This sermon was originally preached at Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Come on, don’t you know that there’s a war on?”
This was a common phrase that you might have heard during World War I or World War II if you lived in the United States or the UK. It was often said tongue-in-cheek; it was sometimes used to reprimand people who were complaining about rationing or various extra wartime duties required of the civilian populace. It reminded people that, for the time being, they had to set aside their own personal desires and wants, and instead see to the care and needs of the nation and the military first and foremost. And perhaps in one of those most rare occasions, it may have been said to remind someone that yes there was indeed a war going on, and how could they have forgotten?
It seems sometimes that here, in the United States, we forget that there’s a war going on. We’ve had soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since I was about 10 years old, which means that we have been involved in constant warfare for nearly two decades. Being at war has become commonplace. The fact that we are at war has, for most of us, faded into the background. So, being stateside in the US, we sometimes forget that there indeed is a war going on. Afghanistan and Iraq are far away, on the other side of the globe, and very few of us, outside of members of the military, actually go to those places. We wouldn’t be able to tell you what Kandahar or Mosul look like, and very few of us would be able to say anything knowledgeable about desert warfare or the stresses and fears and concerns faced by men and women fighting in uniform over there. That’s because for us, there isn’t a war on. But the war really doesn’t impinge on our lives, unless we have family members and friends who are serving overseas in the military, fighting actively in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our lives go on unimpeded. We don’t have to think about IED attacks, snipers, or suicide bombers or any other kind of enemy combatants. For us, life goes on as usual and we feel we are pretty safe. Or so we think.
Today, on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas, our lectionary readings remind us that there is indeed a war on, but another war— one in which we are on the front lines. Perhaps it’s even more accurate to say, we’re in the no-man’s land between the two fronts. On one side, we have the Devil and all his demons, seeking to destroy the children of God and bring them to despair and unbelief. And on the other, we have the hosts of heaven under the command of the archangel Michael, fighting valiantly to protect Christians from the attacks of demons and devils. It’s a very real war, with very real casualties and with very real stakes. Luther says in his 1532 sermon for Michaelmas,
“Now you have often heard that the devil is around people everywhere, in palaces, in houses, in the field, on the streets, in the water, in the forest, in fire; devils are everywhere. All they ever do is seek man’s destruction….and it is certainly true, were God not continually to put restraints on the evil foe, he would not leave one little kernel of grain in the field or on the ground, no fish in the water, no piece of meat in the pot, no drop of water, beer, or wine in the cellar uncontaminated, nor would he leave a sound member of our bodies….we are in grave danger every day and night as targets of the devil. He always has a crossbow stretched tight and a gun loaded, taking aim to strike us with pestilence, syphilis, war, fire, and violent weather.”Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. Eugene F. A. Klug (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002): 7:375, 380
Nothing makes the Devil happier than to lead people to destruction and to bring them to harm, especially to drive them to sin and unbelief. He does this through the work of his demons and through the sinful and fallen world, with the aim of tempting people away from their faith in their Savior. And how does he do this? Well, as Luther says, with all manner of attacks, attacking us in mind, body, and spirit, harming our bodies, but especially attacking our souls through temptation,
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus says that temptations to sin— skandala, in Greek, where our word “scandal” comes from— must come in this fallen, sinful world, and woe to it for that reason! It’s an unfortunate part of reality. When Adam and Eve were first tempted by Satan to doubt God’s word and good will for humanity, creation cracked, and sin pervaded it. Thus temptation to sin is built into the fabric of our world, a discordant thread woven into creation. It is a conduit for Satan and his minions to attack people, especially God’s saints, his little ones. And Jesus takes it further— “nevertheless, woe to the one by whom such temptation to sin comes!”
Have you ever been tempted? Sure you have— let’s have a show of hands [raise hand]. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all given into it. I won’t ask anyone to enumerate or describe how you’ve been tempted— if you need to talk about it, Pastor Kern will be more than happy to give you private confession and absolution— but common to all people are temptations to be greedy, to steal, to gratify the base desires and lusts of the flesh, to harm others, to exploit them for our gain, to make gods of ourselves and out of our desires and possessions. Look at the Ten Commandments— that’s a list of all the different ways we can be tempted, and we all have at some time or another given into temptation to break one (or all!) of those commandments. When we fall into sin, it’s as if we’ve been struck by a bullet or a crossbow bolt, and because we are sinners, we’re the walking wounded. Sometimes, left unchecked, that sin can do more harm to us than we know, and we end up joining the dead, both in body and in faith. More casualties of the war.
