angels

Mind Wars

Romans 7:14-25 (NLT)

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.


Most of us intuitively understand what Paul means when he writes, “I want to do what is is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” We’ve been there. We’ve done that.

His statement is, of course, in the context of his long conversation in Romans about the law, how it was given to us so we could better understand right and wrong. It also is rooted in a related thought he has been repeating, that we are too broken by our sinfulness to live holy lives by our own effort.

Paul also is moving us toward a deeper understanding of the spiritual world around us and how it influences us. For modern Christians, this concept may elude us a little. Some other Bible stories may help. Be sure to click the links to read the stories.

Daniel’s Tardy Angel

Daniel was praying to understand why his people remained in captivity. After three weeks of prayer and fasting, he received a vision and heard directly from an angel.

I’m not focusing on the vision, which had to do with revelations about the end times. Instead, I want to focus on the angel’s reason for taking three weeks to deliver the answer to Daniel’s prayers. He was delayed by an evil force, and ultimately the archangel Michael, known for his prowess in battle, had to arrive on the scene to make delivery of the message possible.

In this story, we receive a rare glimpse of what is usually unseen, the struggle between the forces of good and evil on a spiritual plane. And yes, what happens there affects world events.

The Sorcerer’s Folly

This story in Acts reminds us of how humans and evil spirits can combine forces to contend for the allegiance of one person, particularly if that person may have some worldly influence. The sorcerer’s motive is made clear in the text: He wanted to keep the governor from believing. The governor is described as an intelligent man, so we can presume this sorcerer kept his victim spellbound with an impressive bag of tricks, gifts from the evil spirits who worked within and alongside the sorcerer.

Paul dealt with the situation head on, trusting in the Holy Spirit to take the lead. He declared precisely for whom the sorcerer worked. The Holy Spirit won out, and the governor became a true believer.

Porcine Possession

Modern people often want to re-orient biblical stories about the spiritual world toward a more modern understanding of events, chalking up behaviors seen in the Bible to epilepsy or mental illness.

Yes, epilepsy and mental illness are very real conditions that can occur in our broken bodies. But at the same time, there are stories in the Bible that show us the negative direct effects spiritual powers can have upon us.

The demons in this story know Jesus’ full identity more clearly than any of the disciples would have known at this time. And yet the demons are pulling hard in the other direction, wreaking havoc in the lives of these two men in need of healing.

Modern minds also should note that mental illness is not directly transferable to pigs. This story is rooted in the spiritual world, not a medical journal.

The Victorious Life

Spiritual evil is real. It has a powerful influence on our lives, and the battle for our minds is real and should not be ignored. For a Christian seeking truth in Scripture, these are undeniable biblical principles.

Paul initially joins us in a universal lament, acknowledging the despair we can feel. “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death!”

But remember the core message of Romans: We are freed from the trap. Christ’s death on the cross and ensuing resurrection represent a victory over sin and death we could not win. Through belief, we gain a new power.

Often as Christians, we focus on the moment of belief, the day and time we were saved. As we proceed in Romans, however, Paul is going to tell us more about how we tap into and use the power we are graciously given by our loving God. We are going to learn from Paul how to grow in strength as we contend with evil every day.

We are about to learn how to live life in the Spirit.


The featured image is a detail of Michael the archangel, from a 1488 painting by Bartolomeo Vivarini.

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Worshiping What We See

When I introduced this series on Revelation last week, I told you there would be symbolism. Lots of it.

This week, we’ve skipped past the letters to the churches—they in and of themselves are worthy of a sermon series—and returned to scenes of heavenly worship. Revelation 5:11-14 concludes some of the most powerful worship imagery you will find anywhere in the Bible.

In chapter 4, John begins to paint this astonishing, brightly colored portrait of worship with a view of God, who is the audience for all worship. Well, John attempts to give us a view of God, anyway. He is like a man who has stared into the sun and then, fully dazzled, tried to describe what he saw. His symbols reflect the nature of God, holy and burning inside against sin, but surrounded by an emerald rainbow. This last touch brings what New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger once described as a soothing sense of mercy to the overall impression.

