Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, [New York, Macmillan, 1961], p. 3)
Today our scripture passage from First Peter forces us to confront a very real but often very uncomfortable aspect of our lives as Christians—what do we do about this “roaring lion your adversary the devil” that Peter warns his readers about? After all, the name Satan/Devil/Adversary shows up in the Bible over 100 times…obviously there’s something to this.
There are three trains of thought regarding what to do about “Satan.” The first two are brought to light in C.S. Lewis’ aforementioned quote. One road we take as Christians is to disbelieve in the existence of evil or the Devil/Satan/Adversary, etc. Christianity, after all, is about loving people and loving God. Jesus came to earth to give his life because he loved us, and by the grace of God our sins are forgiven, and we have been granted eternal life. This Satan who appeared in the Bible is either figurative or was only roaming the earth while Jesus was here and during the time of the first Christian churches. Satan is no longer an issue. A mere purring kitten. There’s no point in even bringing him up.
The second road is to automatically attribute everything wrong or negative in one’s life to the work of Satan and evil forces. If the car breaks down, it’s an act of spiritual warfare (not the fact the car is fifteen years old). If someone falls off a ladder while working at the church, it was because Satan was after him (and not, of course, a coincidental loss of balance). A colleague of mine recently told me that Halloween was an elaborate plot to get little children used to devil worship, so that later in life it would be easy to “convert” them to Satanism. If we follow this second line of thought, we also have little personal responsibility for our actions. As Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it!” If we do something sinful, it’s because Satan “forced” us…we had no freedom of choice in the matter. People who ascribe to this reasoning are often looking around every corner for Satan to jump out and attack them.
The third train of thought runs somewhere down the middle. There are Christians who believe that there are forces of good and evil—not equal forces—but there is an evil force that actively tries to thwart the spreading of the Good News. We are instructed to actively guard against and fight that force, as is shown in Ephesians 6 (armor of God). At the same time, we are responsible for our own actions. When we sin, it is because of temptation, not temptation from God but from others or from the world—but it is our sin and we need to ask forgiveness for it. No one can “make” us do anything. We choose our own actions.
That is the train of thought that Peter is using when he writes to the “exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” (1 Peter 1:1) In chapters four and five, he writes of a “fiery ordeal” and temptations happening among the faithful Christians. Though Peter doesn’t describe these temptations in detail, we can deduct from his letter that these are primarily verbal attacks. In 4:14 he says, “if you are reviled for the name of Christ,” suggests insults from non-believers. In 2:12 the Gentiles are “maligning” the faithful “as evildoers,” suggesting a smear campaign to try to undermine their credibility as followers of Christ.
We know that these early believers were ostracized from the community around them. No doubt they were beginning to question their faith, their desire to follow Christ. After all, this was getting to be very difficult! If they joined their neighbors—even if these neighbors worshipped multiple gods or participate in pagan activities—the insults and slander and banishment would cease. They were no doubt beginning to consider the path of least resistance.
Peter encourages them to be strong in their faith. He informs them not to be surprised at what is happening—this is part of the Christian life. There will always be those who disagree that Jesus was the Son of God, but there will also be those who actively work against people who try to promote the gospel. Peter tells these Christians to buckle down and stick together, because others were undergoing the same trials. He told them to humble themselves, cast their anxieties onto God, and discipline themselves. God would restore them, strengthen them, and establish them.
As we consider preaching this text…
1. The concept of discipline in the Christian faith is almost as controversial as spiritual warfare. Most of the traditional disciplines—prayer, worship, fasting, solitude, study—are considered luxuries to do in our free time, or simply considered old-school. We come to church when it isn’t too warm or too cold or we’re not tired from the night before or have something else going on. Our prayers are often about things that we want or pleas to heal someone and rarely simply about thanking God. Fasting is considered old-fashioned or even dangerous in a society that touts eating three meals a day and several snacks in between. To be in solitude—without the television or radio or Internet—is torture. And study—most of us are Biblically illiterate but can easily recount Harry Potter or the plot of many of our favorite movies. What does it mean to “discipline ourselves and keep alert” in the 21st century?
2. Next week is Pentecost, when we celebrate the calling together of the Church by the Holy Spirit. It is primarily a time of rejoicing and celebration. Acts 2 gives us the ideal Christian experience as those who meet together for worship, share what they have, joyfully welcome new believers into their presence. This week we hear about what life is like in the trenches of our faith. How do we stay faithful when it seems like everything is against us? When our spouse dies of cancer, when our prayers for our rebellious child seem to fall on deaf ears, when our colleagues at work shake their heads at our commitment to going to church and Bible study—those things shake our faith badly enough. But what about when those in our faith community are the ones spreading the rumors about us, when we feel ostracized at fellowship events because we’re single or single again and the tables are filled with couples or families, when the pews that were once filled are becoming increasingly empty. This week may be a good time to take an inventory of how we act as the body of Christ. Are we humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God, are we disciplining ourselves, or are we causing suffering, are we leaving ourselves open to be devoured? Increasingly, the biggest obstacles to Christian faith are Christians who don’t act like Christians.