Have you ever been tempted to sin by someone else? Have you ever tempted someone else to sin? Have your actions ever misrepresented your faith in Christ and perhaps brought someone else’s faith, the faith of one of Jesus’ “little ones,” to harm? All of us could be that person, and perhaps at times we have been. Therefore, woe to us if so! Jesus says in our Gospel that it would be better for that person if a big millstone, one big enough that it needed a donkey to turn it, were tied around his neck and he were drowned in the sea. So cut out sin, he says, and do not despise Jesus’ little ones, for God the Father knows what happens to them.
When we hear the phrase, “little ones,” we often think that Jesus is talking about literal children. After all, he had just held up a child as an example of what a person must be like to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus is being figurative, in a way, when he speaks of “little ones.” You see, before God, we all are little ones, not just the kids. We are all small and helpless and in need of protection and care, just like children are. We are all prone to stumble. We are all vulnerable. There are no exceptions, no matter how “holy” we may seem or wish to be. I am a little one, Pastor Kern is a little one, and y’all are little ones, too. And because we’re all little ones, we need protection, guidance, and safety from the assaults of the Devil and his demons, as well as from the sin that can lead us little ones astray and causes us to harm each other. Not only do we need protection, we need deliverance.
And God has provided protection for us. In our Gospel, Jesus says his little ones have angels in heaven who “always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” We know that God has set his angels to protect his people. Angels, it should be said, are not our deceased relatives or chubby winged babies— the former idea is derived from the heretical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the latter comes from the Italian adoption of Roman depictions of Cupid during the Renaissance— God made them to serve him as his messengers and they are warriors sent to do God’s bidding on behalf of his people. Our reading from Daniel tells us so— God set the archangel Michael to contend for Israel against the demons impelling hostile nations to attack Israel, and he commands the angelic hosts in the war in heaven against the Devil’s forces in John’s Revelation. There’s a war on in heaven, and Michael and the heavenly hosts are contending against Satan. John writes in Revelation that Satan and his evil angels are thrown down by the heavenly forces, and a voice proclaims, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Revelation 12:10-11). When we hear this, we wonder, “Wow, did Michael and the angels defeat Satan?” The answer to that question is both yes and no. Michael and the angelic hosts did defeat Satan and his armies, but only because of the saving work of Jesus Christ in his death on the cross and his resurrection. For the voice continues: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” Jesus is really the one who defeated Satan. The angels are reaping the victory.
You see, Jesus already won the battle and the war— Michael and the angels are fighting a mop-up operation and taking no prisoners. The Accuser is on the retreat. Jesus’ saving sacrifice has destroyed the power of sin and death, has broken the Devil’s back and ability to harm all those who trust in Christ. He lived, died, and rose again for you so that your sins would be forgiven and no longer counted against you, that you might live with him in blessedness forever as God’s children. And while we live in these latter days, where Satan still prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, we can trust that, because we are washed in the blood of the Lamb and have his word, we are safe in him and the angels at his command protect us, too. We will still face temptation— it’s inevitable until the Last Day when Christ returns in glory and the dead are raised. But we will always be able to trust that Christ has defeated sin, death, and the Devil, for us, and that the war is won. When we stumble, he will pick us up and heal our wounds. He will help us, his little ones, to avoid the Devil’s arrows and bullets. There’s a war on between the forces of heaven and hell, but the enemy has already lost. We can sing joyfully with the hymn writer Jacob Fabricius in a hymn that is, not coincidentally, numbered 666 in our hymnal:
“As true as God’s own Word is true,
Not earth nor hell’s satanic crew
Against us shall prevail.
Their might? A joke, a mere facade!
God is with us and we with God–
Our vict’ry cannot fail.” (LSB 666)