Remember this one important fact about biblical symbolism: Whatever you “see” barely begins to describe the reality of what is most true and real. When God burns against sin, it is a fire we can never come close to imaging; when God offers mercy, it abounds in ways beyond our comprehension.

There are other mysteries, easier to gaze upon but nearly as perplexing. It is debatable who the 24 elders surrounding the throne represent. Perhaps they are 12 patriarchs from the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament, standing as witnesses to the covenants God has used to bring sinful humanity home. What is important is that even though they have crowns given to them by God, they cast them down in worship, remembering the source of all goodness and power.

And then there are those peculiar beings called the “living creatures,” six-winged and full of eyes. They are your eternal choir directors, leading worship in heaven. No need for preachers here; what preachers declare on earth will be fully evident in heaven. I guess I’ll have to learn to sing.

Perhaps strangest image is the one called “The Lion of Judah.” Surprisingly, he appears as a seven-horned, seven-eyed lamb with all the markings of having been slaughtered. This, of course, is another image of the Christ, very different from the image we had last week. His description initially makes him seem weak, but he is the only being in heaven able to open a scroll with seven seals.

All these “sevens” are marks of God’s holy completeness—remember, numbers in Revelation always have a symbolic meaning. The scroll itself is a symbol of God’s will fully expressed. Only Jesus could unroll it. That is, only Jesus could grasp the full intent of God’s will. Only Jesus could go to the cross and carry out a plan of sacrifice, a sacrifice good enough for all people, giving those who believe eternal life.

We also see something particularly glorious and meaningful to us now, right now, as we worship where we are. For we participate in this vision, too. We are told that in the heavenly worship, there are bowls of incense, which represent the prayers of believers worshiping on earth.

I find that image particularly comforting. Think about it: All your fears, all your worries, all your desires, all your pleadings, all your cries for justice, all your pleas for mercy and forgiveness—all of them make their way into worship in heaven. Heaven and earth come together in worship.

I don’t know how you each individually feel about worship. Some of you look forward to it, craving it each week. Some of you, I suspect, find elements of it or perhaps all of it boring. I’m sorry I cannot bring you the creatures and the millions of angels and the slain lamb in full each Sunday. But I do pray you can close your eyes now and then, open your hearts, and sense something greater than the world we plod through each day.

This portion of Revelation is a call to us to fully embrace what’s going on in any kind of worship. We participate in a greater glorification of God, and we prepare ourselves for the day when we are in a doubtless, overwhelming kind of worship, the kind of experience we will never want to leave.

I pray we walk away from this earthly worship with a sense of hope and of a great victory still to come.


The featured image is “Homage to the Lamb,” a folio from the Bamberg Apocalypse, c. 1000.

 

What Perplexes Angels

Luke 24:1-12

In Luke’s version of the discovery of Christ’s resurrection, there are two “men” waiting at the tomb to announce that Christ has risen from the dead. I place “men” in quotation marks for a reason.

Luke also writes of their “dazzling” clothing and the stunned response of the women at the tomb. In describing their clothing, Luke uses the same Greek word here that he earlier used in 17:24 to describe a flash of lightning. Clearly, he wants us to understand that these “men” are angels.

When I hear this story, I wonder if angels find humans perplexing. Along with announcing the resurrection, these two angels find themselves called to restate what Jesus had already said several times. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”

As the women ran back to tell the others, did one angel look at the other and say, “What did they expect?”

One of the angels could have noted the humans had hundreds of years of prophecy to guide them toward an understanding of what must happen to the Christ. For example, these Israelites would have repeatedly heard the words of Isaiah 53:10: “When his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”

And then there are all those Psalms—16:10, for example. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”

“But that prophecy stuff is pretty vague for sin-cloaked humans,” the second angel might have countered. “They don’t see God the way we do.”

“Okay,” I imagine the first angel saying. “But then Jesus came along and performed all those miracles to demonstrate who he is. And then he said who he is. And then he told them again and again that he must die in Jerusalem and be raised from the dead.

“What did they expect? Did they think they would actually find his decaying body this morning?”