3. What do we as individuals and congregations believe about good and evil? Are we the “purring kitten” type or the “roaring lion” type or somewhere in between? Do we attribute temptation and trials to God or say that everything that happens to us is God’s will? Do we attribute it to Satan or say the “devil made me do it?” Or do we realize that there is evil in the world and we have a responsibility in fighting it as well as a responsibility in admitting to and confessing our sins?
Once again Peter launches into his “favorite” topic if that’s not a misnomer given the seriousness of persecution. The first part of the passage (4:12–14) is very reminiscent of that earlier text, 3:13–22. The same cluster of motifs is present: suffering is a function of sharing in Christ; therefore, it comes not as a negative surprise but, paradoxically, gives cause for gladness; hence the exhortation not to be troubled. Importantly the sharing in Christ happens neither by sacramental rite nor by mystical union but by suffering. However, Peter does not just repeat what he had said earlier. He adds some other elements, such as the fiery ordeal, a stock Jewish metaphor for eschatological judgment (in the case of God’s enemies) or testing (in the case of believers). There is also the expectation of the revelation of Jesus’ glory and the assurance that the Spirit rests on those who suffer for Christ’s name’s sake. And yet, despite these assurances, from one’s detached perspective as a reader of this epistle two thousand years later, one wonders how realistic it is for Peter to expect his readers to rejoice in the midst of persecution. Why not simply commend endurance?
The relatively straightforward answer is twofold: Peter’s thinking is governed by an overarching meta-narrative which involves the notion of God’s care and control over the fate of his people. Secondly, it is particularly Jesus’ experience and teaching that sets the agenda for Peter. The rejoinder to be glad almost certainly derives from the tradition behind Matthew 5:12, or even Matthew 5:12 itself. Throughout his letter Peter displays a persistent dependence on parts of Matthew 5:11–12 and, in this case, Luke 6:22. This dependence on Jesus traditions also accounts for the Spirit promise (Matt. 10:20; Luke 12:12; Mark 13:11). Jesus’ sufferings took place in the context of his trust in the Father. He was rewarded with the endowment of the Spirit who made him alive. The same is now being promised to his followers. Jesus brings his disciples “to God” (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18), both by virtue of being a trailblazer and by modeling their present and future experience. It is here that we find the foundation for the “rejoicing.”
Given Peter’s infatuation with the Old Testament, it is not surprising to find him quoting from it once more in 5:5, this time from the Greek translation of Proverbs 3:34. Verses 6–11 provide an exposition of this verse. Others in early Christianity used this Old Testament verse. James, in 4:6–10, quotes it and offers his own exposition. Like Peter, he is interested in the lesson that believers should humble themselves in order then to be lifted up by God (both in this life and into the next). Perhaps it is coincidental that Peter and James seize on the same verse and come to the same conclusion. More likely, however, is the assumption that such a use of this verse was fairly conspicuous in early Christianity. This is backed up by the observation that Peter’s exposition has further points of contact with New Testament material. The “panoply” passage of Ephesians 6:10–17 comes to mind. There too is talk of “resisting,” “God’s might,” “evil,” and the need for “faith.” There too the context is one of suffering in a hostile first-century environment of religious oppression. (Such oppression is not the norm in the Roman Empire of the first century, but Ephesians and 1 Peter certainly assume this type of local context. We are well aware that local cults in the relevant areas tended to be powerful enough to exert this kind of pressure.)
Another example of a New Testament writer addressing this type of “spiritual warfare” situation is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:6–8. Although today’s worldview issues are somewhat different—especially as they relate to postmodernism—there are significant similarities too. When confronted with the claims of the Christian meta-narrative for this world (one Creator God, election of a people, the need to address the problem of sin, etc.), even postmodernism tends to lapse “religiously” into a mode of intolerance. In view of this, our text seems as relevant now as it was when it was written. But how so? A close reading should yield some clues.
The phrase “being humbled under someone’s hands” is a metaphor for being overthrown by enemies (Ps. 106:42). Here it is used positively of submission under God. That “God gives grace to the humble” is clear from Proverbs 3:34. Peter’s thinking here is also reminiscent of the reversal motifs in the synoptic Gospels (Matt. 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14), especially when combined with the promise of divine exaltation. The phrase “mighty hand” recalls Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. There are about a dozen references to this effect in the Pentateuch. This invites the conclusion that here Peter has another exodus (“in due course”) in view, presumably from the oppression suffered. Typically Peter seeks to provide encouragement by relating the story of his readers to that of the people of God of old. In times of hardship believers need to be reassured of the consistency of God’s dealings with his people. The continuity between Israel and Peter’s Gentile audience rests on Christ’s achievement, which served to bring the Jewish story to its climax while in the process opening it up to non-Jews. It is no surprise that Peter feels free to underpin his encouragement with another piece of advice in verse 7 (“All your anxieties throw upon him, for he cares for you”) which, once more, is as suggestive of Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 6:25–34 and Luke 12:22–32) as of the teaching of the Old Testament (Ps. 55:22–23).
