The Church Exists to Preach to the Choir: A Sermon for Oculi on St. Luke 11:14–28

Jesus casts out demonOur Lord describes Satan as “a strong man, fully armed” who guards his palace. Now at first it might not look like he’s all that strong. We remember what God told Satan in the garden: “On your belly you will go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”

Someone who crawls on their belly eating up the dust doesn’t sound all that powerful. But recall what God told Adam he was and to what he’d return: Dust. The very same stuff Satan eats. To use another biblical image, he’s a lion whose favorite food is prime rib, and indeed, his very first feast was on the rib of Adam.

Satan’s the strong man, and he’s armed to the teeth. The way our Lord describes him you get the sense that Satan’s the kind of guy who sleeps with a weapon under his pillow. He takes what isn’t his and once he has it, he guards it with his life.

Satan’s power over us was evident in our opening hymn. In stanzas 1 & 2 Zion cries out:

“For God forsook me quite and forgot my sorry plight…”

“Once… [God] promised plainly that His help should e’er be near;
Yet, I now must seek Him vainly in my days of woe and fear.”

God does not ever forsake His people. God’s people never seek Him in vain. Those are lies of Satan. The Canaanite woman from last week no doubt felt forsaken when Jesus ignored her, rejected her, and then insulted her. Unfortunately, Satan’s efforts to convince Zion that God has rejected Her didn’t end back then.

Satan’s strong and it often seems as if he’s winning, and it might even seem like God has forsaken you—but it only seems that way. Those words from our hymn are false doctrine. The whole Bible, in fact, is filled with false doctrine. That’s why you can’t just quote a passage or hymn stanza and say “go and do likewise.” Is not the lie of Satan recorded right there in Scripture? That’s false doctrine. How about the Willow Creek style prosperity theology of Job’s friends? More false doctrine, recorded for you in the book of Job as an example of what not to believe.

We find more false doctrine in Jeremiah. The prophet said,

“The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will relent of the disaster that he has pronounced against you.”

That was entirely true, but the people didn’t believe it because of their false doctrine. They believed that they could do anything they wanted simply because they were Jewish. They thought going to church meant their lives would be filled with luxury and ease and they could do whatever they wanted because God loved them and would forgive them anyway. To prophesy against the city, like Jeremiah did, was a crime punishable by death. All this because of their false doctrine, their prosperity theology. Contrast this with the words of St. Paul: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience,” (Rom 5:6).

Satan is incredibly strong and clever, and the most powerful weapon he has against you is a weapon you’ve put into his hands: your own sin. Satan has an incredible ally in your pride, and he will use it to convince you that you have no need to repent and mend your ways. But if you don’t, disaster much greater than what happened in Judah in 587 BC will happen to you. Satan doesn’t want you to repent, and he’ll do everything he can to twist Scripture and your desires to do his will.

And the moment you do, he’ll turn around and wield your sin against you. He’s like a wicked older brother who tempts you to do something wrong, and then the moment you do it, he runs off and tells dad.

And the devil’s right. Well, half-right, at least. Because of your sin, you deserve punishment from God. But Satan’s lying when he tells you you’re hopeless. With God there is forgiveness that He may be feared (Psalm 130:4). If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Satan’s name means “accuser.” When you repent of your sin, you render Satan’s existence meaningless. If you accuse yourself before God, he’ll have nothing left to do. Repentance leaves Satan unemployed.

If Satan were the boss, there would be no forgiveness. But there is One stronger than Satan. He’s wiser, craftier, more relentless and more powerful than Satan. And He puts all of His power to work for you.

His kingdom is not one of power, force, or coercion. Jesus forces no one to acknowledge His Lordship. His kingdom is one of weakness, love, and suffering. Satan comes at Jesus wielding his most powerful sword: the sins of humanity which bring death to the world. He takes this sword and plunges it into Christ. And it works. The sin of the world kills the Son of God on the cross.

But after this sword had been plunged into Jesus, Satan couldn’t pull it back out! By striking Jesus with your sin, Satan can no longer wield them against you. But not even death could stop Jesus. He rose from the dead and proved once and for all that Satan was disarmed and death was defeated. For the wages of sin is death: and if sin is done with, then death has to be done away with too. And it is. Death can still grab you, and it most certainly will. But it’s no longer the end of the story. Just as the cross ends with an empty tomb and the joy of Easter, so also your death will end with your resurrection on the Last Day to life everlasting.

But in the meantime, Satan will do his worst. When an evil spirit is cast out from a person it comes back with seven other spirits more evil than itself. And this is why the most important thing the church can do is to preach to the choir. All too often churches take for granted the very reason for their existence, the One Thing Needful: to nurture the saints in Word and Sacrament. This is why we gather together each week for the Divine Service.

Many congregations are confused about this, so we need to be clear: the Divine Service does not exist for unbelievers. The Divine Service is about nurturing faith, and God cannot nurture faith that doesn’t exist. Now those outside the faith may of course come to a service, hear, and believe—and we thank God for that! But we don’t replace the liturgy with cotton-candy worship and start practicing open communion so as to make church more appealing to the pagans (or Christian visitor from another congregation). Those things don’t appeal to them anyway, and worse, they rob the saints of substantive, nutritional catechesis and are harmful to souls.

Satan isn’t assaulting those outside of the Church as relentlessly as those who belong to the Church. That’s why the choir needs to be preached to. You, dear Christians, who are here today need to be preached to more than anyone else because Satan has been cast out of you and he’s trying to come back with a vengeance. There’s no rest from his assaults. How great and constant is the danger to the baptized! There’s no, “I’m baptized, so I’m good.” Neither confirmation nor even ordination will stop the assaults of the devil.

Christ has cast Satan out of you in Holy Baptism. But when evil is cast out, it must be replaced by something good. This is why Jesus gives you His Word in, with, and under the Bread and the Wine: to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting. Perseverance in the faith until life everlasting is not a given.

Mercifully, Jesus shows up here every Sunday and casts the devil out of you over and over again. “I forgive you all of your sins” translates to: “Be gone, Satan!” “Take, eat; this is my body”; “Take, drink, this is my blood” means you are the Holy Temple in which the Glory of God dwells bodily. There’s no temple big enough for both Jesus and Satan. When Jesus casts Satan out of you and takes up residence, he leaves the devil out in the cold and homeless.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen; portions adapted from Curtis (Occuli, 2008)
St. Luke 11:14–28
Occuli, 2015
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