I also wonder whether angels find us perplexing in our modern day. First of all, reports of Jesus’ resurrection are widely available, in all four gospels and other New Testament writings. His resurrection is the centerpiece of history, shaping Western civilization. The power of this truth to spread globally is evidence something miraculous is happening.

Second, Jesus made promises that go far beyond his personal resurrection. He has promised that a day is coming when he will return, and his resurrection will then be ours, leading to eternal life or eternal punishment. “Stay dressed for action,” Jesus says in Luke 12:35.

Angels certainly must expect those of us who call ourselves Christian to take such an admonition seriously. And when we lapse into the short-sighted lifestyles we often lead today—lifestyles of hoarding and self interest, of lewdness and meanness—we must seem strange to heaven.

Easter is our chance to adjust our perspective, to see the big picture and make the truth of the resurrection a part of everything we do. With the Holy Spirit’s help, perhaps we can even see the world with the eyes of the angels.

The James Series: Single Minded

James 3:13-4:8

The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each whispering what to do, is a trope you see repeatedly in cartoons, advertising and comedy. It also is an external picture of a very real internal battle we each face every day.

James calls us to take this battle very seriously, moving toward a place where the devil finally flees. So, how do we move toward that place of peace, the life where the Holy Spirit whispers wisdom to our spirits and is heard without interference?

The first step will be obvious to many in the room, but it bears repeating because inevitably, at least a few people here will be struggling with that step. James is describing this battle between good and evil from a Christian perspective, declaring Christ as Lord and Savior and emphasizing that God works among us now.

It is a truth we all have accepted or are called to accept. The day we accept it, we say we believe there is something going on more real than what we see in this world, and we commit ourselves to being a part of that greater thing. Specifically, we commit ourselves to participating in the great mystery of what God is doing in this broken, sin-stained world through Christ’s sacrifice.

This idea goes right along with our broad church vision, that we will one day see the world conformed to Jesus Christ. The will of God will be fully expressed in creation, with every part of creation behaving in every situation as God would have it behave.

It is a big idea to absorb. The world is in front of us, immediately affecting us at all times. To accept the work of Christ is to say we’re going to ignore what is obvious and choose to pursue what we cannot immediately see.

Once we’ve made that leap of faith—once we’ve chosen to call ourselves Christian and really own the vision—the battle between God’s goodness and the evil within us is on. That most immediate expression of God, the Holy Spirit, begins to work inside of us, contending with the world for our very souls.

God is going to win, of course, so long as we allow God to win. God’s desire for us to be free beings is the only impediment to swift victory; he lets us choose to keep him out, but will rush in wherever we let him. The more we let God work, the more complete the victory within us becomes.

And in all of this, we actually begin to experience this other world Christ represents, this greater reality that before was so hard to see.

James lays out a simple plan so we can better allow God to go to work in us. He says:

  1. Submit to God. That’s fairly simple to understand. Know who you are relative to God. Know that God knows better. A lot of people find this hard to actually do, however. Their pride is so intense that they cannot imagine submitting to anything.
  2. Resist the Devil. Don’t panic; you don’t have to do this alone. You could never win on your own, anyway. But God calls you to participate in the fight against evil, knowing God is with you throughout, strengthening you for the task. Along these lines, James tells us to draw near to God and he will draw near to you. I’m reminded of the story of the prodigal son, of how the father rushes toward his battered boy when he sees him at a distance, the boy returning home along the road.
  3. Cleanse your hands, sinners. I see this as a call to put right the wrong we have done, at least as much as humanly possible. Again, we have to trust God to make the ultimate, great fixes to the universe, but he wants us to involve ourselves in the process.
  4. Purify your hearts, you double-minded. It’s a restatement of what we’ve been talking about throughout this sermon. Stop letting this world pull you away from Christ. Stop reserving places in your emotions or your intellect for ideas or impulses that are not of God.

As God is more and more present in every aspect of our lives—as we become single-minded—the devil will flee. What is unholy cannot stand a strong dose of what is aligned with God.

Next week, we’ll draw on the elements in this exhortation as we hold a service of healing, believing we can see God’s dawning kingdom as undeniably present among us.