Verses 6 and 7 gave the theory. Verses 8 and 9 offer a hint of application. Compared to Ephesians—which shares so much of the thinking of our letter—1 Peter is relatively thin on application. This may simply be because Peter does not know enough about the readers’ precise situation. In any case, his advice to be “self-controlled and alert” has a close parallel in 1 Thessalonians 5:6, the context being the coming of the Lord. Perhaps the verb combination was code for the expectation of Christ’s return. Some such denouement must have been in mind, otherwise the advice of verse 9 to resist the devil and to keep standing firm in the faith appears insufficient. How long can one resist if no help is on the horizon? And for what purpose? Peter’s advice is predicated on the conviction that divine help is indeed coming. This he spells out in some detail in the next two verses, but not before making two further revealing comments.
The first concerns the archenemy of God, the devil and accuser (Job 2:2 and Zech. 3:1–2). It is because he is seen as the embodiment of all evil that he is referred to in the singular. All other references to opponents in 1 Peter are in the plural. Interestingly he is portrayed as “prowling around” (again see Job 2:1) and “roaring like a lion.” A comparison with the Passion Psalm 22:13 turns out the same phrase. That psalm was interpreted messianically by some (4 Ezra 12:31–32). On the other hand, the term “lion” could also refer to Satan, or generally to God’s people’s enemies. It appears that our text plays on the ambiguity, thus reminding its readers tacitly that they are engaged in a battle between Jesus and Satan. The second comment relates to the scope of the battle. It is worldwide (v. 9). The reason for that is simply that the Christian fellowship has worldwide proportions, thus extending the battleground, certainly from the devil’s point of view. One might object that, at the time of writing, this was geographically not the case. However, in the first century any philosophy that had reached Rome was regarded as having impacted the whole world, simply on the grounds that Rome was regarded by many as the center of world dominion. Like Peter, Paul is familiar with this thinking, as is clear from some of his comments about the geographical impact of the gospel in Colossians 1:6, 23.
Resisting the devil is not the same as attacking the devil, as both 1 Peter and Ephesians 6 state. The former is a wise approach for believers, the latter is not—it falls into the domain of Jesus or God (cf. 4:19 and 5:6). This puts a strong question mark against some contemporary Christian attempts to promulgate a view of evil as something to be attacked. The advice of the New Testament is not to attack but to resist. The point is reiterated in verse 10 and is made the basis for the doxology in verse 11. Peter is not suggesting a triumphalistic note when it comes to engaging the “powers.” Triumph should properly be rooted in Christ’s achievement and hoped-for return, not in one’s own attempts to attack the “powers.” Having said that, this letter is about the threat posed by evil, not about the question of how Christians should react to injustices in the world. Put differently, Peter’s advice to resist rather than to attack should not be misunderstood as a carte blanche endorsement of religious quietism in the face of injustice.
So what is the relevance of this text in a postmodern world? The crucial area is that of meta-narrative. 1 Peter clearly assumes that the story of the world is one where God is in control, but also one where a battle rages between God and his opponent. The existence of evil is acknowledged and interpreted in terms of a divine power struggle. The battle manifests itself in the area of interaction between God’s people and the society in which they live. This yields a perspective on evil which is significantly more focused and demanding than that found in most Western societies. Believers are expected to engage the threatening powers not by self-preservatory action, but by trusting in God’s final victory. The aim of believers must be to subvert culture, not to overpower it in bursts of hostility. This admonition alone serves to demonstrate the demanding character of the call to authentic faith as trust. It will not do for Christians to retreat from the world and to leave it to its own devices. On the face of this text, that conclusion might be drawn, but it is hardly what Peter has in mind (cf. 2:12, 15; 3:15).
The faith envisaged by Peter derives its raison d’être from a biblical understanding of the story of God, his people, and the world. It is precisely this understanding of history as a relationship story that postmodern worldviews tend to challenge as too restricting. Christians will not want to give way in this ideological debate, but they need to participate in the debate as such (and do so with gentleness and respect for others—cf. 3:15!) if they hope to continue making a meaningful impact on this world.
(Thorsten Moritz, R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Vol 2 pp. 566–569)
Here, Peter speaks in imperatives: he gives orders laying down certain laws for the Christian life. (1) There is the law of humility before God. Christians must humble themselves under his mighty hand. The phrase the mighty hand of God is common in the Old Testament, and it is most often used in connection with the deliverance which God performed for his people when he brought them out of Egypt. ‘With a strong hand,’ said Moses, ‘the Lord brought you out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:9). ‘You have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your might’ (Deuteronomy 3:24). God brought his people forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 9:26). The idea is that God’s mighty hand is on the destiny of his people, if they will humbly and faithfully accept his guidance. After all the varied experiences of life, Joseph could say to the brothers who had once sought to eliminate him: ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good’ (Genesis 50:20). Christians never resent the experiences of life and never rebel against them, because they know that the mighty hand of God is in control of their lives and that he has a destiny for them.
(2) There is the law of Christian serenity in God. Christians must cast all their anxiety upon God. ‘Cast your burden on the Lord’, said the psalmist (Psalm 55:22). ‘Do not worry about tomorrow’, said Jesus (Matthew 6:34). The reason we can do this with confidence is that we can be certain that God cares for us. As Paul had it, we can be certain that he who gave us his only Son will with him give us all things (Romans 8:32). We can be certain that, since God cares for us, life is out not to break us but to make us; and, with that assurance, we can accept any experience which comes to us, knowing that in everything God works for good with those who love him (Romans 8:28).
