Sermon 06-09-13: “Devil in the Details, Part 2”

June 14, 2013

Devil In the Details_1_600

In Part 1 of this sermon, I talked about the skepticism we usually have about Satan’s literal existence. In this sermon, I talk about the ways that Satan and the other “principalities and powers” often attack us. This sermon is both a warning and an encouragement for Christians: a warning because we need to take seriously the deadly Enemy that we face and an encouragement because we have all the power necessary to defeat this Enemy.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 6:10-17

The following is my original sermon text with footnotes.

I met a man recently named Bob, who goes to Hampton UMC, the church that I will soon be pastoring. Bob retired from Delta Airlines. But before that, he was in the Air Force. He flew U-2 spy planes 70,000 feet up in the air, at the edge of outer space, over enemy territory, at the height of the Cold War—probably while being fired upon by enemy missiles! I didn’t ask him where he flew U-2s, but I know U-2s routinely flew top secret missions over the Soviet Union, and China, and Cuba, and North Korea. They were used for surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering.

Today, in Part 2 of our sermon “Devil in the Details,” I want us to fly over enemy territory ourselves and gather intelligence on our Enemy, which we identified last week as Satan and the “principalities and powers” that Paul talks about in today’s text. I talked about the challenge we modern people often face in believing in a literal Satan—even though Jesus himself certainly did. I also said that if Satan did exist—and he does—he would undoubtedly want us not to believe in him—then he could do so much of his work unimpeded.

In his commentary on this text, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright said that whenever he writes on the subject of Satan and spiritual warfare, odd things happen. “One time,” he writes, “a workman outside the house drove a nail through a main electricity cable, and I lost half an hour’s writing on the word processor. Sometimes domestic crises suddenly arise and distract me. Today,” he said, “the computer jammed completely just when I was about to begin writing. I have come to accept this as normal—and to be grateful that this is all that has happened. So far.” He writes, “I have noticed over the years that the topic of spiritual warfare is itself the subject of spiritual warfare.”[1]

Did you get what he just said? Tom Wright—a retired bishop in the Church of England, the prolific and bestselling author of Simply Christian, a leading New Testament scholar with a doctorate from Oxford University, a funny and down-to-earth guy who once matched wits with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report—this brilliant man just blamed Satan for breaking his computer when he was writing the spiritual warfare. In fact, he said, Satan does this sort of thing all the time in an effort to prevent the truth from getting out.

Some of you are probably like, “Duh, Brent, that’s how Satan works.” But I suspect many more of you are like me a few years ago—someone who never believed that Satan did things like that to us. I mean, maybe… maybe… Satan is like that little devil on your left shoulder whispering “yes, yes, yes” in one ear while you have the little angel on your right shoulder whispering “no, no, no” in the other. But to think that the devil can actually affect stuff in our physical world—can actually manipulate things and people—in order to harm us or harm the work of God’s kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, if that’s true, haven’t many if not most of us Methodists at least, badly underestimated the power of Satan? I have!

On his blog recently, another theologian I admire, Baylor University professor Roger Olson, said that similar things have happened to him. He used to teach a seminary class on religious cults and the occult. For research, he went to occult bookstores—which in his experience are distressingly easy to find. One day, he was going to one shop that had a reputation as a hangout for both Wiccans—witches—and Satanists. Olson writes:

I drove up to the bookstore, parked across the street and attempted to get out of my car… I found myself literally unable to get out… I sat there for a very long time trying to exit the car but could not. It wasn’t fear; I’ve been in many occult and esoteric bookshops and was not afraid of any mere bookstore. As I sat there pinned inside my car by some mysterious force, I remembered praying for divine protection. Eventually I pulled away and never did go inside that bookstore.

Sound hard to believe? Neither Roger Olson nor N.T. Wright are crackpots; and they’re not gullible people. I talked to a Methodist clergy friend who, when he was in seminary, used to work with a street ministry that ministered to junkies and prostitutes. From that vantage point he had an opportunity to see Satan’s handiwork up close and personal. He shared with me a few stories along these same lines—stories in which Satan physically manipulated people and events in a mysterious but direct sort of way. My friend is no crackpot either.

But the fact that Satan works in this way shouldn’t surprise us because the Bible tells us that he does. In Job 1 and 2, Satan is shown having command of armies, natural disasters, and illnesses. In the gospels, Satan offers to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world,[2] which implies that Satan has firm control of kingdoms, nations, and empires. And why wouldn’t he? Three times in the gospel of John, Jesus refers to Satan as the “ruler of this world”[3] Paul calls him the “ruler of the power of the air.” Also in the gospels, Satan causes sickness and suffering. As we saw a few weeks ago, Satan gave the apostle Paul a physical ailment that Paul referred to as his “thorn in the flesh.”[4] Far from just having power to cause illness and disease, however, according to Hebrews, Satan even “holds the power of death.”[5]

Satan has the power to take possession of non-believers, as he does throughout the gospels. Short of taking full control of them, however, we see him influencing people and acting through them. This is true of Judas when he betrayed Jesus. This is true, Paul says, of false teachers and false apostles in the churches. This is true even of Peter, when Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” If Satan can manipulate and use Jesus’ closest disciple, then it goes without saying that Satan can manipulate and use even good people and good Christians—including people like you and me.

