In the Name...
The story is told of a Scottish minister visiting an art gallery in Italy. Seeing a painting of the Last Judgement depicting the souls of humans being pulled in a sort of tug of war between angels and demons he was asked what he thought of it. "Well," he said, "it looks like the devils have gravity on their side."
This morning's Gospel presents us with the challenge of sharing a vision - the vision of the fall of Satan. The passage began with Jesus sending out seventy of his followers with instructions to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom. These seventy were to, in effect, become extensions of him and instruments of the power of God. And, as we read, they were amazed at what happened. "Even the demons submit to us in your name" they say. And it is at this moment that Jesus exclaims, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning."
In other words, in the witness of his followers and their exercise of his power to heal and restore, Jesus could see the powers of darkness dethroned and overthrown so that, in the words of Revelation, and Handel's Messiah, the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
But, here we are and almost 2,000 years have passed since that shout of triumph. What is the world become? In every part of it, Man is still doing his best to kill, starve, or cheat his fellow Man. Even when we think that this should not be the case. Whenever natural disaster strikes - a hurricane, a flood, an earthquake - one thing we can be sure of is that some folks will do their best to siphon off disaster relief funds and line their own pockets. The examples are endless, from war crimes and terrorism to a repairman who knows more about fixing bills than appliances.
Would Jesus still be so cheerful? Yes. Because he was speaking of principalities and powers of spiritual darkness; the demonic forces in the universe. And these are greater issues than mere human misbehaviour. Part of the curse of the Fall is that we are limited in our perspective to the world we experience through our senses. History, however, cannot be assessed in purely human terms. That is the whole thrust of Scripture from the opening words of Genesis, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." to the final words of Revelation, "Come, Lord Jesus."
But, it is so easy to become overwhelmed by the cares and occupations of this life to the point that we lose sight of that perspective and fail to see what Jesus saw. The poet Thoreau famously wrote that, "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." How true. And our role as Christians is to show the mass of men that life has meaning and purpose and that there is a movement to history. We are the ones who must change that quiet desperation into joyful, exuberant hope. But, we cannot do this unless we can see Satan falling like lightning.
There's a story that's come down to us of an incident that occurred during one of the early Roman persecutions of Christians. As a group of Christians were being readied to go out into the arena where they would be torn apart by wild beasts, one of the guards, who had heard something about Christ, scornfully asked, "So, where is your carpenter now?" Someone in the group replied, "Making a coffin for your emperor."
Obviously, he wasn't referring to a Roman, but, Satan the emperor of all evil. The question is, do we believe that? Do we believe that, by our actions and words, we are in the coffin-building business for the powers of evil? Or have we succumbed unconsciously to the sceptic’s notion of the Church as a benign, inoffensive organization just seeking to get along? If so, then we have not read our New Testaments carefully. Jesus said, "I have come not to bring peace, but, the sword" and St. John warns us, "Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you."
But, why? Christians do good things. We run schools and hospitals and food pantries and try, in countless other ways, to make people's lives better. What is hateful about that?
Well, a couple of things, actually. You see, the World, with a capital W, doesn't want people's lives made better. People are easier to lead into despair, crime, violence, and a million other vices if their lives are miserable. When I was in the army we had a course on terrorism and the instructor said that the typical profile of a suicide bomber was someone who felt he had nothing to live for. It wasn't about believing in a cause and it didn't matter about religion, gender, nationality or any other variable. It all came down to did this person have hope, or not.
And the other thing is that the charge nailed on the Cross did not read, Jesus the Teacher or Jesus the Healer or Jesus the Compassionate. It read, Jesus the King, and that is also something the World does not want to accept.
We can teach and heal and be compassionate as much as we want and the World will happily ignore us. But, the moment we say we're doing these things because we believe that Jesus is King, that he speaks with authority, that he exercises divine power, that he holds us accountable for our actions, and that he has a plan for the universe, then we have crossed a line.
Back in the 1970's, when the dictator Idi Amin ruled Uganda and was persecuting Christians, a bishop from there was asked what support the church in America could offer. He replied that he urgently needed 200 clerical collars. This reply shocked the audience, but, what he said next was even more disturbing. He needed the collars he said because, "when our people are being rounded up to be shot, they must be able to spot their priests."
Fortunately, we do not live in either 1st Century Rome or 1970's Uganda. But, just because we don't live in fear of hit squads or the arena doesn't mean that we're allowed to get off scot-free. The forces of evil have developed more subtle and sophisticated ways of dealing with us in 21st Century America.
I've mentioned this before, but, it bears repeating. When I first went to the Lehigh Valley, one of my colleagues showed me a study that had been done a few years before on what people in that region said they wanted from church. Forty per cent said the number one thing churches should be providing are social activities, like bus trips, youth groups, spaghetti suppers, zumba classes, etc.; 23% said that churches should be providing social ministries like food pantries, literacy classes, budget counselling, etc. Only 21%, about one in five, said they expected churches to primarily provide worship and opportunities for spiritual growth.
The Scottish minister was right. The devil does have gravity on his side. Anything that pulls us down, anything that diverts our attention from the things that are above. Those are what he uses to keep us from seeing what Jesus saw. And if he can keep us from seeing that, then he's got us where he wants us. Lacking a very important vision.
We may consider those Roman Christians of the 1st Century or the Ugandan Christians of the 20th. They were not living lives of quiet desperation. On the contrary. They shared the vision. They saw Satan fall like lightning. And that give them joy and purpose, even in the face of the worst the world could throw at them.
May we share that vision and receive the power that it can give us.
In the Name...