(3) There is the law of Christian effort and of Christian vigilance. We must be sober and watchful. The fact that we cast everything upon God does not give us the right to sit back and to do nothing. The advice of the Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, to his troops was: ‘Trust in God, and keep your powder dry.’ Peter knew how hard this vigilance was, for he remembered how in Gethsemane he and his fellow disciples had slept when they should have been watching with Christ (Matthew 26:38–46). Christians are men and women who trust but at the same time put all their effort and all their vigilance into the business of living for Christ.
(4) There is the law of Christian resistance. The devil is always out to see whom he can ruin. Again, Peter must have been remembering how the devil had overcome him and he had denied his Lord. Our faith must be like a solid wall against which the attacks of the devil exhaust themselves in vain. The devil is like any bully, and retreats when he is bravely resisted in the strength of Jesus Christ.
(5) Finally, Peter speaks of the law of Christian suffering. He says that, after Christians have gone through suffering, God will restore, establish, strengthen and settle them. Every one of the words which Peter uses has behind it a vivid picture. Each tells us something about what suffering is designed by God to do for us.
(a) Through suffering, God will restore us. The word for restore is difficult in this case to translate. It is kartarizein, the word commonly used for setting a fracture, the word used in Mark 1:19 for mending nets. It means to supply that which is missing, to mend that which is broken. So, suffering, if accepted in humility and trust and love, can repair weaknesses of character and add the greatness which has not yet been achieved. It is said that the composer Sir Edward Elgar once listened to a young girl singing a solo from one of his own works. She had a voice of exceptional purity and clarity and range, and an almost perfect technique. When she had finished, Sir Edward said softly: ‘She will be really great when something happens to break her heart.’ The writer J. M. Barrie tells how his mother lost her favorite son, and then says: ‘That is where my mother got her soft eyes, and that is why other mothers ran to her when they had lost a child.’ Suffering had done something for her that an easy way could never have done. Suffering is meant by God to add an intensity to life.
(b) Through suffering, God will establish us. The word is stērixein, which means to make as solid as granite. Suffering of body and sorrow of heart do one of two things to us. They either make us collapse or they leave us with a solidity of character which we could never have gained anywhere else. If we meet them with continuing trust in Christ, we emerge like hardened steel that has been toughened in the fire.
(c) Through suffering, God will strengthen us. The Greek is sthenoun, which means to fill with strength. Here is the same sense again. A life with no effort and no discipline almost inevitably becomes a flabby life. We never really know what our faith means to us until it has been tried in the furnace of affliction. There is something doubly precious about a faith which has come victoriously through pain and sorrow and disappointment. The wind will extinguish a weak flame, but it will fan a strong flame into a still greater blaze. So, it is with faith.
(d) Through suffering, God will settle us. The Greek is themelioun, which means to lay the foundations. When we have to meet sorrow and suffering, we are driven down to the very bedrock of faith. It is then that we discover the things which cannot be shaken. It is in time of trial that we discover the great truths on which real life is founded.
Suffering is very far from doing these precious things for everyone. It may well drive some people to bitterness and despair and may well take away such faith as they have. But, if it is accepted in the trusting certainty that a father’s hand will never cause his child a needless tear, then out of suffering come things which the easy way may never bring. (Barclay, W. The Letters of James and Peter [2003, Louisville, KY] 3rd ed. Fully rev. and updated, pp. 313–317)
At the moment we as a world are struggling against the evil of disease. Although that might not be politically correct, it is a point we can all understand. We often hope that there is less and less evil in our world, but sadly there is no real sign that it is true. We may have made the world better for some but there are still others that take away from the innocent and those in need. Christ showed us how to deal with suffering and evil. There was nothing heroic in his method only sure and certain faith in God’s love.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
The struggle between good and evil persists throughout the entire Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling uses her characters to show that good will eventually always prevail due to the narrow mindedness and greed of those who promote acting in evil ways. At the core of the Harry Potter series, is the fight between Harry and Voldemort—Harry representing love, hope, and friendship, and Voldemort representing hatred, greed, and intolerance. Voldemort is pure evil, acts only to fulfill is own selfish needs, and spreads terror throughout the wizarding community. He strived to be immortal and cheat death. Voldemort also promoted cruelty and segregation in society on those who did not have proper blood status. He believes mudbloods and others who don't have “pure blood” to be inferior species. In contrast, Harry is accepting of all individuals, everyone from werewolves to giants to squibs. He believes in friendship and love and is loyal to all.
