Satan

The Pain of Knowing

Romans 7:7-13 (NLT)

Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good.

But how can that be? Did the law, which is good, cause my death? Of course not! Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death. So we can see how terrible sin really is. It uses God’s good commands for its own evil purposes.


 

We’ve been hearing a lot about the law, specifically God’s law given to the Jews, the last couple of weeks. Paul doesn’t always seem to be talking about the law in a positive way. But let’s go ahead and get on the same page with him: The law is holy, a representation of God’s will.

The problem is not the law. The problem, Paul is saying, is us. Sin, which seems to have the characteristics of a person in Paul’s writings, is clever and always finds a way to trick us. From the time we are born, and certainly from the time we first commit sins, we simply are too broken, too weak, for Satan and his minions not to find a way in.

The law’s primary role is to educate. Without God’s teachings handed down through history, we would have trouble distinguishing what is sinful from what is good, sort of the way we had trouble telling a noun from a pronoun until a good elementary school teacher explained the difference.

Paul also reminds us of a simple theological fact. Sin, Satan, demons and anything else we associate with deep, pure evil cannot create. Only God can create; even the most evil spiritual beings were created by God, becoming evil only because they were given free will and chose to turn against what made them.

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” It is a collection of correspondence—fictional, of course—from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior demon, Wormwood, regarding how to ensure a human soul ends up in Hell. Here, Screwtape speaks disparagingly of God as Creator, as you would expect a demon to do.

“He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without his minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.”

In other words, God offers us the good life. Yes, the law is often couched in what we think of as “shalt nots,” but let’s consider the positives in drawing bright line boundaries around certain behaviors. We can do this by looking at the core of the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments. Let’s hear them King James style:

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But of course, what this implies is we are invited to a special relationship with the only God who matters.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Look at it this way: There is something more than the stuff around us. There is a great being to worship, a being so great that he cannot be reduced to any object in the universe!
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Using the name of a god amounted to magic tricks; somehow, the god had to be manipulated for people to receive goodness from the god. But not Yahweh, not our God—he pours out love and grace, no magic tricks required.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Our God seeks rest for us and relationship with us.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Our God also wants us to maintain what should be, in a properly behaving family, our closest relationships, just as we maintain our relationship with God.
  6. Thou shalt not kill. Under God, we are invited to live in a society where we are not in danger of losing the greatest possession we have in this world, our lives.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Through marriage, a man and a woman are invited to a unique relationship, one built on a lifetime of trust. In many ways, we are invited to reflect in our marriages the relationship between God and humanity.
  8. Thou shalt not steal. Again, this is about the abundant godly society to which we are invited. We should never fear not having enough because someone has taken what is rightfully ours.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. In this godly society, truth should win out whenever justice is at stake.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. In giving up a desire for what other people have, we are invited to live lives of contentment, knowing the God whom we worship will provide for all our needs.

In a sense, the Ten Commandments were designed to do what the single commandment of Eden did. There, the One Commandment was, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” We are being taught by the Creator that with proper boundaries, Paradise is available.

But still, there’s that disconnect, our inability to live up to, or maybe we should say, live into the law God has offered us. What do we do?

Well, in this Easter season, we’re back to our core gospel message, a message Paul has already taken us through early in Romans. God saw that while the law educates us, it could not save us. We could not simply follow it and somehow become holy.

So God sent his son. We call him Jesus. The Son also educated us, helping us to better understand the deeper aspects of God’s will.

And then, he committed the great act of submission, allowing his perfect, holy self to be crucified in our place. His death freed us from the grip of sin and Satan. The resurrection proves the victory.

Believe, and know that in believing, we now have power to grow and become the kind of people we were made to be, holy and living out God’s will in ways we never imagined possible under a system of laws.

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Sinning After Salvation

Romans 6:1-14 (NLT)

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace.


I suppose I should give up theft, as Paul says we should not keep on sinning. But I’m stealing this morning from a great preacher named Martin Lloyd-Jones, who in the 1960’s gave us a very useful analogy to help us understand what Paul is saying in today’s text. I want us to meditate awhile on the image Lloyd-Jones offers.

Imagine two fields separated by high rock walls, typical of fields in Lloyd-Jones’ Wales. Or, for our context, we could say “separated by barbed wire,” as that is what surrounds most of our fields here in Tennessee. The point is, you are born in one field and you cannot get out on your own.

