Well, apparently the bear was only hibernating. The recent events involving Russian armed forces taking up positions in the Crimea have certainly brought back some memories. I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union reached its culmination. Those were the days of the arms race and the nuclear freeze movement.
And then suddenly, the Soviet Union crumbled. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union itself broke up at the end of 1991. During the Cold War we often referred to the Soviet Union as “Russia.” However the dissolution of the Soviet Union reminded us that while Russia was the largest part, there were in fact fourteen other entities that made up the Soviet Union. Some of them, like Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are quite large.
These former parts of the Soviet Union became their own separate nations. Not only did Russia lose control of these areas, but it also lost influence over all of eastern Europe. Where East Germany had been a puppet of the Soviet Union with massive numbers of Soviet forces stationed on German soil, now East Germany has been reunited with West Germany. Where the Soviets had controlled eastern Europe as part of the Warsaw Pact, now many nations that made up the Warsaw Pact are part of its old western opponent NATO – nations such as Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and what used to be Czechoslovakia. And in the case of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia even nations that used to part of Soviet Union are now members of NATO.
Russia went into a decade of decline. But the oil and natural gas industry has allowed it to get back on its feet. There are certainly Russians who lament what happened to the Soviet Union and want to see the old order restored – at least as much as it can be. Russian leader Vladimir Putin definitely is in that category. Putin is an ex-KGB officer who has worked to restore Russian influence and power. Putin presents himself as a strong man – a manly man. He has been shown in photos doing martial arts. He is often seen in pictures with his shirt off doing manly things like chopping wood.
The strong man is the image that Putin wants to send, and that is certainly how he conducts foreign policy. Though part of the Ukraine, the Crimea has long ties to Russia. It is strategically significant to Russia. And so Putin unexpectedly sent in troops to take control of it. Through a show of force he overwhelmed the weak Ukranian armed forces, and since Russian troops now control the area there isn’t any doubt about who is in charge. Russian control is an accomplished fact and there really isn’t anything the West can do about it.
It’s a brutal fact of this world that the strong control the weak. The strong can take what they want because they can overwhelm the weak. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus teaches us that the same principle is true when it comes to spiritual matters. He teaches us that he is the strong One who takes control away from Satan, because in Jesus Christ the reign of God has come upon us.
In our Gospel lesson we learn that Jesus cast out a demon that was preventing a man from speaking. With the demon gone, the man began to speak and the people marveled. However, some of those present instead accused him by saying, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” They said that Jesus was able to cast out demons because he was in league with Beelzebul – another name for Satan. They charged that Jesus was able to cast out demons because he himself was demonic! And there were others there who, in order to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.
Our Lord knew their thoughts and responded by pointing out that this made no sense. He said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul.”
Jesus used the example of civil war to illustrate how foolish their suggestion was. A kingdom divided against itself is laid waste – its population is devastated and areas are left desolate. We know the phrase “house divided” from Abraham’s Lincoln’s famous 1858 speech in Springfield as he accepted the Republican nomination to run for the Senate. Lincoln would lose to Stephen A. Douglas, but would then defeat him for the presidency in 1860 and in turn his election would help spark the start of the American Civil War.
For someone living in the first century AD world the idea of a kingdom divided called to mind the recent past. In 31 BC Augustus had won the battle of Actium and ended the civil war that had swept the entire Mediterranean world after the assassination of Julius Caesar. People had seen firsthand the desolation of a kingdom divided.
It would be foolish for Satan to battle himself – and he wasn’t. Instead, Jesus Christ was overcoming him as he brought the reign of God. Jesus said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.”
Jesus was casting out demons by the power of God, and this meant that the kingdom of God – the reign of God – had come upon them. Just as Yahweh had defeated the pagan gods of Egypt in the ten plagues, so now Jesus Christ was casting out demons because God’s reign was present in him. Jesus was the stronger One who was overpowering Satan and taking away those who belonged to him.
It was Satan – the adversary, for that is what this name means in Hebrew – who had brought sin into the world by tempting Adam and Eve. It was sin that separated people from God and placed them under Satan’s control.
The Son of God had entered into the world in the incarnation in order to change all this. In his miracles of healing and casting out of demons Jesus Christ was bringing God’s reign by turning back Satan and sin. Jesus showed his power – he showed that he was the stronger One.
Yet as we journey through Lent towards Good Friday we are reminded that Jesus did not win the final victory over sin by an act of self-evident power and might. Quite the opposite, he did it through apparent weakness. He did it by humbling himself to the point of death – even death on a cross. Jesus removed sin and its power by suffering and dying in our place on the cross.
It looked weak. But it was in fact God powerfully at work. It was God bringing his saving purposes to fulfillment. The self-evident display of power arrived on the third day when Jesus rose from the dead and defeated death. He emerged victorious from the grave – the strong One who had vanquished Satan, sin and death itself.
And Jesus is the strong One who has taken you away from Satan. Through the washing of water with the Word in Holy Baptism he was the one who kicked down the door and kicked out Satan. He claimed you as his own. He became your Lord as you were reborn of water and the Spirit. And because he did this for you in baptism you never have to wonder whether you are forgiven. You never have to wonder whether you are a child of God.
However, winning the battle does not mean the war is over. In October 2001 the US began attacking the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Having had no experience against American tactics, the Taliban entrenched themselves out in the open on ridges. It was the perfect target for US Special Forces to call in airstrikes from B-52’s and B-1’s as they dropped 2,000 pound precision guided bombs right on top of the Taliban, and blew them away. In a mere three months the Taliban were routed and kicked out of Afghanistan.
But that didn’t mean the war was over. The Taliban regrouped in tribal areas that border Afghanistan. They shifted to the tactics of guerilla war. While the U.S. was focused on the war in Iraq they began to reassert themselves in different parts of Afghanistan. And as the U.S. tires of war and gets ready to pull out, the Taliban are poised to reclaim the country.
Satan works in the same way. Though kicked out from the Christian he persistently looks for opportunities. And if you give him an opening he will take advantage of it. This happens when you begin to take the Means of Grace for granted. It happens when you begin to think that you can do whatever you want to do because, after all, you are a baptized Christian. It happens when living a life focused on Jesus Christ ceases to be a priority.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus says: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
The Christian life is not a matter of “once saved, always saved.” Neglect the feeding and nurture of faith; persistently and willfully engage in sinful behavior, and you become that empty house, swept and put in order, waiting for Satan to take up residence again.
The key then is to remain focused on Jesus Christ and the reign of God present for you. This is what you encounter here this morning. As you entered this church, you passed by the baptismal font; as the Divine Service began you heard the invocation: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These things remind you of your baptism. They invite you to grasp in faith the blessings God has given you through the washing of regeneration and renewal.
In Holy Absolution God spoke to you and forgave you sins. In the reading and proclamation of God’s Word you hear the Gospel declared to ou. And in the Sacrament of the Altar our Lord will feed you with his life giving body and blood.
Here God sustains you so that you can return to the world and live as what he has made you to be – a child of God. You are nourished so that you can act in love as you seek the good of others in your vocation of husband and wife, father and mother, employer and employee. You are strengthened so that you can take up the struggle against sin as you seek to live in ways that reflect God’s will – in ways that point to Jesus Christ. Sustained by God, this is the life of faith you lead until the Last Day when you will say one final time, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”