However, the divide between good and evil isn't always so clear cut. Morally ambiguous characters like Snape and Dumbledore have both committed horrible wrongs in their past, yet they are, at their cores, good people. These types of character represent most people in society. No one is one hundred percent good or evil, we all have both inside of us, but it depends on which urges we choose to act on. For Snape, when he was young he had good intentions, but then he began associating with the wrong people. From that point on, he was viewed as an evil person, until Harry’s mother died and he decided to change his ways. Dumbledore was very similar. When he was young he possessed a thirst for power and would do anything to increase it. After the death of his sister, he realized the faults in his ways and dedicated the rest of his life trying to vanquish evil. The theme of good versus evil depicted by J.K. Rowling emphasizes that we all have both inside of us, but it is ultimately our choice how to act. (http://program.dh.ucla.edu/dh101/2014/dh101harrypotter/www.dh101harrypotter.com/exhibits/show/harry-potter--universal-themes/good-vs--evil.html)
The main premise of the book is the classic archetype of good versus evil. However, J.K. Rowling is genius in her analysis and understanding of where ultimate good and ultimate evil come from. Harry is the symbol of ultimate good whereas his counterpart, Voldemort (or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named for the more squeamish) symbolizes and commits acts of ultimate evil.
The two are inextricably linked but fundamentally opposed. This imagery parallels the imagery of passions. Human passions and virtues are two sides of the same coin. For example, the passion of pride and the virtue of humility both involve the perception of the self, one being a twisted over-inflation rooted in self-love and the other being a deep, truthful self-knowledge based in love of others respectively. Harry and Voldemort are both inextricably linked and even spiritually linked, but they fundamentally differ in one aspect: LOVE.
Harry Potter was able to love, and that was the source of his goodness. Voldemort was physically incapable of love and that inspired his evil. There’s the Orthodoxy, the basis of all good is Love, and in turn, God!
Harry Potter is born into a life of sacrificial love and is magically protected for years by the sheer power that his mother’s sacrifice provided for him. She commits the ultimate sacrifice and in that, surrounds Harry in her love and protects him from harm. Think of the power in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. His sacrifical love destroys even death itself. There is a God-given power in self-sacrifice that literarily manifests itself into a powerful force in a magical dimension.
Voldermort on the other hand, turns to dark magic in a desperate and contorted attempt at self-preservation. He splits his soul seven times and in the process, loses his humanity in his hubris. Voldemort loses his personhood because he engulfs himself in sin and is unable to love.
Harry had guidance and care from a more experienced and wise wizard, Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore guided Harry in his pursuit of conquest against Voldemort and his associates. Dumbledore is like Harry’s spiritual father, guiding him and helping him minimize foreseeable obstacles. However, Dumbledore is not perfect, because he too, is human.
Harry finds familial love with his best friends, Ron and Hermoine. They never leave his side, are not afraid to tell him the truth, and fully support him in his endeavor. Harry loves them and fights hard for them against all odds.
Harry is victorious in his battle against evil because of one thing: his self sacrifice. In love, Harry voluntarily gives up his life for the lives of others, and in that, actually receives new life. In the story, he literally comes back from the dead from his self-sacrifice and that allows him to defeat Voldemort. Love is what the story boils down to, and we can use the story to better understand the power of love in an anecdotal way. But let’s turn back to The Book, the Bible, and its knowledge about love:
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. – John 4:16
Understanding that God has infinite love for us, and living it are two different things. How can we really live in God? It all starts with habits. The church fathers prescribe three things to help us develop a spiritual life and allow the Holy spirit come into our souls. Those three things are: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. When we pray we talk to God, and we build our relationship. When we fast we work on our commitment to God and our spiritual strength. And when we give out alms, we participate in God’s love by sharing it with other people. These are the starting suggestion for living in love and living in God. Living in love begins when we begin to see God in our relationships with other people. Harry Potter was good at understanding the sacrificial love that his friends and family exemplified. Harry, despite all odds, growing up in an awful household still finds the strength to live in love, and that becomes his source of strength.
Harry Potter wasn’t perfect. He was able to love and be loved and despite his weaknesses he was strong. For us, God is our source of strength and when we love, we are strengthened by His mercy. I challenge you to see how in our world, goodness comes from love and evil comes from the lack of it. If someone committing an act of violence truly loved the other person, would they dare touch a finger to the other person?
The next time you find yourself in a fight against evil, there is no need to fear, because if you are focused on Christ’s love, He will grant you the strength to defeat it! Live in love, and God will live in you. (https://www.ocf.net/harry-potter-and-the-fight-between-good-and-evil/)
Cats are not my favorite animals, partly because I’m very allergic to them, but partly because I was attacked by a cat when I was a child. This year-old kitten looked innocent enough and seemed well-behaved most of the time. But once when he came up behind me to play with my long hair, my friend scared him and he jumped onto my head. I still have scars on my scalp from where this purring kitten turned into a roaring lion, complete with sharp teeth and claws. In our spiritual lives, it would be good for us to remember sin and temptation often begin as purring kittens. When we first are tempted, it seems innocent enough. We’ll gossip just this time because the information is so important to pass along, we’ll travel down this dark path just a few steps. Soon those innocent purring kittens show their claws and teeth and we’re in over our heads. Only humbling ourselves before God will put our lives right, only repenting of our sins will cleanse us. Though the scars of our sin may still be present, the roaring lion loses power in the face of God Almighty.