To say the least, we’ve come a long way from the cartoon devil on our shoulder whispering temptations in our ears. But it should go without saying, I hope, that Satan and his fellow demons also do the thing that we most often associate with them: which is to tempt us to sin, tempt us to doubt, tempt us to lose faith; to trick us and trap us; to manipulate us inwardly; to make us question our salvation and question God’s love for us—all in an effort to see to it that we’ll either wind up in hell ourselves, or that we’ll be a poisonous influence on others, or that we’ll utterly fail in our effort to be a good witness for those who need to come to a saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis’s insightful, funny, and slightly depressing book The Screwtape Letters describes this type of Satanic work better than anything else I’ve read. As I mentioned last week, the book is a series of letters written by a demon named Screwtape to his inexperienced demon nephew Wormwood on how to cause the spiritual ruin of his human “patient,” an Englishman who’s recently become a Christian.

He tells his nephew that all of us Christians experience peaks and valleys in our spiritual lives. Sometimes even God, whom Screwtape refers to as “our Enemy,” wants us to go through valleys. When we feel spiritually dry or empty, however, Satan tries his hardest to convince us that God isn’t there anymore, so we’ll abandon the faith. As Screwtape warns his nephew, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”[6]

Do you ever find yourself in a spiritual desert? Don’t listen to Satan’s voice telling you that God isn’t there.

In another place, Screwtape says that Satan tries to make us Christians feel really guilty about our sins—to really wallow in them, to beat ourselves up about them—to do anything but act upon them. Satan loves when we feel things without letting our feelings influence our will. Screwtape tells Wormwood that God doesn’t want us Christians to think too much of our sins: “once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased.”[7]

Do you keep on beating yourself up because of past sins, even though you’ve confessed and repented. Even though God makes it clear in his Word that he forgives you? Stop it. That’s the devil speaking to you.

Satan also wants to prevent us from praying. He suggests to us that prayer is a waste of time Screwtape tells Wormwood to follow a “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy. He writes, “If the thing he prays for doesn’t happen, then that is one more proof that petitionary prayers don’t work; if it does happen, he will, of course, be able to see some of the physical causes which led up to it, and ‘therefore it would have happened anyway’, and thus a granted prayer becomes just as good a proof as a denied one that prayers are ineffective.”[8]

Do you ever experience doubt? Next time it happens, ask yourself: is it possible that Satan or his forces are actively planting these ideas in your mind?

In another part of the book, Wormwood’s patient is having trouble with his mother, just normal, everyday irritations that causes a great deal of strife between them. So Screwtape arranges for the demon assigned to the patient’s mother to conspire with Wormwood to make the whole thing far worse than it would otherwise be. Can you imagine for a moment that demons are conspiring with one another to harm you, to make you lose your faith, to make your existing problems worse, to make your relationships worse, to make your life worse? I’m with Lewis: I believe strongly that they are!

Listen: I believe that Satan is real not because I’ve had some dramatic, supernatural encounter with dark spiritual forces—at least not yet. And it’s not primarily because of what the Bible says on the subject—as I said last week, I was really good at rationalizing that away. And it’s not primarily because of what all of these really smart people have written to convince me of the reality of Satan—although I find their words compelling. No… I’ve became convinced that Satan is real mostly through painful personal experience—by being attacked by the devil of course but also, at times, acting like the devil—going along with the devil’s plan instead of God’s plan: at times hurting others; at times hurting myself; at times hurting my Christian witness.

So when I hear Stephanie’s testimony I think, “I wish I had a pastor, professor, or friend somewhere along the way who tried to warn me that spiritual warfare is real and dangerous—that Satan is real and dangerous—especially when we try to obey God, answer God’s call, and do important work for God’s kingdom.” There’s been a steady drumbeat of articles and blog posts recently about the alarming dropout rate and burnout rate among us pastors and what’s behind it? What’s causing it? Is it because we’re overworked? Is it because we’re under-appreciated? Is it because we have “compassion fatigue.” Oh please! When I read those things, I want to say, “Maybe it’s all those things for all I know… But let’s get real: it’s also Satan!”

So this is your pastor warning you right now: Satan is real. He wants to harm you. He wants to harm your family and people you love. He wants you to abandon your Christian faith. He’s very resourceful and opportunistic. And as you grow in your faith, look for his attacks to become more forceful and aggressive.

Among other things, Paul tells us to put on the “helmet of salvation.” A helmet protects our head. Because with our head, we remember important truths: We remember that because we have confessed with our lips “Jesus is Lord” and believed in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved.[9] Amen? We remember that the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.[10] Amen? We remember that our Father loves us with a love from which “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us.”[11] Amen? We remember that “he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”[12] We remember that “one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world.”[13]

We remember that the Lord is our light and our salvation; whom shall we fear? the Lord is the strength of our lives; of whom shall we be afraid?[14]

And the answer is no one… Except God of course.

Certainly not the devil! Because he’s already been defeated by our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. And you might say, “Then why is he still fighting so hard?” To which I say why did the Germans keep fighting after D-Day—that was the decisive battle that secured the Allies’ victory. Christ has won the decisive battle for us. Since he’s won the big one, he’ll give us the power to win all the little ones!

In a stanza of his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is our God,” Martin Luther wrote:

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

If you remember Stephanie’s testimony from earlier, then you remember that “one little word”: Jesus. Amen?

[1] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 72-3.

[2] Matthew 4:8-9 NIV

[3] John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11; 1 John 5:19

[4] 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

[5] Hebrews 2:14

[6] C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 208.

[7] Ibid., 223, 226.

[8] Ibid., 264.

[9] Romans 10:9

[10] Romans 8:16

[11] Romans 8:38-39

[12] Philippians 1:6

[13] 1 John 4:4

[14] Psalm 27:1

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