John had worshiped in the same congregation for all of his ninety two years. He struggled to read the words of the liturgy or hymns. He couldn’t really hear the readings, prayers or sermon. Yet he never missed a Sunday of worship. During a home visit, the pastor decided to find out why.
“John,” she shouted across the kitchen table, “I know you can’t see or hear much at church.” He smiled and nodded. “I’m wondering,” she continued, “why you keep coming.”
John sat up straight in his chair. “Pastor,” he said, “I want people to remember which side I’m on.”
John understood today’s Gospel. Jesus comes to battle sin, death and the devil. It’s important to remember which side we’re on.
If you imagine Satan as a Halloween character in red tights, horns and hooves carrying a pitch fork, you’re not going to get this. There is a power deep in the fiber of the universe that wants to enslave you and me. That power energizes the forces that divide us from God, ourselves and one another. That power sucks the joy and hope out of life.
Alexander Schmemann put it well. “To renounce Satan,” he wrote, “thus is not to reject a mythological being in whose existence one does not even believe. It is to reject an entire “worldview” made up of pride and self-affirmation, of that pride which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death and hell.”
We are called to declare which side we’re on. But we can only do this because God is on our side. I don’t mean that God is on the side of a particular national or cultural or political movement or group. I mean that God is “for you.” Listen to these words from Romans eight, verse thirty-one: “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” That is, if God is for us, no power can change that.
Paul finishes this paragraph with his greatest affirmation of faith: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is the Good News for you today. God is for you. Nothing in all of creation has the power to change that.
Do you have moments (or hours or days) when it seems that darkness, despair and death are winning? I do. The headlines and hype of our age don’t help. Too often I choose to see the worst in the world and others and myself. I pray “Are you there, Jesus? Do you care, God?”
In God’s Word, in our worship and sacraments and in our life together as Church I get the Holy Spirit’s answer. Nothing in all of creation can separate me from God’s love in Christ Jesus my Lord. If I listen, I see light and life and hope. I pray that this is what happens for you as well.
Do I live on God’s side? This battle with Satan begins at our baptism. Baptism is an exorcism. From the earliest centuries of the Church, the baptismal liturgy has included a section called “The Renunciation.”
If the Gospel were to be recited in totality as candidates prepared for their own baptisms, then this scene and those like it throughout Mark’s account would prepare those candidates for their own exorcism during the rite that still lay ahead of them that night. In that regard, I think that perhaps the most important part of our baptismal rite is the one omitted from our current worship book and practice. That element is the “Renunciation.”
“Do you have the kind of heart that expects from [God] nothing but good, especially in distress and want,” Luther asks us in the Large Catechism, “and renounces and forsakes all that is not God?” If so, Luther asserts, “Then you have the one true God” (paragraph 28). If our hearts cling to anything else, he warns, “Then you have an idol, another god” (paragraph 29).
The Renunciation includes three questions. Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? Each time we respond, “I renounce them.”
I have often included the threefold Renunciation as the prelude to confessing together the Apostle’s Creed during the season of Lent. This helps worshippers to remember the historical function of Lent as final preparation for baptism and the ongoing function of Lent as remembrance of and recommitment to our own baptismal covenants. You could use this text from Mark as a way to introduce that practice and prepare people for such a liturgical addition in your own Lenten liturgies if you would choose to do so.
We don’t use that word, “renounce,” very often. To renounce means “to give up, refuse, or resign usually by formal declaration.” It means “to refuse to follow, obey, or recognize any further.” Baptism is an exorcism. Like the man in our gospel reading, we are set free from the powers of sin death and evil. And we are signed up for the ongoing battle.
In 1523, Martin Luther wrote out the first order for Christian baptism in Lutheran churches. In his instructions, Luther issues a stern warning. “It is no joke to take sides against the devil,” he declares. Baptism means that we are burdened with “a mighty and lifelong enemy.” We need, he says, the “heart and strong faith” of fellow Christians along with their earnest intercession through prayer.
We do not go into the battle alone. Jesus will go anywhere, face anyone, do anything to keep you in God’s loving heart. That’s why in the Creed we say that he “descended into Hell.” You can’t find the place where Jesus won’t go. You can’t face a foe without Jesus at your side.
We’re in this fight together, but it is still a fight. I think often of these words from First Peter, chapter four, verse twelve: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” One of Satan’s favorite tools is to convince us that he has retired from the field. Nothing is farther from the truth.
Matt Skinner notes that we have a worldview that doesn’t really accommodate shrieking demons. So, what does this text have to say to us? “At minimum,” he writes, “this passage provokes us to stop assuming that ‘the way things are’ must always equal ‘the way things have to be.’ The reign of God promises more, whether the ‘more’ can be realized now or in a far-off future.” We live in an era when the demons of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and lots of other isms are shrieking so loud as to nearly drown out any other voices, “but since Calvary they no longer have authority.”
“Naming the demons is a way to recognize that they exist,” writes Osvaldo Vena. “We start with the big one, Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems. Then,” he continues, “springing from this one, come the others in fearful company: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, militarism, terrorism, war, greed, extreme individualism, globalization, out-of-control capitalism, media-infused fear that leads to paranoia, and governmental manipulation of information. To name just a few.” Just a few — yes, we know.
The demons will fight back, both in Mark’s gospel and in our own lives as disciples. They will appear to have the last word as Jesus shrieks out on the cross. But that is not the last word for them or for us. Nonetheless, disciples need both discipline and stamina for the demonic pushback to come.
For example, we can listen to the counsel of Ibram X. Kendi in How to be an Antiracist. Kendi notes that antiracism has made progress in American society. But racism has made progress too. Every time faith, hope, and love move forward, the forces of sin, death, and the devil respond. We should not be surprise by such pushback, and we should be prepared to continue the fight.
You and I know people who are struggling to find freedom, meaning, purpose and direction for their lives. This is a matter of life and death for them. Together, let us witness to them about the joy of life on Jesus’ side. God is for them, for us, for you. Amen.