In that field, you have a master, Satan, and feeling obligated to respond to Satan’s voice, you sin. Of course you do. You were born in his field, and you really know nothing else.

Now, here’s the great miracle. Through Christ, God comes along and plucks you up from one field, setting you down in the adjacent field, the field God controls. Satan, who for many good reasons is terrified of God, will not move from one field to another to regain control over you. You are free!

You also are new to this field. In terms of behavior, all you really know for sure is life in the old field, a life of sin. Now, Satan won’t cross into the new field to get you, but he knows you. You were born in his field. He trained you to his commands.

And, being the kind of determined fallen angel who never wants to let go, Satan calls out commands over the divide between your old life and your new life, hoping you will obey. You are in a new field, but you find yourself committing some of the same sins that were part of your old life.

“Ah, I hate that,” you say to yourself, cringing in the after-effects of your sin. “Why do I do that? I’m in this beautiful new field!”

Or to quote something we’re going to hear Paul say in the seventh chapter of Romans: “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.”

This is our situation as Christians. We accept Christ, we know we are accepted, and yet, we continue to defy, at least from time to time, the one who has gone to such great lengths to rescue us from sin.

Here’s another analogy for those of us who grew up rural: You can scrub the pig up all nice and shiny for the county fair, but if you don’t watch the chubby porker closely, he’ll wallow in the mud the first chance he gets. It’s what the pig is used to doing. (For those of you not from the country, the verb is pronounced “waller.”)

The solution to the problem, or at least the beginning of the solution, is to hear again what I said earlier: You are free!

Satan no longer has a hold on you, thanks be to Jesus Christ and the cross on which Christ died. You don’t have to listen to Satan’s voice. You can tune Satan out, with no repercussions.

Yes, you really have the power! People are often shocked to learn that the devil cannot make you do it, whatever “it” may be.

When Satan issues his old commands, it’s okay to put your hands over your ears and say, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m not listening I’m not listening I’m not listening … .”

Look around you. Look at the glory of your new field. There is a new voice in this new field. It’s … it’s strange, at first. In a worldly sense, the old voice could sound wise and even beautiful, but it kept hurting you, right?

Would any of you disagree that the old voice kept leading us down paths of sin, and that ultimately, sin hurts, even if it initially seems like a good idea?

The new voice is different, though. The voice of Christ calls us to peace. The voice of Christ tells us, “Fear not,” while the old voice ran his field on fear—fear of not measuring up, fear of finishing last, fear of running out, fear of aging, fear of loss, fear after fear after fear.

The voice of Christ calls us toward a kind of beauty that is otherworldly, that never fades. Everything the old voice offered you looks cheap and dangerous compared to what we are offered in this new field.

Oh, it just struck me—some of you considering what I’m saying today may still be in the old field. Guess what, even from there you can hear Christ calling you to a better place, a better way of living now. All you have to do is call out, “Save me!” and you’ll be lifted into the new field.

Once we’re in the new field, we have to do something very important. We have to move away from the old field, away from the divide. Run from your old owner. Run deeper into the new field so it’s harder to hear his voice.

Recovering addicts and reformed criminals know exactly what I’m talking about. What’s the first big rule when you start a new life? Avoid the people who are part of your old life. Through your old friends, you will hear Satan’s voice calling you back. Stay away from anything that may be a conduit for Satan’s old call.

Eventually, you may be strong enough to run and jump in the new field and call over the divide, telling the others the way out of the field of sin. “Hear a different voice!” you’ll cry out.

I had a friend several years ago who worked with people who struggled with the same kinds of addictions she had once suffered. She estimated a person needed to be clean of a particular sin at least ten years before trying to help people with similar sins. The siren call of Satan is too strong early on, she said, despite the fact we are free.

There is more to the Christian life than simply running from Satan’s voice. It’s important you know that. Oh, there is so much more. This is a rich, beautiful field, one we explore with great excitement now and for all eternity.

There are ideas and experiences here to give us great joy. That is what we will talk about next week: how to explore the field, how to move deeper into it, how to truly experience our new home.

Until then, stay away from the fence.

The Nineteenth Chapter

The Book of Job

I developed this sermon in the first person—that is, in Job’s voice—while in seminary. For various reasons, I did not preach it in the first person Oct. 4, but the ideas in what is written below were the core of the sermon.

I recently found an interesting book called “The Holy Bible.” Imagine how surprised I was to find my story in this book—it’s about a third of the way from the beginning, with the simple title, “Job.”

