nonchalant way, when God’s Word tells you where and how he will bring his grace to you?

Baptism seems so simple and ordinary. There’s nothing flashy about it. No ecstatic ravings, no outward excitement.

It’s not easy for people, based on what they see and hear with their bodily senses, to come to the belief that anything supernatural is really happening. How can the muttering of a few words, and the splashing of a few drops of water, do anything?

Edward Koehler has some interesting thoughts in answer to that question - based in part on what we have been discussing today regarding Naaman and his healing. He writes:

“The water of the Jordan river did not in itself possess the power to cleanse Naaman from leprosy. Yet, since God had promised to heal him if he would wash in the Jordan seven times, the healing power was, by this Word of God, connected and joined with the water of this river.”

“And Naaman could not have been healed, had he not used this water. But he did, and the Word of God in and with the water cleansed him from his leprosy. In Baptism the Word of God cleanses us from the spiritual leprosy of sin.”

For Naaman, God’s healing power was available to him through the means that God had laid out for him, namely, through washing in the Jordan River. For you, God’s forgiveness - his spiritual healing and cleansing; his gift of new life - is available to you through the means that he has laid out for you.

God’s Word - in preaching and sacrament - calls you to believe in something very different from what many people believe. Perhaps his Word is calling you to believe in something very different from what you yourself have been believing.

God changes all of us by the power of the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. We have been baptized into Christ. As we abide in our baptism by daily repentance and faith, we thereby abide in Christ. And we are conformed ever more to his image.

Jesus is your Savior from sin. You are not our own savior. Jesus died for your sins on the cross. You therefore need not suffer and die for your own sins.

Those sins are forgiven. You are free from the judgment that they would bring upon you.

And through the Gospel, by which this restoration and reconciliation are made known to you, God also gives you a new heart and a new mind. New expectations. New values. A new hope. New beliefs.

When you have had a saving encounter with God’s powerful Word, you don’t look at things in the same way any more. You don’t think about things in the same way. Your beliefs, whatever they may have been apart from Christ, are changed.

“So [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” Amen.

19 February 2012 - Transfiguration - Mark 9:2-9

St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Philippians that, “Although [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God and equal with God, he did not take advantage of this equality. Instead, he emptied himself by taking on the form of a servant, by becoming like other humans, by having a human appearance.”

During his earthly ministry Jesus usually did not exhibit his divine powers, or make use of them. But occasionally he did.

When he instituted the Lord’s Supper, for example, his body in its ordinary human form - with his blood coursing through its veins and arteries - was seated at the table, beside his disciples. But at the same time, by virtue of the authority of his Word, and through the power of his divine nature - to which the body and blood of his human nature were united - his body was also in the bread that he was offering to those disciples, and his blood was in the wine that he was inviting them to drink.

Another time when Jesus exhibited his divine power and glory - although in a different way - was on the occasion that today’s Gospel from St. Mark describes:

“Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.”

From the moment of his conception, Christ’s divine nature was always united to his human nature. But during his time on earth, his divinity was hidden beneath the humble form of his humanity.

He lived, walked, and spoke as a man, and with the appearance of a man, even though he was always more than a man. In the Lord’s transfiguration, however, Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of this otherwise hidden divine majesty of their Savior.

He shone forth with heavenly brilliance. A portal to heaven itself was opened, and two of the great saints of old, Moses and Elijah, became visible in the company of God’s Son.

St. Mark and the other Gospel writers who describe this, observe that the brilliant light shone out from Jesus. It was not a reflected light from some other source, whether natural or supernatural.

Rather, this was a light - a glorious, divine light - that came out of Jesus himself. It was a light that had always been in him - though hidden - because his divinity, with its glory and authority, had always been in him.

In his transfiguration, Jesus did not become something more than what he already was. Instead, what he had always been, and what he always will be, became in that moment manifest and outwardly discernable to the three chosen witnesses.

These three men were, of course, scared out of their wits. The text says that Peter “did not know what to say,” since he and his two companions “were terrified.”

This illustrates one of the reasons why Christ usually hid his glory from view during his earthly ministry. And it illustrates why he still comes to us in hidden ways - beneath the humble and unpretentious earthly forms of human words, water, bread, and wine.

If Jesus came to us uncloaked, standing before us in his full divine majesty, we in our mortal and sinful weakness would melt away with fear and trembling.

