1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 4:1-13;
Dt 26:1-11; Rom 10:8b-13
DOING BATTLE AGAINST SATAN: A PERSONAL CONVERSION STORY
Three years ago on this Sunday, the 1st Sunday in Lent, I was finishing my time as Interim Pastor at a congregation in Kalamazoo, MI. And I concluded my final sermon with one of my favorite stories, one that I’ve probably used a dozen times over the years. Today, I officially begin my time with you as your regularly called pastor, and I’d like to open with that same story. (It may not be the last time you hear it.)
It’s from Christian counselor and pastor Dennis Linn, his personal story of how his mind was changed about God1 — how he repented. He tells of Hilda coming into his office one day because her son had attempted suicide for the fourth time. She described how her son was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder and then ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”
Pastor Linn tells how he personally believed in the popular version of God being something like a stern father, but the counselor in him didn’t want to tell that to this struggling mother. Instead, he began by asking Hilda what she thought. But Hilda was trapped in that same idea of a stern punishing God. “Well,” she replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”
Again, Pastor Linn didn’t want to admit he agreed with her, so he tried another counseling tactic. He had Hilda close her eyes and imagine herself sitting next to the judgment seat of God. He also had her imagine her son’s arrival at the judgment seat with all his serious sins and without repenting. Then he asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” So Pastor Linn asked Hilda what she would do, to which she responded, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.
Finally, when she had stopped crying, Pastor Linn asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. Hilda saw God step down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embrace her son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.
What Pastor Linn said he learned about God that day is this: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most. God loves us unconditionally.
This has been such an important story for me because my life and ministry has been mostly about the repentance that Pastor Linn talks about in telling this story. It’s about repenting of false notions of God and living into the true God that Jesus came to reveal to us. Ever since confirmation class, I began to question things about God, like the popular notion of God sending unbelievers to hell for an eternity. Mind you, this might not even be someone we label as bad, like Hilda’s son. It could be people we consider as good but who don’t believe certain things about Jesus. The most popular version of Christianity in recent generations sends all unbelievers to hell. Early on in my life, I began to question such beliefs about God, and my journey through seminary and thirty years of ministry has helped me to repent, to change my mind about who God is and graciously live into something else.
Have you ever questioned such beliefs? And, if you haven’t yourself, have you had conversations with family and friends who do raise such questions? Many of whom have now left the church. I believe that such elements as a God who eternally punishes people in hell is part of a messaging problem that we need to fix in order to stop the bleeding of people leaving church, especially the younger generations. We need to repent of such beliefs and let God in Jesus Christ live into a more gracious God who loves everyone, and the whole creation, unconditionally.
In my time with you as your pastor, we will consider other ways of understanding hell, such as a place of our own making that God is trying to save us from. Many of us learned and memorized John 3:16 since our childhoods: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” If only we had also learned and memorized the following verse, too, John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus came to reveal to us who God truly is: a God of unconditional love and forgiveness whose project is to save us from our own hellish violence and division.
And that’s the other part of what I’ve come to repent and learn: in seeking to save us from our division and violence, God is also revealing to us in Jesus Christ what it truly means to be human. It means seeing each person on this earth as a brother or sister in one human family, meant to live and work together in caring for one another and the creation. In today’s Second Reading, we’ve been taught as Lutherans to love that first part about confessing the word of faith, focusing on the role of our believing certain things — so much so, that we have tended not to notice the second part of the passage, which for me has become the main point. It’s the part about all human beings being in the same boat. That the distinctions and divisions we make, like Jew and Greek, should begin to melt away. I’ve already shared with you where I think St. Paul says this most clearly, namely, in Ephesians 2, where he tells us the Good news in terms of God in Jesus Christ creating one new humanity out of all our divisions.
As your pastor, I will help us to read Scripture in light of these things. One final example comes from today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus does battle with Satan for forty days in the wilderness. In those days, it might have been helpful to think of Satan as another person with whom to do battle. For us, I think it’s more helpful to think of Satan as a principle to our old way of being human that depends on us thinking in terms of constant division. You will often (nearly every week?) Hear me refer to this as Us-vs-Them thinking. One of the main ways in which Jesus will teach about Satan later on in the Gospel is as the principle of human division. “If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?”, Jesus will ask in Luke 11:18. Here, before Jesus’ ministry begins, we learn that Satan is in charge of all human kingdoms. That is to say, the ways of being human for which we are constantly divided against ourselves is the established way of human cultures and kingdoms. It’s why we see constant wars. It’s what our politicians are constantly trying to revive in new ways, even though this is actually the very ancient way of Satan.
Jesus has come to bring that to an end and to launch God’s kingdom based on human unity, based on creating one new humanity in place of all our divisions. Jesus has come to save us from our satanic ways. We can see them all around us in our politics still, right? But I invite you to see that that’s partly because in this so-called Christian nation, we have let those satanic ways of thinking creep back into our religion, too. The idea of hell as a place where God sends unbelievers — where we began this morning with the story form Pastor Linn — is a prime example of that. It’s an idea that sees God playing our games of division by having God divide between peoples in eternity. No! That’s Satan tempting us! Do you see? And when I call our popular idea of hell satanic, don’t panic! If we’ve held that idea, it doesn’t mean we’re damned to hell. It simply means we need to repent; we need to change our minds about how we think about God and ourselves. It means we need to get re-centered again on a God of unconditional grace who sent Jesus not to condemn us but to save us. To save us from our endless divisions and wars. To save us by leading us into ways of love that bring us together as a human family in order to address the challenges of being alive and helping all life to flourish. I trust that you have been on that journey of faith and salvation already. It’s a life-long journey for all of us. As your pastor, I hope to shed more light on the journey ahead of us — for all of our sakes and for the sake of our broken world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, March 6, 2022
1. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.