Even Demons Know

Mark 1:21-39

I think I’m as rational and grounded as the next person. Despite being a person of faith, a believer in Jesus Christ’s work in this world, my default way of thinking is to trust what I can see and measure, and be skeptical about what I cannot validate.

That makes me a typical 21st century citizen of the developed world, a product of a place where science and reason are held in high esteem. That sense of being “modern,” however, also can make it more difficult for me and for you to appreciate the truths in what can seem like a primitive story, a story including demon possession and exorcism.

The story itself is told in a straightforward manner—this is, after all, the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had just gathered his disciples, and he headed to the synagogue in Capernaum, the town which would be his ministry’s home base for the next three years.

An Exorcism, Jesus-Style

First, a little regarding Jesus teaching with “authority,” as this becomes important to us later. The declaration of the worshipers about Jesus was not a slap at the scribes, whose job it was to look to the law and provide guidance. When the worshipers said Jesus taught as “one having authority,” they meant he spoke as God would speak, with the voice of a prophet, declaring God’s will directly.

Apparently, that holy authority bothered a demon occupying some part of one worshiper’s soul. I wonder if the man had ever done anything to indicate his problem before; he was allowed in the synagogue, rather than having been driven away from society, as possessed people often were. The resident demon declared loudly who Jesus is, and its fear of Jesus also was evident. Jesus silenced it and exorcised it, presumably freeing this man from some terrible burdens in the process.

To grasp the significance of the demon in this and other exorcism stories, we do have to believe there are evil powers at work but not directly observable in this world. As Christians, there’s really not much reason to reject such an idea. Think what we have accepted already.

Spirits Everywhere

We believe there is a personal spiritual force called God who made all things and stands outside all creation. We believe God’s Spirit fully occupies human flesh as Jesus Christ, and we believe that same Spirit occupies us when we accept Christ as Savior.

Few of us struggle with the idea of angels occupying a heavenly realm. So, It really shouldn’t be a stretch to imagine their evil variant, influencing us in a very personal way. As we hear in Revelation 12:7-9:

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

In recent years, I’ve found it easier and easier to accept that those evil beings among us take control of people. While working in prison ministry, I’ve had inmates tell me of their own personal experiences of losing control.

Certainly, these people did certain things to open the door to evil spiritual influences—drug abuse in particular seems to increase the risk of possession. But there is an element to their stories that goes beyond the simple rewiring of their brains through drugs or pornography. Something wicked was present. (By the time they told me these stories, they had been freed by Christ.)

Complete Victory

Here’s the good news: Christians who cling to their beliefs and guard themselves spiritually have nothing to fear. Our story today shows us demons tremble at the very idea of Jesus Christ. And they were trembling even before Christ had gone to the cross, defeated death and sin, and demonstrated his victory in the Resurrection.

If you’ll back up a few verses in Mark, you can see why demons feared Christ from the start of his ministry. Satan already had made one run at Jesus in the wilderness, testing him, vetting his identity, and badly losing a battle of wits. The entire spirit world must have taken note.

Why can I say we have nothing to fear? When we stay close to Christ, Christ’s Spirit remains in us, and those wicked forces see Christ in us. Evil may damage our bodies, but our souls are never in danger.

All this makes me wonder why people would dabble in New Age spiritualism or witchcraft. Have they not figured out they’re siding with the losing team? After the victory on the cross, the spiritual battle between good and evil is for all practical purposes over. If this were a basketball game, there would be a minute left in the fourth quarter, with Good up by 40 points over Evil.

Fire, Angels and the Great Beginning

 

"Angel of Revelation," William Blake [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Angel of Revelation,” William Blake [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (NRSV)

When you read the explanation provided by Jesus, “The Parable of the Weeds” is pretty straightforward. Question is, do we live as if his teachings are true?

In the parable, there is good and evil—Jesus vs. the devil—and we as human beings choose sides. For a time, good and evil are allowed to co-exist, so the good can spread and grow to its fullest. But only for a time.

Ultimately, we’re told, evil will be separated from good and cast away to a place where it seems there will be something of a paradox, total destruction and ongoing anguish. Dare we call it hell?