It would not be a pleasant and inviting encounter, which would make us feel at ease with him and draw us to him. It would, instead, be a scary and debilitating encounter, which would cause us to cower in trepidation. We would react in the same way as Peter, James, and John reacted.

This was indeed a frightening experience for them. But it was also a learning experience - or at least it was intended to be. This is especially so in connection with the final component of the event, which St. Mark describes as follows: “a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’”

In the future, whenever Jesus would say anything to these men, they were to remember this event. Whenever Jesus would now tell them something, they were to recall these things, and thereby know that the Son of God himself - with all of his divine authority and absolute truthfulness - was the one who was telling them something.

The words of Jesus were not the words of a mere man. They were and are the words of God himself - divine words that have the power to move mountains, to destroy worlds, to create galaxies, and... to raise the dead.

But that’s where these three men - Peter, James, and John - sometimes failed to do as the voice of God the Father had commanded them. Not long after his transfiguration, Jesus said this to his disciples, as recorded by St. Mark:

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

The disciples, however, did not pay attention to this statement - especially not the last part of it. They didn’t believe in the Lord’s future resurrection, or expect it to happen - even though Jesus predicted it several times.

They still refused to believe in it, when Mary Magdalene and the other women reported to them on the first Easter morning that it had actually happened.

Shame on them! But shame on us, too! - when we, like them, do not pay attention to what Jesus tells us!

The transfiguration of our Lord is something that happened for the benefit of the three men who witnessed it. But it is something that happened for us and for our faith as well.

Jesus told the witnesses not to tell anybody about it until after his resurrection. But once he had been raised from the dead, they were to tell others.

Through the pages of the apostolic Scripture, they were to tell us. And we have in this way been told.

So, we too now know that Jesus of Nazareth is not a mere man, but is the true and eternal God - the Son of the Father in human flesh.

Likewise, when the voice of the Father speaks at the transfiguration, that voice speaks also to us: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

But do we listen? For example, when Christ tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, do we really pay attention to this?

Do we put our money where our mouth is, as far as our support for the work of God’s church is concerned? And is our mouth even in the right place consistently on Sunday mornings - in the Lord’s house: confessing our sins, praying for forgiveness, asking for the will of God to be done in our lives, praising God for his mercy, and thanking him for his goodness?

How easy is it to find an excuse to absent ourselves from the public administration of the means of grace, even though God’s Word tells us not to neglect this?

Do we spend time thinking through the important moral issues of our world, of our community, and of our own lives, in the light of the Holy Bible and its teachings? Or do we uncritically take our ethical cues from the popular culture, and just follow the crowd?

Christ also tells us that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. How seriously do we take that to heart?

And I’m not necessarily talking about neighbors who are farther away than our own family. Do we love and respect husband or wife, children or parents, with the kind of selfless devotion that Jesus demands?

Do we listen to Christ when he says these things to us? Or are we like Peter, James, and John, letting much of what our Lord says go in one ear and out the other?

“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

We so often do forget that the one who speaks to us in Scripture about these things - and about many other things - is the Son of God, and not a mere man. We also fail to remember that his Word has the power to move mountains, to destroy worlds, to create galaxies, and... to forgive sins.

Yes, dear friends, that’s the comfort which is offered to penitent sinners from the Mount of Transfiguration. You can be sure, when you listen to Christ tell you that he has been merciful to you, and that he has filled you with a new spiritual life, that this, too, is true and absolutely to be believed.

Christ’s absolution is not merely a wish that sins would be forgiven, but it is a powerful imparting of the forgiveness that he won for you, in his life, death, and resurrection.

Listen to him when he says, “your sins are forgiven.” The Lord of glory, filled with divine splendor and might, is the one who is saying this.

Listen to him when he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” These words are not spoken by a mere man.

Listen to him when he says:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”

These words are intended for you. They are spoken to you by one who has the divine power to make all of these things to be true - to make them to be true, for you, for eternity.

Listen to him, and believe him, when he says these things.

Don’t think that Jesus’ words would be easier to accept if he were to stand in front of you as he really is - in his divine glory and majesty - and tell you directly what he wants you to believe. That would overwhelm you, and decompose you in an instant.

In the frailty of your human nature you could not take that. And Jesus knows this. When he approaches you, and interacts with you on this side of the grave, he knows that he needs to do this in a way that cloaks his divine glory and majesty.

