Generous Orthodoxy  


Lightning From Heaven
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge
October 23, 2016
Trinity School for Ministry President’s Conference Baltimore, Maryland
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How thou art fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! (Isaiah 14:12) The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" And Jesus said to them, I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy…Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

 

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In the early days when Jesus had a lot of followers, he sent seventy of them out to preach the gospel in the towns and villages, like lambs in the midst of wolves. This is not a very flattering designation for the local villagers! But according to the cosmology of the New Testament, the whole world and all its residents are in the grip of an implacable Enemy, and the one true hope of deliverance comes with the news of God’s invasion of Satan’s territory. Jesus’ emissaries are to say, "The Kingdom of God has come near to you"—which is the equivalent of saying that God himself, in full divine power, has arrived upon the scene. The messengers are told that their preaching will be equivalent to the judgment of God, dividing those who welcome their announcement from those who reject it.

The seventy return from their mission exultant; they are beside themselves because of the effect their preaching has had. They can hardly believe it. Their misplaced astonishment seems to be at least partly about themselves: "the demons are subject to US!" They really don’t have a clue, at this stage, about the nature of their commission. How readily we begin to be seduced by the thought of our own powers! The Master corrects them in words that carry a message for us all here today. Let’s listen to him:

Jesus’ immediate reaction, unlike that of the seventy, is not the reaction of one who has beheld the sovereign might of God at work for the first time. And indeed it’s not the first time; the gospels show us examples of Jesus commanding the demons from the very first days of his ministry. But there does seem to be something special about this particular episode. It’s an early test of the authority of his teaching when it is carried not by himself, but by his deputies. He’s looking beyond them into the unseen world. This is the apocalyptic scenario common to all the New Testament writings, in which God contends with Satan for the rule of the cosmos, and behold! "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." The image is foreseen by Isaiah: "How thou art fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" What an image! There is no war in heaven here, no angelic host, no advancing armies with banners; there is simply the spoken Word of God by human beings, more powerful and more annihilating than the most advanced weapons. "At the thunder of the gospel Satan fell down like a lightning flash. By this he expresses the divine and incredible power of the teaching, that it could so suddenly and with such violence cast down the prince of the world equipped with all his forces." That’s John Calvin speaking. I will tell you that this whole sermon is constructed with insights from two sources: Calvin and Spurgeon—better than a hundred homiletical resources.

So our Lord enraptured as are the seventy disciples to see the efficacy of the Word of God, but more so, because he is seeing by apocalyptic transvision, through the phenomena of this world into the Age that is to Come. "Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy." The divine source of his commission has been openly vindicated with surpassing strength and superiority. Jesus sees into the future of his work on earth and declares his imperial sovereignty over the Enemy. Those whom he commissions will carry out this work and will be triumphant in the eschaton.

But here is a dilemma, all too familiar to us who labor in the vineyard. We want to see results here and now. We contrive all sorts of programs and practices; we use new techniques and develop new strategies, and sometimes they seem to produce results. We preach sermons that seem to move people’s hearts; we teach classes that attract lots of people; we offer youth camps and soup kitchens and anti-drug initiatives; we use new technology and new music; people respond and our attendance goes up; we start to think, wow, I’m really making a difference. We go to meetings of other clergy and people from other congregations and, without really meaning to, we fall into a mode of competition. We start bragging. We start feeling superior. We talk a lot about how many people we’re reaching and how well it’s all working out. I’ve been going to gatherings of church people for more than forty years and I am here to tell you, I have seen this jockeying for position and to my shame I have participated in it. I think it is particularly a temptation in the evangelical world and the world of the would-be theologically pure.

To us Jesus says, "Behold, I have given you authority…over all the power of the enemy…nevertheless do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you; rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven."

Your names are written in heaven. Note the way that sentence is constructed. Who has written your name? The one who has done this writing is not identified, but implied. Your name is written. There is an unseen agent here. It is very similar to the sentence in Matthew that David Yeago referred to: "The rocks were split, the veil was rent, the dead were raised." There is Someone doing this. It is the same in that long epic, The Lord of the Rings. The name of God never appears a single time in the entire saga, and yet over everything and in everybody there is a divine purpose actively at work: "there’s a divinity that shapes our ends." Our competence has nothing to do with it.

I can’t speak for you, but for myself I have never felt so pessimistic about the world. Most people don’t even seem to care about the millions of refugees, the child soldiers, the melting ice packs, the opiod epidemic, the decline in civility, the ongoing futile wars, the breakdowns in the social contract, the forgotten prisoners, the shootings that have become routine and the thousand other ills that flesh is heir to. Satan is not just a Screwtape concentrating on an individual person here and an individual congregation there. He does do that, of course, but far more consequential, Satan continues to infect the powers and principalities wherever they appear.

And yet, said our Lord and Master, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." Somehow, in his mercy, our work in his Name is ordained to be perfected by him in the City of God. And not only our good work, but also our compromised work, because thanks be to God, even our inadequate preaching and our failed efforts can be used by him, if he chooses, to build up the Body on the great Cornerstone. Calvin writes, "Most of us have only the faintest conception of the power of preaching the gospel [and] yet, because it takes hold of us in spite of ourselves, it accomplishes the wonders for which God intends it." [1]

As I approach my 80th year, I’m beginning to notice that I may be nearing the end of my useful life—useful as the world understands usefulness. There are a lot of things that I meant to do that I have not done. There are a lot of things I did that I wish I had left undone. The Lord has graciously allowed me on occasion to learn that he used something I did in Christ’s name, but far more often, as far as I can tell, Satan has had his way with my best efforts. But that is not my problem. The Lord has not promised to make me successful. The Lord has promised me that he has written my name in heaven. Rejoice not in your success, he has told us, but in your heavenly calling.

No one has said this better than P. T. Forsyth:

It is possible to be so active in the service of Christ as to forget to love him. Many preach Christ but get in front of him by the multiplicity of their own works. It will be your own ruin if you do! Christ can do without your works; what he wants is you. Yet if he really has you, he will have all your works. [2]

AMEN.

 


[1] All Calvin quotations are from Harmony of the Gospels on Luke 10

[2] P. T. Forsyth, quoted in Will Willimon, The Last Word, 62.


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