Discipline is not a friendly word in our society today. Both of my parents taught in the public-school system for over thirty years. It used to be that if a child misbehaved, a teacher could tell the parent and the child would be disciplined appropriately. These days, however, it seems that our children can do no wrong, and anyone who implies otherwise is somehow against them. But everyone loses in this new scenario. The teachers become frustrated, the parents get an inflated view of their child’s goodness, and children learn that they never have to do anything they don’t want to do.
This view extends into the church. We don’t do anything we don’t want to do. But we fail to remember that when Christ came to save us, it was a gift...but he also said “follow me.” That means we are to humble ourselves, discipline ourselves, so that we can become even more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
The realization that our struggle against evil is a never-ending part of our lives has led many Christians to view the Christian life as a pilgrimage, a journey where we must resist temptations along the way so that we might reach the ultimate goal of fellowship with God. At times during the Middle Ages, a pilgrimage would be imposed as the penance for a serious crime, such as murder. Sometimes such pilgrims would also be required to carry a heavy iron chain around their waists as a symbol of the bondage to sin that led them to commit the transgression. A common belief was that if a pilgrim successfully arrived in Jerusalem and prayed for forgiveness, God would shatter the iron links as a sign of the sinner’s absolution. (Andrew Wheatcroft, Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam [New York: Random House, 2003], p. 156)
Writers from the earliest times have thematized the conflict between good and evil, understood, of course, in religious terms. In the Old Testament, Yahweh asks the prophet Jeremiah: "The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9, NRSV). Compare also the Book of Job.
In addition to explicating classical myth and stories to reveal a hidden conflict between good and evil in them, they wrote into their own texts different versions of the conflict. The basic forms may be described as the apocalyptic, in which the writer describes real, social events (whether historical or imagined) as manifestations of the eternal conflict between God and Satan, good and evil — a struggle that, if controlled in the end by God's omnipotence, was nevertheless of deep importance for humans. In a different way, Christian writers could focus on the internal struggle to find or maintain belief. This literature is exemplified by the Psychomachia of Prudentius, whose title continues to signify great psychological turmoil, and supremely by Augustine of Hippo's Confessions, the model for countless later psychological biographies. Special mention might also be made of the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, a work that combines Platonic, Christian, and Stoic thought on the nature of suffering.
The spiritual forces that oppose us are not always readily visible to us. Yet their effects still do harm to us. Amid their hectic schedules, many workers choose to eat lunch at their desks in order to save some time. Apparently, though, employees who do that expose themselves to dangers that they may not be aware of. According to CareerBuilder.com, 42% of workers across the United States say they eat lunch at their desks on a regular basis. Unbeknownst to them, however, they are probably eating at one of the most germ-laden sites they could possibly find. A few years ago, microbiologists from the University of Arizona analyzed the number of germs they found on various surfaces in a typical office. Toilet seats, they determined, had about 49 bacteria per square inch, making toilet seats the cleanest surface they found. In comparison, desktops had 428 times the bacteria, an average of 20,961 bacteria per square inch. The filthiest surface the researchers found was the desk telephone, containing an average of 25,127 bacteria per square inch. (The Orlando Sentinel, 8/15/04).
Although you might assume that everyone would be aware of the risks that are involved in following Jesus, the passage in 1 Peter strives to warn us about the hazards that the spiritual powers force us to contend with. In our time, though, we sometimes wonder if we are warned about too many things. For instance, the British Health and Safety Executive decided that a European Union standard dealing with warning labels that have to be posted for people working on multi-story buildings also should apply to mountain climbers. Therefore, according to his ruling, signs should be posted on mountainsides informing climbers that snow or ice may be present and that they should use an extra safety rope. (Daily Telegraph, 8/17/03)
Although most people who toss a coin into a fountain do not believe they are appeasing some evil spirit, that is what the practice originally meant. In ancient times, people would toss coins or jewelry to gods they believed inhabited lakes, streams, and pools. By doing so, they believed they were paying protection money, guaranteeing their safety against the evil spirits. (Jonathan Kirsch, God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism [New York: Viking Compass, 2004], p. 8)
In order to press on with the spiritual battles that lie ahead for us, we need to be willing to let go of those things that are holding us back from achieving the victory that God wills for us. In one episode of Sesame Street, Ernie appears, with rubber ducky in hand, and tells Mr. Hoots (a jazz-loving owl) that he wants to learn to play the saxophone. Mr. Hoots agrees to help him, but first he says, “You gotta put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone.” What are the rubber duckies we need to put down in order to attain the grace-filled life that God wants to give us? (Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], pp. 163-64)
Preachers in Las Vegas believe they are engaging in spiritual warfare by taking the gospel message into the streets of what many consider to be one of the most sinful cities in the world. Somewhat surprisingly, they are being aided in that mission by the ACLU, an organization that many Christians consider to be rather atheistic. Courts have traditionally ruled that sidewalks are a permitted forum for any legal activity, including street preaching. An issue arose in 1993, however, when Las Vegas widened portions of Las Vegas Boulevard, including sections along the two-mile stretch known as the Strip. In order to widen the road, the city was forced to move the sidewalks onto private property, mainly owned by the various casinos and resorts. As a result, those establishments have sought to regulate what kind of activity takes place on their sidewalks. In the end, the courts ruled that a sidewalk is a sidewalk. Even if a sidewalk is located on private property, the public retains the right to use it for any lawful activity. Last year, apparently some casinos were not aware of that ruling, because different casinos had their security personnel seek to remove the street preachers from their premises. In particular, the businesses objected to the way that the preachers were denouncing gambling, drinking, prostitution, and a variety of other activities that their patrons were engaging in. The Las Vegas street preachers seem to get used to the taunts and curses that get hurled against them. One such preacher believes that kind of opposition is necessary and thinks that many Christians have turned aside from declaring the gospel, choosing instead to pursue political correctness and seeking to “make friends.” One woman marched past a street preacher and yelled, “I am a sinner and I am going straight to hell!” The preacher responded, “It doesn’t have to be that way!” The woman shouted back, “I want it that way!” Although street preachers are often viewed with suspicion by many people, including many Christians, they certainly display a willingness to confront the evil they see head-on. (Los Angeles Times, 11/10/04)
From the earliest days of Christianity, our struggle against evil was seen as an essential part of our faith: “You were rubbed with oil like an athlete, Christ’s athlete, as though in preparation for an earthly wrestling-match, and you agreed to take on your opponent” (Ambrose).