So, the way in which he does speak to you - indirectly, through the means of grace - is the way that he knows will work best for your faith, for your growth in love for God and man, and for the maturing of your knowledge of him and his ways.

“Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white... And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’” Amen.

26 February 2012 - Lent 1 - Mark 1:9-15

Attention was recently drawn in the media, to a speech that was made four years ago by one of the current presidential candidates. This is a part of what that candidate said back then:

"Satan has his sights on the United States of America! ... Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that have so deeply rooted in the American tradition.”

These remarks are, of course, being mocked and ridiculed now by self-assured secularists. These remarks are being criticized as being too overtly religious.

But I suppose I would also criticize them - not because they say too much about the devil, but because they say too little about what Satan is actually doing in this world.

Does Satan have his sights set on the United States, and on its institutions? Of course he does. But he has his sights set on all nations, and on the institutions of all nations. And more to the point, he has his sights set on each individual person, in each nation.

St. Mark tells us in today’s Gospel that after Jesus’ baptism, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.”

If the Son of God was tempted by the devil, then it should not surprise us that the devil is more than willing to tempt everyone else as well - especially since he is so successful, so often, in his temptation of everyone besides Jesus.

Satan is a real being. He was created as a glorious archangel, to worship and serve God. One of the greatest unanswerable questions of our religion, is the mystery of how and why Satan became internally corrupted, and fell from his original perfection.

How could this happen? How could something that God had created to be perfect and pure, twist itself into something evil and wicked - apart from any outside negative influences?

We don’t know how and why this happened. But we do know that it did happen. We know that many other angels, inspired by Satan, joined him in his rebellion against God.

And we also know - not only by Scriptural revelation, but also by our observations of human history - that there are indeed supernatural forces at work among us, that are committed to the destruction of the human race, and on inspiring as much pain and agony among us as they can.

Satan and his minions hate God. But because God is, well, God, they know that they can’t really touch him. They can’t hurt God directly.

But they believe that they can hurt God indirectly, by hurting that which God loves most. And what God loves most among his creatures, is that segment of his creation that was made in his own image. What God loves most is the human race.

And so, the devil, and all the demons who work in coordination with him, temp all of us. They are very smart in how they do it, too. These fallen creatures are immortal.

During all the time of their existence, they have learned a lot. Over the millennia they have fine-tuned their techniques, and perfected their tactics. They know what usually works.

One of the things that works, is to bring a temptation to sin into someone’s life in such a way, that the one being tempted by the devil doesn’t even know that he is being tempted by the devil. Satan is very good at creating situations where the one being tempted to do something harmful doesn’t even know that it would be something harmful.

More often than not, when someone is contemplating the commission of a sinful deed, he’s not thinking to himself, “should I do this evil thing?” Rather, he is thinking to himself, “Should I do this good thing?”

Very seldom does someone actively think, as he is committing his sins, that he is in fact committing sins. He thinks he is doing something beneficial and positive.

He justifies his actions. He persuades himself that he is doing the right thing, under the circumstances, and not anything that is wrong.

And all the while, the devil is, as it were, whispering into his ear. With the active cooperation of our own sinful nature, the devil has many successes in tricking us into hurting ourselves.

Except for those relatively rare cases of direct demonic possession, Satan usually doesn’t have to get his hands dirty at all. We do all his dirty work for him, as we hurl ourselves into relationships, into actions, into decisions that are corrupt and corrupting.

It is often only in hindsight that people can see how foolish they were, or how much harm they caused themselves or others. But this wisdom of hindsight is generally not profound enough, or influential enough, to prevent people from falling into the same traps again and again.

During wartime, a smart general will not blindly and impetuously throw his army at an enemy position. He first will reconnoiter that position, and identify the weakest spot in the enemy’s defenses. The attack will then be concentrated at that weak spot.

That’s what the devil does, too. He will probe you, until he finds your weak spot. And when he finds it, he will exploit it - again and again.

That weak spot might be your laziness, your lust, your greed, your pride, your temper, or your envy. He might find an opening for his deceptions in the context of your loneliness, your poor health, your desire to succeed, or your fear of not being accepted or liked by others.

