St. Michael and All Angels Day Sermon (2002)

St. Michael and All Angels
Texts: Revelation 12:7-12;
Luke 10:17-20; Dan. 10:10-14; 12:1-3

FAITH IS TRUSTING THAT THE SATANIC VIOLENCE IS SELF-DEFEATING

On Wednesday night I was able to begin with something that wouldn’t work too well here, with the bigger crowd spread throughout this big room. I had the TV and VCR up front and we watched the last moments of the first Star Wars movie. The death star of the evil empire is getting ready to destroy an entire planet. It’s up to Luke Skywalker to get one shot down a reactor tube, with Darth Vader hot on his tail. As Luke is approaching his target, he hears the voice of Obe-won telling him to, “Use the force, Luke.” He does, and the death star blows up into a million pieces. We all cheer. Good has once again defeated evil.

Star Wars has a religious quality to it, with the notion of some supernatural “Force” that governs the universe. Of course, there is also the “dark side of the force,” for the bad guys to use, so there’s this cosmic battle between good and evil that draws us in.

On this St. Michael and All Angels day, we seemingly read of the cosmic battle between good and evil in the Book of Revelation. That’s why Revelation has been so popular throughout the ages, I think, because it seems to be a cosmic story of good against evil, with the good guys winning in the end. We love to cheer such stories, just like Star Wars. Except this one is not just fiction. We believe that Revelation predicts the victory of God over the powers of Satan that will take place someday. So we love it even more. Many denominations put the Book of Revelation right at the center of things, even ahead of the Gospels. If you’ve ever let a Jehovah’s Witness in your door to talk to you, you know that they always start with the Book of Revelation. Even among more mainstream Christians, Revelation must be popular because the books about it are top sellers. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth sold over seven million copies. And now there’s that fictionalized version of Revelation in the Left Behind series that has sold in the neighborhood of fifty million copies! There’s also the wacko cults — like David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, who ended up burned alive in their own fiery grave, helped out by the U.S. Alcohol, Tabacco, Firearms agency — they love to focus on Revelation.

Actually, I’d like to suggest that the terrible tragedy in Waco, Texas with the Branch Davidians is a more apt picture of what happens in the Book of Revelation than the Star Wars sort of scenario. To see in Revelation a cosmic battle between good and evil is to buy into the Satanic game of accusation, that some people are bad and others good. In Romans 3 St. Paul tells us otherwise: we all fall short of the glory of God.

So we need to take a closer look at Revelation and its supposed battle between good and evil. Is it like with Star Wars, a clear-cut case of good vs. evil, with good winning out? Or is it more like our experience with the Branch Davidians several years back? We call the latter a tragedy because it isn’t so clear-cut to us. There were many women and children mixed up with that cult who died in that fire. Some feel that the U.S. Alcohol, Tabacco, Firearms agency was too aggressive and was part of the equation in those people losing their lives. Timothy McVeigh was one person who felt that way to a vengeance, and that’s exactly what he did: try to exact vengeance by blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, on the anniversary of the Waco tragedy. The U.S. government then got its vengeance — I mean, justice — on McVeigh by putting him to death. Thus, beginning with David Koresh’s reading of the Book of Revelation, we experienced a cycle of tragic violence all the way around.

People of God, let us not get caught up with such misreadings of Revelation. I submit to you this morning that the message of the Book of Revelation is entirely different from what most people try to make of it. Someone like David Koresh tries to use it to justify his own use of violence, and innocent people die in the process. Even Christians who aren’t going to use the Book of Revelation to justify acts of violence, take comfort in the fact that someday, according to Revelation, there will apparently be a divine violence that wins the day against all those Satanic powers of evil. Well, to me, that, too, is a tragic misreading of what Revelation is all about. The Satanic powers in the Book of Revelation are the powers of violence themselves, which are finally revealed for what they are, evil. Violence itself is the dragon we fear, declares the Book of Revelation, so it is wrong to think that even God would use some superior violence to one day vanquish them. No, that the powers of violence will vanquish themselves someday is the picture I think Revelation gives us. And that victory has already begun in the cross of Jesus Christ, which reveals what appears to its perpetrators (i.e., humankind) as righteous violence as, instead, self-defeating. His resurrection is the promise that, even when that violence appears to win, it doesn’t. God’s power of life can never be vanquished by such self-defeating powers of violence. In short, instead of showing us a cosmic battle between good and evil, Revelation shows us the self-defeating end of violence, with God’s faithful people patiently enduring to the time when violence will have finally played itself out.

The term I used a moment ago in connection with the cross — namely, “righteous violence” — is crucial to understand here. The Jewish council, Pilate, the Roman guard, and the whole crowd all came together to do what they thought was right that day. That’s so important to understand. They thought that they were good guys defeating a bad guy. They thought their violence, in executing Jesus on the cross, was a righteous violence. It’s like the ending to Star Wars. Good winning out over evil. That’s the name of the game, right?

Friends in Christ, I pray to let the cross of Jesus open our hearts and minds to this deception of Satan. What the cross is showing us is that violence is never right! Violence is the power of Satan which works its wrath upon us but will someday play itself out. And God’s power of life will show itself to have patiently endured. This is what the Book of Revelation is all about! The victory of the cross of Jesus Christ reveals to us that so-called “righteous violence” is an oxymoron, because violence can never be right. Violence is self-defeating. It must play itself out, and God’s people must patiently endure.

I know this is a shocking idea that I’m putting forward, that violence is always wrong that it can never really win the day for peace; that it can only defeat itself. This goes against everything we normally cheer for. We believe in superior firepower, in a righteous violence that wins out over bad violence. Like in Star Wars, we believe that the Force of good wins out over the “dark side of the force.”