Such concepts used to inspire people to a deeper consideration of how they lived. Certainly, Christians took such teachings very seriously, using them as a vision of the future to shape their lives in the present. But I wonder how serious we are now about rooting our lives in these ancient teachings telling us where the world is headed.

Here’s the basic problem for a Christian who doesn’t let this particular teaching shape his or her life. Such a person is paying no more than lip service to our faith. Jesus is talking about the core of Christianity, the very reason he came to die on the cross—to end evil’s reign in this world, making possible for us a glorious, holy, eternal life with God.

Maybe it’s all that picturesque language that makes some people uncomfortable. The language I’m talking about is not in the parable itself, but in Jesus’ explanation of the parable. The parable is a simple agrarian story, very familiar to its audience. But when Jesus explained the parable to his disciples, it became a story of angels gathering “all causes of sin and all evildoers” and casting them into what must be a very large “furnace of fire,” language designed to evoke the stories and end-time prophecies in the Book of Daniel.

Try to imagine it; huge angels roaming the planet, gathering up everything and every person opposed to the will of God. I think of the angel in the 10th chapter of Revelation, “coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He held a little scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring. And when he shouted, the seven thunders sounded.”

It all can seem far-fetched to modern ears. We make ourselves more comfortable by saying, “It’s somehow symbolic.” But even if it is symbolism, we have to remember an important point about symbols. They stand for something larger, something harder to grasp.

In other words, if you take Jesus’ explanation literally, something astonishing is going to happen when God brings an end to evil. And if you take Jesus’ explanation symbolically, something astonishing is going to happen when God brings an end to evil.

Either way, we want ourselves aligned with God. We may not be perfect, but we want to be certain our sins have been forgiven through a belief in the work Jesus Christ did on the cross. We want the Holy Spirit to continue working in our lives day after day.

We want to be sure that we’re not so entangled with evil that the reapers will have difficulty distinguishing us from what must be burned. As we heard last week, we want to be sure we’re producing the kind of fruit that benefits the coming kingdom of heaven.

And of course, we should be enthralled by the upside, the Good News. This opportunity for us and those we love to shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father is the underlying desire of all our prayers. Again, we can look to Revelation, this time in the 21st chapter, for an expansion of what we can expect: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Or this, in the 22nd chapter: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be their foreheads.”

For those who stand with God, the time of reaping and sorting is not an end, it is a great beginning. When evil is vanquished, Paradise is regained. If you have ears, listen to Jesus’ words.

A Child Is Born

The story of the birth of Jesus is both marvelous and deeply important to the world. Even nonbelievers have been heavily impacted by it, simply because Christianity has been a key driver of human history for nearly 2,000 years.

For a complete view of Christianity, you have to understand Jesus as an adult, and in particular, you have to understand the importance of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ birth narrative, however, is the beginning of the description of Jesus as the promised Messiah, evidence that God has chosen to be with us in the most personal of ways.

News this important needs to be told. Luke’s spare, tight account of the birth is all about the telling, with voices declaring Jesus as Messiah from both heaven and earth.

Already, angels have punctuated the story repeatedly, prepping the key players for what is to come. The actual birth happens in a straightforward manner. Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem in answer to a census, and while there, Luke tells us, “The time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

The formal birth announcement comes from heaven, with angels appearing before lowly shepherds, declaring the arrival of “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The angels tell the shepherds how to find this great miracle—look for something common. “This will be a sign for you: You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

I find it instructive that while angels began the announcement, the proclamation effort quickly was turned over to humans, and quite common humans at that, at least in worldly terms. God’s good news spread from the bottom up, ensuring that the people usually left out of key events were the first to know about the most important event.

The shepherds went in search of evidence of what they had heard, finding it in a primitive barn. The baby in the manger was enough for them to begin to tell others what they had seen, causing amazement.

And here we are now, still celebrating what God has done for us through this miraculous birth. Word has spread not because of angels but because of faithful telling and re-telling from generation to generation.

Have you told anyone lately? Have you amazed anyone with the story of how much God loves his creation? Have you helped the joy of Christmas seep into others’ souls so their joy may be eternal?

What an opportunity the Christmas season is!

I wish you a merry Christmas, and I pray that you will carry Christmas to those in need of good news.