As some of you know by now, last Saturday night, my maternal grandfather, the Rev. Ken Sent passed away in his sleep. As you would guess, the past week has been one full of reflection.
If you were to read his obituary, you would find what feels like a never-ending list of experiences in service to the Church. From his work as a parish pastor in California to Washington D.C., and places in between, to his time serving as the Director of the Division for Mission and then the Secretary of Church Vocations for the Lutheran Church in North America, prior to the ELCA being formed, to his work with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and with Lutheran World Federation, and then, there was, as well, his time spent on countless Churchwide and Educational boards including the Council of Churches of California and the National Council of Churches. He truly was, as first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herb Chilstrom, deemed him… “one of the grand old men of the Lutheran Church.”
Yet, with all of these things, for me, he was my pap. I didn’t learn about his work through Church documents or history books, but through conversation. When he spoke about his life in the church, he reflected on a lifetime devoted to public ministry… on a lifetime of serving Christ. It was never about the titles that he held or about bragging rights. It was about love of God and love of neighbor.
If there was one experience that impacted his ministry the most, the whole of his life really… it was those experiences that began as a second-year seminarian, before he was even ordained as a pastor, when he was called upon by leaders of the Lutheran World Federation to go to Germany to work with displaced persons following WWII.
As he talked about his time overseas, he described experiences in which he truly believed he had come face to face with God… and too, experiences in which he felt he had come face to face with the devil, with evil itself.
God: those parents who, through horrors words cannot describe, risked their lives to care for their children. Those people who, leaving behind their families and the comfort of their homes, traveled across the globe to care for people they had never met… that those whose lives had been surrounded by death for so long would have the possibility for new life. People from various ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds working together with whatever resources they had for the good of those in need.
The devil: A land left in total desolation at the hands of evil men. Families forced to leave their homes and all their belongings behind in order to survive – nothing from their former lives left to speak of. Towns and cities reduced to rubble. The dead left unburied – remains scattered along the sides of roads, mass burial plots, and unmarked graves. Entire family trees wiped out, as if they never existed.
Today, our lectionary gives us the opportunity to celebrate the festival day known as Michael and All Angels. The day that draws our attention to God’s victory over the devil. The archangel Michael – the prince and general of the heavenly army – defeating Satan and his army of fallen angels.
As we look to our Old Testament reading from the Book of Daniel, we read about the vision that left Daniel trembling. Of the time to come when the dead will rise and the archangel Michael will bring about a day of deliverance over evil…. some to everlasting life… others to shame and everlasting contempt…
In our gospel, Luke writes of the return of the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus to heal the sick and spread the news of the coming of the kingdom that he will bring. Saying very little about what they had experienced on their journeys, they report to Jesus; “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” To which Jesus replies; “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.”
And then, in our reading from the Book of Revelation, we find John’s vision of the war in heaven mirroring Jesus words to the seventy. The archangel Michael and his angels battling against and defeating the great dragon – the ancient serpent… the devil – hurling him, along with his fallen angels, down to earth where they seek to make war against the faithful.
One of the big questions posed by commentators in regards to our gospel for this weekend, is the question of when did/will Satan’s defeat take place?
For some, Jesus is referring to an event of the distant past. Others believe that Jesus is referring to an event that he experienced for himself at some point during his life. Evil and Satan defeated in his resurrection and ascension.
But there’s just one problem with these two thoughts… Evil is still at work in our world seeking to make war against the faithful… the work of the devil – sin – is still very much a part of our lives, working within us and around us, seeking to draw us away from God and divide us from our neighbor. As Luther put it, “For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.”
There are those events of our lives and those experiences that we have, where the devil, evil, is easy to see and hard to ignore. For my grandfather, the aftermath of WWII and the thousands of people whose lives were ripped apart because of it.
But too, there are as well those places of our lives where the devil works in ways less obvious… In those thoughts we have but wouldn’t dare speak out loud. Those moments we fail to help a neighbor in need. When we lift ourselves up as better than others. When we lie. When we hurt those, we love. When we offer allegiance to the many things of this world over and against the things of God. When we say hurtful things to or about someone else for no other reason than to cause pain. When we make excuses for our sins instead of making up for them. When we fail to live in ways reflective of Christ’s love…
In moments such as these, we’re left to answer some difficult questions for ourselves. Where is the devil at work in our lives? What are those things that draw you away from God? That lead you to live your lives in ways that fail to reflect the love of Christ?
So Jesus says; “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to overcome the power of the enemy.” I have given you authority to overcome the power of the enemy.
The devil, is at work in our world. The battle against the faithful rages on. And truthfully, from where I am standing, with the rapid decline of the Church and spirituality across the globe, there are those times when devil appears to be winning more so today than ever before.
The Good News is, God is on our side and has given us the authority to overcome.
Each of us, you and me included, have been given the power, the mandate, to overcome the power of the enemy. To fight against the evil ways of this world and reflect the love of Christ in all that we do. Both in our lives, and in the lives of others… Through acts of love and prayer. In our gathering together for worship around Baptism and Holy Communion. In our confessing of those wrongs against God and neighbor, and in our absolution given to us by the authority of Christ. In our singing songs of praise and thanksgiving. In our hearing of God’s living Word and through our sharing of the Good News with others who have not yet heard.
As you face those moments when you feel as though evil is winning the battle in your lives or in the world around you, remember that you are not alone. Yet, maybe most importantly, remember that while we are called to fight in the battle against the powers of darkness, it isn’t up to us to win the war.
As Christ proclaims; “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. But do not rejoice that the spirits will submit to you…rejoice… for your names are written in heaven.”
Rejoice, for your names are written in heaven. For this we give thanks and praise. Amen.
~Pastor Andrew Geib