But this is precisely the first step of what Jesus came to show us, that this thinking is all wrong. It is the human way of thinking under the deception of Satan. It is not God’s way of thinking, which is revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ. No, with the cross, Satan is seen to fall like lightning from heaven. That is the image in both our readings from Scripture today.

First, we need to understand what heaven means here. It’s not just some nice place where good people go after they die. No, the biblical idea of heaven is the realm of superhuman powers, the things we believe in, like the forces of good that can vanquish the forces of evil. We normally, under the deception of Satan, believe in superior firepower as a force for good. We accuse the bad guys and blow them to smithereens. That’s a heavenly victory to us. But in the cross of Christ that Satanic power of righteous violence falls to earth. It is shown for what it is, evil, not good. We are able to see our powers of violence precisely as ours, and never as God’s, never good. Violence is always of earthly origin, never heavenly. Our illusions about it begin to fade in the cross. We begin to see Satan fall like lightning from heaven. We are still taken in sometimes by the glory of war, but more often we have come to see war as a “necessary evil” — which is an improvement, part of this phenomenon of righteous violence losing its heavenly, emulated status. We see it as evil, a “necessary” evil.

But I believe that the Book of Revelation is trying to go beyond even that, namely, that violence isn’t even a necessary evil. For God’s people in Jesus Christ, it is just plain evil. In our reading from Revelation 12, St. Michael and the angels give the devil a little help, pushing him out of heaven. How did they win such a victory? It wasn’t through superior firepower. It speaks of a war, a fight, but never describes some heavenly violence which overcomes the devil. No, verse eleven tells us directly how that victory was won: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” By the blood of the Lamb! In other words, by Jesus’ death on the cross. The only real image used for Jesus in Revelation is not as some sort of warrior, not as the Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5-6), but as the sacrificial Lamb who was slaughtered. John uses the Lamb twenty-nine times as the image for Jesus.

And then Satan falls from heaven by the witnessing of God’s people to the truth of this Beast called violence. Do you know what the Greek word behind that word “testimony” is? Martyr. The New Testament word for witnessing is martyr. Following in the footsteps of our Risen Lord, the Lamb of God whom we slaughtered, we are willing to testify to the Satanic powers of violence even if we must die to them. What is revealed in the Book of Revelation is precisely that violence — all violence, even righteous violence — is evil and self-defeating. All those Beasts represent the ugliness of violence, which ends up sinking into its own hell-hole in the end. God’s people only need to wait it out, giving their word of testimony to this truth, even in the face of death.

In the next chapter, Revelation 13, John pauses from his vision for a moment, to speak directly to the church:

Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

The word “endurance” is one of John’s favorite words in Revelation. He uses it seven times (Rev. 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12). Faith is enduring the suffering of this world while the self-defeating,(1) Satanic powers of violence play themselves out, trusting that God’s power of life will win the day.

I know this is hard to believe. Faith is not easy. The idea that all violence is a Satanic deception goes against our belief that some violence is good — or at least a necessary evil — when it comes to stopping evil people, people like Hitler, or Osama bin Laden, or Suddam Hussein. Our reading from Revelation this morning warns us that Satan is the great deceiver of the world. Even when we see violence as “necessary evil,” we are warned that Satan is going to work his way of wrath on earth. Perhaps the State still needs to intervene in such cases as Hitler (is that Paul’s concession in Rom. 13:1-8?), but disciples of Jesus need to continue to witness to another way to peace for which the only law is love, even of one’s enemies (which is the entire context surrounding Rom. 13:1-8).(2) We witness to the power of forgiveness as radical nonretaliation.(3)

That’s why I hope you will come to the Bible study starting a week from tomorrow that we might discover that it takes nothing less than “A Re-formation of Faith.” For I have truly come to believe that God’s word of witness to us in Jesus Christ is that he comes to save us from violence, not with some divine superior firepower, but with the promise that violence is self-defeating and that God’s power of life can wait out the Satanic power of violence. God, through the Lamb who was slain, has shown us the victory and gives the promise to us that the elder speaks in Revelation 7:

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Let us even now come to share in the feast of victory, for the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 29, 2002

Notes

1. Another angle on the notion of the Satanic powers of violence being self-defeating is Jesus’ “parable” of Satan casting out Satan:

And Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” (Mark 3:23-26)

René Girard reads this parable as Jesus telling us that the Satanic game is precisely one of Satan casting out Satan. Jesus is parabolically telling us our kingdoms cannot stand because they are under the Satanic powers of expulsion which are self-defeating. For more on Girard’s reading of this parable see Proper 5B.

2. Though it should also be nated that we saw some rather spectacular advances last century of broad political movements based on forgiveness — but advances which are still underappreciated, to put it mildly. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, led large-scale political movements which were based on love of enemies and on forgiveness in the form of radical nonretaliation — no vengeance. Albert Einstein said, “It is my belief that the problem of bringing peace to the world on a supranational basis will be solved only by employing Gandhi’s method on a larger scale.” (To G. Nellhaus, March 20, 1951, Einstein Archive 60-683; from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, collected and edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, 2000, page 167.)

3. Forgiveness as “radical nonretaliation” does not mean, however, that within the Christian community a brother or sister suffers no consequences for harmful actions. To remove a pastor from office for sexual misconduct, for example, is a case of also loving that pastor by removing him or her from the situation of temptation. One doesn’t counsel a recovering alcoholic, for instance, to remain in his or her job as a bartender.

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