The following sermon was preached by Rev Esko Murto for the divine service in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel in observance of St Michael and All Angels, 1 October 2018.
“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered!” So it was said to St John in the heavenly throne room described in Revelation chapters 4 and 5. Up until now John had been wondering who God shall call forth to break the seven seals, which means, to put into action the great plan God in his majesty has decreed for his creation. John hears: this will be the descendant of the mighty warrior-king David, the heroic Lion of Judah that has won his enemies. Yet what follows, is one of the most dramatic surprises in the entire Bible.
“I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…” Has there ever been such a contrast between words and appearances? John hears there is going to be a lion, but he is met by a lamb. He is told this is the conqueror, yet it has been slain.
The book of Revelation has many opposites: Babylon versus the New Jerusalem, or the Faithful woman versus the Scarlet Harlot, yet nothing is so contrasting as the Lamb against the Dragon. Based on how things appear, one would think dragons eat little sheep for breakfast – yet the great mystery, the great surprise of Revelation is that this Lamb actually defeats the dragon.
When we hear the Epistle reading appointed for this feast of St Michael and All Angels, we might imagine how Michael often is depicted in church art: as a young winged man in armour, thrusting his spear down to a squirming dragon at his feet. He is valiant, he is victorious – and this indeed is correct. But what is the secret of his victory? They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. The weapon St Michael wields, and which brings the downfall of the Devil is nothing else than the Blood of the Lamb and the Word of God. St Michael and his warriors are valiant, strong and brave, but they are these things because and only because they set the sacrifice of Christ against the devil, and force him to flee.
In Revelation 12 Satan is described as “the accuser of our brothers”. It seems that Satan had had a chance to “make his case” in front of God. In the Old Testament we read that Satan appeared before the Lord to accuse Job, and again in a vision he is shown accusing the high priest Zechariah. Even if Satan is a murderer, liar and a rebellious sinner, he had this one argument he could present in front of the heavenly host, and could not be proven wrong. He was able to point to God’s most beloved creation, the mankind, and claim: these deserve death and hell! The war in heaven that now breaks out revolves around the question: is Satan right in his claim or not? St Michael and his heavenly host present Christ’s Blood as the reality that now collapses the arguments of Satan. Jesus has died; the Lamb has been slaughtered as a sin offering for God’s people, their sins have been atoned and forgiven. The Strong Man has been stripped of his weapons and bound, the souls he kept in his clutches has been liberated. The accuser has been silenced with the blood of the Lamb.
The Gospel of this Sunday, from Luke 10, tells of the same event as it is seen on Earth. Jesus, in a prophetic manner says “I saw Satan fall down from heaven”. Christ is marching towards Jerusalem and Calvary, and sees the downfall of the enemy. This victory is already starting to break forth when the Disciples return and tell: “Even the demons are subject to us in your name!” How is that possible? Surely not because the disciples possessed some spiritual power with which they could command evil spirits. Even less was it because they used the name of Jesus like some kind of a magic word – that we know from Acts 19 where the seven sons of Sceva the Jewish high priest tried to exorcise evil spirits in the name of Jesus without knowing Christ, and were badly beaten by the demon.
The disciples found the spirits “subject to them” because they had been sent by Christ to proclaim peace and the coming of God’s Kingdom to the people of God. To put it in another way, they were sent into the villages of Israel to preach Christ and proclaim the gospel, and they discovered that the demons could not withstand that message. They put into action what Revelation 12 says – they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. These words do not apply only to Michael and other mighty angels, but is equally true for the seventy-two disciples sent by Christ to preach the gospel of Jesus. Christ’s words “Who hears you, hears me” is an encouraging promise but even more, it is a commission, a word of authorization that the demons cannot withstand. The church today continues in the same task. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ…” we hear Sunday after Sunday sins forgiven. Still peace is pronounced, the coming of the kingdom proclaimed. Still the blood of the lamb and the power of their testimony defeats the power of the devil.
The epistle reading from Revelation ends in a mixed message of joy and woe. “Rejoice, O heavens, and all who dwell in them” but “woe to the Earth” for the devil has come down to you in great wrath.
Christians who still live in the Church Militant, the struggling, fighting, witnessing church here on earth, feel the wrath of the devil. His right to accuse has been taken away, but his lying speech remains. We experience this in the world outside of us when the culture and legislation is turning increasingly anti-Christian; we see his lying power at work even in Churches when they dilute the gospel in order to please the world; we see his deceit come to fruit when church leaders fall into grievous sins – and we feel his attacks in ourselves.
Satan, the great accuser does not admit his defeat. He brings up sins and tries to build guilt on Christians. He seeks to portray God either distant and uncaring, or as an angry figure that rejects us in his displeasure.
But this is a lie of the devil. The Gospel of Christ tells us that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. We hear again that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son so that no one who believes in him should perish, but have eternal life.” And again: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Are Christians called to remember their sins and repent them? Yes, in so far as it leads them to seek God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote to Corinthians (II Cor 7:10) “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Where repentance produces stronger love towards the cross of Christ, there godly grief is produced by the Holy Spirit. However, where guilt drives Christians further away from God and his church, silences their prayers and separates them from Christ – there the ancient serpent is working.
So likewise with humility: it is one thing to give all glory to God, admitting that there is nothing in us which would demand praise from others; and it is altogether different to despise the gift of creation in ourself. The kind of humility that gives glory to the Creator is godly. The kind of self-loathing that strips God’s creature of his/her worth is demonic. Patience that is ready to suffer evil for the sake of the neighbor’s good is from God, but apathy that allows the sinner to perish without saying a thing is of the Devil. To say like Job “the Lord gave, the Lord taketh” is pious; to say “God does not care” is devilish.
Satan’s lies must be defeated in our lives. He must be thrown down not only from heaven, but from our hearts and minds as well. No one can do this in their own power. Not one of us has the cunning or the strength to silence the accuser that sows doubt, fear and guilt in us. He is thrown out only by the power of Christ’s blood and the word of his testimony.
As members of Christ, we apply to ourselves the joyful call in Revelation 12: “rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them.” Christ says: where is your treasure, there is your heart. Our Saviour Jesus Christ is in heaven, ruling over all. Our true homeland is there. There is our heart, there is our dwelling place. Therefore even though we still have to go through hardships in this world, we know the destination we are going to.
We do not have it in ourselves to defeat the Devil, but God has given his church the weapons through which he himself fights for us. Practically it boils down to this question. Christians who neglect and consider cheap these means are the ones who Devil will find possible to tempt away. Those who hold on to them and use them have God himself guarding them. What are these gifts?
Through the Holy Baptism we were buried in Christ so that we would be united with him in resurrection. We have been clothed in Jesus – where Christ is, there we are, completely forgiven and sanctified by God – and the Devil cannot stand this. In this service the Lamb of God gives us his blood to drink and his body to eat. Our names are written with the blood of the Lamb in the Book of Life in heaven. The word of his testimony has been preached to us and God’s Holy Spirit stores it in our hearts. Like good students of Catechism we pray God to send his holy angels to guard us so that the evil enemy would have no power over us. We are defended from within and without against all the power of the devil. The battle is fierce, but the Lamb triumphs, the Lion of Juda is victorious, and his Church perseveres. We persevere.