SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT, 3-15-2020
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL
Pastor Michael Larson
Parishioners are often surprised when they find out I don’t actually pick the readings that we hear every Sunday. Here at Luther Memorial we actually follow something called a lectionary, which is just a fancy word for an ordered set of readings – which are read at the Sunday services.
The selection of these readings didn’t take place in a vacuum. They were selected, preached, and taught in real time – so there is history and context there. The readings during Lent, going back to the first centuries after our Lord’s resurrection, were intended to support new catechumens, those who were undergoing baptismal catechesis, who were preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil and therefore also to receive the Lord’s Supper for the first time.
The whole season of Lent, with its readings, liturgy, and preaching, was something like when a man goes off for basic training in the army or Marine Corps. He was leaving his old civilian life behind and enlisting in something totally new. He would be training for combat. So the readings for Sundays in Lent were just that. They were catechesis, training in spiritual warfare, and preparation for baptism. Which is to be enlisted as a soldier on the front lines of battle in Christ’s militia in His glorious Kingdom. This idea was much behind Christian catechesis in the Early Church.
So it should make sense that a couple weeks ago, that first Sunday in Lent, we were with Jesus in the wilderness battling that enemy, the devil.
Last Sunday, the second week of Lent, we dealt with an exorcism, and a mother, and a poor daughter possessed by the devil but liberated by the mercy and grace of Jesus. This morning, we’ve got another exorcism again, and then some folks charge Jesus with being in league with Satan himself. Jesus is falsely accused of doing evil when He was doing good.
I want to lay out today’s Gospel for you very shortly, but this is what you should know. The Third Sunday of Lent historically was the day the catechumens would publicly renounce the devil and there would be exorcisms of the catechumens. We Lutherans don’t hook our salvation into some decision that we make. The Lord saves. He alone. But in the Early Church they weren’t totally shy about sticking the question right to them. Do you renounce the devil, all his works, and all his ways? Yes, I do. Shall Christ rule as King and Lord in your life? Yes, He will. They would confront the reality that they once lived after the gratification of the flesh. They would teach the new disciple of Jesus in this sort of way: You once lived in darkness. But now you have Christ, the heavenly Sun. A great change has taken place in you. You have emerged out of dark night into broad daylight. So now walk as children of the heavenly light. As bright stars in the dark of night. Our epistle reading is getting at all this today.
Through the season of Lent those outside of the Kingdom are shown as still living in darkness, slaves of sin, enemies of God, and allies of Satan.
The readings today are about unswerving allegiance, loyalty, and patriotism to Christ and the heavenly kingdom.
So keep all these things in mind. And consider that these readings are not just appointed for new catechumens being baptized. No, these lessons in the lectionary are for you, selected by the church, in her wisdom, to sustain and preserve your faith as well. So that you might pick up your cross, remember your baptism, shun evil, and follow Christ our Lord.
As I said, historically in the church, this was the day when new disciples of Jesus would renounce Satan.
So keeping that in mind, listen to this portion of Gospel this morning to make the connection here and to see an urgent warning in our Lord’s words. Jesus said, “When the unclean spirit [that is the devil], has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places, seeking rest; and finding none, it says: I will return to my house from which I came. And when it comes it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and bring seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
Ok now, what does that mean? What is Jesus teaching? Well, He’s warning us there about misunderstanding baptism and the holy life of faith. Because where baptism does not lead us to daily contrition and repentance, we are entering very dangerously into what is called “carnal security.”
That’s where we get to thinking we can act and live however we want, and use our holy religion in such a way to excuse or minimize the severity of sin. Jesus warns us that that wicked way of thinking invites the devil right back in.
Baptism, rightly understood, brings us into a life of penitence, a life of sorrow over sin, of fighting against it, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, conquering it. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying baptized Christians don’t sin. Because we sure do. But what’s being taught today is that we don’t make peace with sin, we don’t coddle it and nurture, but we resist it, we renounce it.
In our Gospel today Jesus warns us that once the devil is driven out of a person and shown the door he gets restless. He wants to move right back in and this time bring back with him a whole slew of his buddies, demons, so that the last state of the person is worse than the first.
Now, let’s be clear. Baptism does drive out the devil. That’s true. But just because the devil’s been sent packing doesn’t mean the devil loses all interest in you. In fact, he comes at you now with everything he’s got. So today’s catechesis is a lesson from our Lord about driving the devil out and keeping him out.
Listen to the words of Jesus this morning. He says this: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe.”
So who’s the strong man? It’s the devil, and he guards his own palace. And who/what exactly is that palace? Who is that choice piece of real estate the devil’s after? That’s you. It’s you he’s after. Satan’s stronghold is the human heart. He wants to rule you, abuse you, and condemn you. He wants to dangle your sins before your face, convince you that you can’t be helped and drive you to despair. Above all, he wants to drive a giant wedge between you and God.
But then Jesus preaches this good news. He says: “but when One stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” I hope you understand here. Jesus is the stronger man. He’s speaking of Himself. Teaching the disciples that He overcomes that strong man, the devil, who thought he could use you as his own playground.
Jesus overcomes the strong man. He plunders the devil’s kingdom by dying our death, and empties hell of all its power. By His atoning sacrifice He shuts the devil’s mouth of every accusation he could ever level against you, by answering for all your sins, thus breaking the power of sin and death. He rose triumphantly from the grave, announcing total victory over that strong man, Satan. Jesus then raided his palace, took possession of you, making you, instead, His own soldier through holy baptism.
This Stronger Man, now, risen and ascended in power to the Father’s right hand, wants nothing more than to graciously rule as King and Lord in your heart. He wishes to take up residence with you through His holy body and blood, given and shed for you. That you would stand strong in the forgiveness of sins.
You see, our Jesus wants not just to drive the devil out through baptism, but in His Word and absolution and Supper to keep him out. And Satan flees before such gifts.
So just think: How foolish to continue in destructive ways and cozy up to sin! How could we? We’ve been crucified with Christ. We’ve died with Him. And now we’ve been raised up to live with Him, to gladly serve our neighbor, being possessed by the Spirit of God.
Today we learn to live in this victory. To abide in this love. To walk as children of light, delighting in all that is good and right and true. In the name of Jesus. Amen.