I have to say, I’m relieved at how the written version begins. “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It’s good to see that this book affirms my righteousness. A lot of people questioned my character.

For a long time, my life was just about perfect. I had a beautiful wife, seven sons and three daughters, and frankly, I was rich beyond belief. I had sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys grazing for as far as the eye could see, and I had servants taking care of them. To my utter bewilderment, it all fell apart on me in a single day.

First, thieves made off with my livestock, slaughtering most of my servants in the process. Then, out of nowhere, a great windstorm knocked down my oldest son’s house, crushing to death all my children as they feasted.

Not too much later, I began to get sick. I developed these nasty, oozing sores from the the soles of my feet to the top of my head. And folks, that means they were on everything in between, too. I felt like God’s garbage, so I went and sat down on the ash pile. There, at least, I could use a piece of pottery to scrape the festering mess off of myself.

That’s when my friends showed up. They did really well at first—they just sat quietly with me for a whole week. I was in misery, but at least I had company. But as soon as I remarked that I wished I had never been born, Eliphaz felt the need to speak up. Then the others joined in.

Their arguments were quite elaborate, even poetic, but they all boiled down to this: “Job, you must’ve done something to offend God.” I told them I couldn’t imagine what it might be, but they just went on and on.

I should mention one surprise I learned from this book. One of God’s angels, the one known as Satan, “The Accuser,” was the actual cause of my troubles. He thought my righteousness resulted from my easy life, and that he could make me curse God.

To be honest, knowing that God let an accusing angel do so much evil to me leaves me even more confused.

I suppose I’ll just have to rely on what God told my friends and me: The Creator cannot be fully understood. At least God gave me a new family and restored my wealth in the end.

Still, I would like to better understand God. In the midst of my sickness, I did have a vision. I poured out some powerfully strange words, so powerful that I longed for someone to engrave the words in stone. Maybe a fever accompanied the sores—I don’t know.

Those words are recorded in the 19th chapter of my story: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

It’s a strange hope to have. Who is this Redeemer? And how could I ever hope to stand in the flesh before God after my body has been destroyed? It all sounds a little crazy.

Perhaps as I read the rest of this “Holy Bible,” I’ll find some answers.

The Need to Endure

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

When is God done saving you?

Today’s Scripture reading, and a whole lot of other Scripture readings, bring us back to a very Methodist understanding of salvation. Yes, we have a moment, often a very memorable moment, where we consciously step toward God and say, “Lord, I am yours.”

That moment may come before or after baptism in a structured way, for example, during a confirmation class. It also may happen in an unstructured way, perhaps during a contemplative walk or while quietly reading God’s word. It might be a “hot” moment, where the Spirit seizes you and shakes you. It might be a “cool” conversion, something that occurs after years of exposure to the story of Christ.  But there is a moment.

We are to understand, however, that conversion goes beyond a moment. Once God has used his grace to draw us in, gaining our voluntary cooperation, there is additional transformation to come. It is the difference between saying “I was saved” and “I am being saved.” As exciting as the moment can be, the promise of ongoing, life-changing interaction with God should be even more exciting.

What does God move us toward? In short, what we were meant to be—what we would have been without evil in the world, and what we will be when evil is no more.

Here, I think, lies the big struggle for many American Christians. We like having the moment, and we’ll even continue to cling to Christian practice for some time as long as we can feel the glow of the moment. We are a people who love instant gratification. Moving from a moment to a lifetime process is very hard for us, however.

If you struggle with the idea of ongoing sanctification, of salvation being a continuing process, try this analogy. You are drowning. A boat comes along; a hand reaches down and pulls you up. At that moment when your head clears the water and you sputter, spit and begin to breathe, you know you are saved. And yet, the process of salvation has not ended. You still must be pulled into the boat. Someone must dry you off, warm you, and check your lungs. Even the boat ride home is part of being saved. And you certainly don’t want to fall out of the boat!

This idea of ongoing salvation isn’t just some vague theological notion; we need to live it day by day. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you the story of one of the closest friends I ever had.

As you might expect, this close friend was a fellow clergyman. We were about the same age and had a lot in common. He also was a second-career pastor and had entered ministry a few years ahead of me. In many ways, he was my model for the pursuit of holiness, a concept he seemed to take very seriously.