Without engaging in spiritual warfare against the devil, it is impossible to share in the ultimate victory that God intends for us: “You are but a poor soldier of Christ if you think you can overcome without fighting, and suppose you can have the crown without the conflict.” (John Chrysostom)
The battle against the devil requires our complete commitment: “The Christian life is not a playground; it is a battleground.” (Warren W. Wiersbe)
Illustrations for John 17:
Jesus pays the price to buy us. We become his in name but becoming his "in body, mind and soul’ requires a restoration project which takes the remainder of our life. He relieves the ache of neglect, patches the tears of harsh words, soaks off the gunk of poor choices, and replaces the spokes broken by hard knocks. He reinforces our frame, paints us with rust inhibitor and then...sends us back into the same harsh environment from which he rescued us with the instructions to "be my witness.’
Occasionally someone will tell me about overhearing their mother or father in prayer. This was not the pro-forma bedtime prayer to quiet a child but the mature words of one heart before Almighty God. The memory of the event is always related with a profound sense of reverence and respect. Inevitably it is a turning point in the life of the child because it tells the child what the parent thinks about them. This passage in John tells us what Jesus thinks of you. John’s gospel gives us the most intimate vision of Jesus and this chapter provides us with the most intimate opportunity to know Jesus. Here we are al-lowed to "overhear’ the words of another soul summarizing its life and interceding with God on behalf of others.
God’s love for you involves the mystery of sacrifice. Jesus clearly ties his impending death with two assertions. First, his death is a sacrificial completion of his mission. Second, his death is also a "return to the Father’s glory,’ the One Who sent him on this mission. This is a level of spiritual inti-macy between the Father and humanity that supersedes our capacity to keep the moral law. This prayer portrays an incomprehensible type of glorious mercy pulsing at the core of the uni-verse.
There is in this prayer an honest recognition that discipleship is dangerous. Anyone attempting to live according to Christ’s teaching is going to run into animosity and opposition sooner or later. Opposition will come from those who attempt to convince you they have a superior way. Animosity will come from those who resent whatever measure of success or capacity for maturity you exhibit. Jesus clearly states that the source of this opposition is none other than the Evil One.
Jesus offers a sincere plea for a unity based upon embracing his own glory. Jesus draws us into the mystery of unity he shares with the Father. This is a unity very similar to what we share with a healthy parent—close enough to make our identity recognizable but distinct enough to re-tain our individuality.
While all of us likely pray for the safety of our children and spouse, none of us would have the audacity of Jesus. None of us would affirm that the power of our name is sufficient to protect our children from harm. But this is what Jesus asserts as true! His name protected the disciples while he was with them. Our unity with him now im-merses us in the sanctuary of a unity between the Son Jesus and the Father God.
While it is admittedly very rude to eavesdrop on someone’s prayer, there is probably no other way to discern what someone truly believes about you. Our need for this reassurance signals our greatest longing—to know without a doubt we are loved by the persons who created us. The good new is this—Jesus doesn’t want us to guess! This prayer contains all we need to know for effective discipleship! In this prayer Jesus reviews his ministry. In this prayer he affirms the unity between himself and God the Father. In this prayer he defines the nature of eternal life. In this prayer he requests protection for his disciples. In this prayer he expresses his desire that his disciples will know the same loving unity between one another that characterizes the relationship between himself and God the Father.