The devil will seek out your vulnerabilities, and exploit them to your moral, spiritual, and physical harm. He will often amplify certain hereditary weaknesses you may have - which may predispose you toward addictive behavior, or anti-social behavior - to a point where you surrender to those weaknesses, and allow them to tear your life to shreds.

In one way or another, he will lie to you and try to blind you - in the moment of your temptation - so that you will not know or see what is happening. He will find a way to make you think that a bad decision is actually a good decision, and will then prompt you to make that decision.

On your own, you will not be able to grasp what is really going on, or to resist him. He is smarter than you. He is more powerful than you.

He has much less to lose than you do, since his eternal fate is already sealed. But he is very good at hiding that fact from you.

He is very good at distracting you from thoughts about God, and God’s will, precisely at those moments when such thoughts would serve you best - and would serve him least.

The only time when the devil’s attempts to lead someone into sin and self-destruction ended in complete failure on his part, was in his encounter in the wilderness with the Lord Jesus Christ - the Son of God, and our brother according to the flesh.

The devil probed Jesus at the point of the bodily weakness of his hunger, to see if he could get him to misuse his divine power by turning stones into bread. That didn’t work.

Satan also attempted to find a weak spot, based on the percentages, in the area of the common human desire to get attention from others; and in the area of the common human love for worldly power. But the devil’s attempts to get Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, and to bow down to him so as to be given all the kingdoms of the earth, did not work either.

Jesus resisted him, and remained as a man without sin. But he resisted him not just for himself, and for the preservation of his own integrity. He resisted him also for you. He resisted him in your place, and for your benefit.

When the devil assaults you, and tempts you, your own will and reason are not enough of a barrier to throw up against him for your protection. He will always be able to find a way to wiggle himself around the feeble will, and finite reason, of even the most worldly-wise of human beings.

But when the devil assaults you, and tempts you, and you by faith throw up to him the successful resistence of Christ as your shield, that shield will hold. As Christ, with his righteousness, stands between you and your tormentor, you will be protected.

As a man without any sin of his own, Jesus became the man - the God-man - who could and did carry the sins of others to the cross. He carried your sins to the cross.

Jesus carried to the cross all your failures to resist the devil, and all your defeats under the devil’s assaults. When he died for those sins, and when he rose again to demonstrate God the Father’s acceptance of his sacrifice, he did this “for your justification,” as St. Paul tells us.

You are now forgiven in Christ. In Christ, you are now liberated from the devil’s power to twist you and manipulate you, and to destroy you.

In Christ you now see and understand many things, in regard to which you were previously blind and ignorant. God’s Word has shined a spotlight on the devil’s tactics, and has exposed them.

The Holy Scriptures have been given to you as a sure measuring rod of objective, inspired truth, by which you can tell if something you are tempted to do is right or wrong, good or evil.

And in Christ, where you were weak and unable to resist Satan’s allurements, you are now strong. You are strong in the strength of the one who told Satan, “Be gone!”

You are strong in the strength of the one who rose from the grave, and who lives - invincibly - forevermore. You are strong in the one who is with you now, who is guarding you, and who for your sake is telling Satan once again, “Be gone!”

And so, in your temptations, cling to Christ. Because Christ is clinging to you. He is clinging to you in the day of trial.

He is clinging to you in the darkness of your fears and uncertainties. He is clinging to you at all those times when the devil comes once again, and tries once again to pull you away.

If you do let go of your Savior, and turn aside from his gospel, you will thereby be letting go of all of the protections and blessings that are now yours in him. The devil will once again have free reign with you.

The devil will once again succeed, unimpeded, in bringing you down. May this never be.

Satan is wily: not just in attacking our country - as politicians may occasionally mention - but in attacking all countries; and not just in attacking countries, but in attacking each and every individual human being.

As we have been reminded of this today, let us heed the Lenten call of our Lord, that this is a time for us to stop allowing the devil to have as much influence in our lives as we have been allowing him to have. This is a time for our eyes and our ears to be opened once again.

This is a time to be renewed in faith - faith in the only one who can help us and deliver us. This is a time for us to repent of all half-heartedness, all flippancy regarding the things of God, and all presumption regarding our ability to protect ourselves from the devil’s schemes.

Now is the time to listen to what St. James tells us:

“Submit God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. ... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

And now is also the time to listen to what St. Paul tells us:

“I want you to be wise as to what is good, and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Amen.