Our church assignments separated us over time, although we tried to stay in touch. A couple of years ago, Connie and I got word from his wife, also a close friend of ours, that something astonishing had happened. He had suddenly left his wife, sons, ongoing advanced education and ministry—pretty much everything that mattered—for another woman, moving far west to help her raise her kids. (The real shocker: The other woman was a pastor, too.)

What caused such a shift in thinking and behavior? One thing seems certain. My friend did not endure, and now he is completely dependent on God’s resurrecting power to undo the damage he has done.

It is a sad story, and I tell it as a reminder that none of us is immune to such error. Satan’s servants are going to aim at all of our weak points in an effort to take as many of us down with them as possible.

I have no formula for how we endure, other than to say any formula is framed by engagement with God through prayer, Scripture, worship and the taking of the sacraments. A lot can vary within that framework, though. Like our saving moment, that ongoing engagement with God will be unique.

I’ve recently been trying to grow by meeting God in formal prayer three times a day, using prayer books to lead me. I know it helps me because prayer now brings me a kind of joy I’ve not had before. The same kind of prayer techniques may not bring you the same joy, but ask yourself, what does?

Connect with God according to your design and you will find continuing joy and spiritual growth, helping you endure any demon you may encounter.

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.

Saying It, Living It, Part 2

Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said to Peter. Ouch.

Last week, we heard how Jesus declared Peter to be the rock, the foundation for the church that will exist for all time. That blessing was rooted in Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

How quickly the mighty can fall. To go back to a lesson we first learn in kindergarten, actions speak louder than words.

In defense of Peter, he was navigating uncharted theological waters. He was right to declare Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. His problem was that he had not fully grasped the role Christ plays in the universe. Like most Jews, Peter had reduced the expected Messiah to a warrior king, a recycled David who would form his army, take back Israel for the Jews and establish a physical, righteous kingdom for all the world to emulate.

It was a big, exciting concept, but it wasn’t big enough to capture the role Jesus came to play.

Matthew tells us that Jesus began speaking plainly, telling his disciples how his ministry would actually play out. Ultimately, he told them, he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders of the day, be killed, and then be raised from the dead.

Peter responded like a tactful public relations manager. He didn’t confront the boss in front of others; he pulled Jesus aside to provide a little counsel. When he told Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” Peter was focusing on the torture and death part of Jesus’ prediction—none of that seemed to fit the clear path to victory he was envisioning. How could the masses get behind a warrior king who planned to lose?

And in a way, Peter was right, at least from a human perspective. The masses abandoned Jesus once the beatings began. In Matthew, only a handful of women followers are recorded as witnessing the crucifixion.

God’s plan was not dependent on human understanding or support, however. The last part of Jesus’ prediction, that he would rise again on the third day, came true, marking the great turning point in history. The inevitability of death ended on the first Easter Sunday. Christ’s resurrection made clear that death’s power was gone, replaced by eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is the core truth of Christianity sustaining us today.

We should also remember that Jesus didn’t call Peter “Satan” just to rebuke or insult the disciple. The phrase “Get behind me, Satan!” is there to remind us of an earlier story found in Matthew 4. There, the devil tempted Jesus to abandon God’s master plan and define his ministry in terms of worldly success.

As Peter argued there must be another way, a way fit for a warrior king, he reminded Jesus of his duel with the devil, and the very real temptation that went along with it. Peter was inadvertently tempting Jesus again. Jesus knew with his divine mind he needed to go to the cross for our sakes, but his very human side also clearly did not want to suffer. Midway through Matthew 26, Jesus’ prayer just before he was arrested makes clear his reluctance to suffer and die: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

After upbraiding Peter, Jesus went on to tell his disciples about the cost of following the Messiah, knowing they would face similar difficult choices themselves as leaders of the church. It’s a lesson for all of us. We could have our own bitter cup of death to drink; certainly, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing such choices now. We all have our own crosses to take up. By that, Jesus meant we have to take up his cause and give up whatever causes or desires we may have that conflict.

In choosing Christ, there could be some sort of human glory, I suppose, but glory, riches, fame or other worldly goodies should not be counted on or even sought. There are preachers becoming rich by telling their followers that faith automatically begets worldly success. They are wrong, and they need to listen to Jesus’ teachings more closely.

The only glory we are promised—the reward for drinking from that cup, taking up that cross—is, of course, eternal life. The concept sounds vague and distant to us now, but on our deathbeds and beyond, nothing in this life will compare.

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.