The lack of oneness among Christ’s followers is painfully obvious. This past fall Greek Orthodox and Franciscan priests got into a fistfight at a church in Jerusalem. The incident occurred at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites in Christendom, believed to be constructed on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Apparently a group of Greek Orthodox priests was forming a procession on their way to a worship service in the church. Along the way they encountered some Franciscans. Soon the two groups of religious men got into a heated dispute “over whether a particular door should be opened or closed during the service.” Eventually Israeli riot police had to swarm into the church wielding clubs in order to break up the melee. Dozens of people were hurt in the brawl, and four priests were taken into custody by police. (“Men Of God, Fists Of Fury,” CBS News, 9/27/04)
There are times, when instead of focusing on what God’s word really has to say to us, we attempt to twist God’s word to the way that we want it to be. At first, when Henry VIII wanted to marry Catherine of Aragon, he was intent on interpreting the Bible one way so that he could do as he wished. What was at issue was the fact that Catherine had previously been briefly married to his brother before he died. According to the Old Testament, therefore, such a marriage was deemed to be contrary to God’s will. Yet Henry had church leaders devise a lengthy argument to prove that his marriage to Catherine should not be banned. Henry then appealed to the pope, who in time granted him a dispensation, allowing the marriage between him and Catherine to proceed. Yet years later when Henry sought to divorce Catherine, he abandoned his previous interpretation of the Scriptures and employed another interpretation in order to bolster his new goal. This time he argued that the church had no choice but to grant him a divorce, so that he could free himself from a wife that he should have never been permitted to marry in the first place. Henry contended that the pope had been in error when he granted that dispensation, and so he demanded that the church right the wrong that had taken place by granting him a divorce so that he could be free to marry his new love. (David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII [New York: HarperCollins, 2003], p. 311)
Jesus offers a prayer that we will be able to distinguish the beauty of God’s ways from the ugliness of the world’s sinful ways. Alan Slater, a developmental psychologist at the University of Exeter in England, has announced results from his research that indicate that “babies as young as five hours old are distinguishing between beautiful and ugly faces.” For his experiment, he first showed pictures of 100 different faces to a group of adults, who ranked the photos as to how beautiful or not so beautiful each face was. Then the psychologist showed the pictures to babies. The result was that infants tended to focus more on the pictures of faces that had been rated beautiful and tended to ignore the pictures of faces that had been deemed to be less attractive. Although the study was conducted using only children from Britain, scientists believe that assumptions about beauty transcend geography. For instance, if Europeans are shown pictures of Africans, the pictures the Europeans describe as beautiful tend to be the same ones the Africans would describe that way, and vice versa. (Newsweek, 9/20/04)
The heart of Jesus’ prayer is that we become perfectly in sync with God the Father. Oftentimes, though, we realize that we are out of step with God, preferring to march to our own beat. Before World War I, it was common for people in Constantinople to wear watches that displayed three different times on them. One dial indicated the time used by the mosques, another dial showed the time the government and businesses ran by, and a third dial displayed so-called Western time. (Andrew Wheatcroft, Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam [New York: Random House, 2003], p. 290)
Mother’s Day is a time to consider how a mother’s love is in many respects like God’s love. Just like God’s love is constantly present with us, despite what the circumstances are, so is God’s love. A survey conducted in Britain determined that mothers are much more likely to care for their crying children in the middle of the night. Half of all fathers indicated that they “either continued to sleep or pretended to sleep when their children cried during the night.” The result is that about 60% of mothers feel resentment toward their partners. The research also found that most babies are about five months old before they regularly sleep for seven hours a night, and a third do not sleep through the whole night until they are 18 months old. (Reuters, 9/9/04)
Although Jesus’ Passion ultimately led to his glory, there is something about the Savior’s suffering that is difficult for us to contemplate. Any human suffering, for that matter, is stressful for us to witness. Such is the position taken by Dr. Rony Brauman, the former president of the French chapter of Doctors Without Borders. In his view, humanitarianism answers the question “What is a human being?” with the response, “One who is not made to suffer.” (Garret Keizer, Help: The Original Human Dilemma [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004], p. 37)
Instead of focusing on the ways that we succeed in conforming ourselves to God’s will, perhaps a better measure of our Christian maturity is found in our awareness of the ways that we fall short of the divine will: “The test of observance of Christ’s teachings is our consciousness of our failure to attain an ideal perfection. The degree to which we draw near this perfection cannot be seen; all we can see is the extent of our deviation.” (Leo Tolstoy)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Sing to God, sing praises to his name
People: Lift up a song to him.
Leader: O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness…
People: The earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain at the presence of God.
Holy God, you have given us your Word to teach us how to live. But we confess that we do not follow your ways. We make our own paths and walk in our own ways. Forgive us for straying from you. Forgive us for ignoring our neighbors in need. Forgive us for making light of your Son’s sacrifice for us. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Merciful God, we dedicate our offerings of our tithes and ourselves to you this day. Show us how to be Christ to one another. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
God of resurrection and life, we praise you for your creation, for the trees and flowers that spring to life, for the sunsets and sunrises that remind us that after each ending, there is a new beginning. We come before you declaring that you are God and that there is no other God we worship and serve. We bring our joys and concerns to you this day, confident that you hear us.
We pray for the world that you created and redeemed and continue to sustain. We pray for areas of this world that are embroiled in war or conflict, countries that do not have enough food for their people, and for countries that are trying to reach out and give help to those in need.
We pray for our nation and community. We aks your Holy Spirit to be present with all congregations worshipping you today, because though we are many denominations, we are all brothers and sisters, members of the one body of Christ. We pray for our own congregation, for those who are grieving, those who are ill, those who are questioning their faith. Be with us all in good times and bad and in times of doubt as well as times of faith. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.