In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
One of the most discussed lines in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is the last phrase of the third stanza: “One little word can fell him.” That “him” is the devil, but what is that “one little word?” Many people have speculated through the centuries. Jesus is the most popular answer. It makes sense. The Name of Jesus carries with it all that Jesus has done, so speaking the Name of Our Lord to the devil would certainly defeat him, because in Christ’s death is Satan’s undoing. Fortunately Luther himself gives us the answer, although it is two different answers. In a sermon from 1528 Luther explained that the “word” is actually a referent to the Word of God, and a lead-in to the fourth stanza, “The Word they still shall let remain…” He said, “All ruthlessness is meant to fall upon Christ and His Gospel, so that the devil pours out all his wickedness and his power upon Christ and in Him becomes powerless, for the salvation and comfort of us who believe in Christ. Thus they may drive back the devil with a single word and cast him down. To the godless and unbelieving, the devil is a prince, indeed, a god of this world. But to believers he is powerless. When he hears a Christian speaking the Word with true faith, he falls down as if struck by a thunderclap” (AE 69:265). But later in his life, Luther also said that the same “little word” is able to strike down both heretic and devil, and that word is “Devil, you lie” (AE 41:185-86). In the case of today’s Gospel Reading, both answers are perfect and go hand-in-hand.
This meeting between Jesus and Satan was inevitable. It was promised in the Old Testament Reading, the promise from God to Satan that One would come who would crush his head. That payback would come for raising doubt in the minds of Adam and Eve with one simple question, “Did God really say…?” Satan tempted eve by causing her to doubt, making her think God’s Word was a lie. Satan tempted Adam by making him think that by disobeying God he could become like God. And in that instant it was over. Mankind exchanged the true Word of God for the devil’s twisted version. The perfect harmony between God and man was destroyed in an instant. So the serpent is promised that he will be crushed.
So time passed and each generation awaited this exchange. The faithful waited for the Messiah, the Seed of the woman who would crush the old, evil foe. And the devil waited as well, waiting to plunge his venomous fangs into the heel of the Seed. Only one could be victorious.
But when the fight finally came, the Messiah was prepared for battle. This time the Man was hardened by fasting and strengthened by the Word of God. The devil pulled out the same attacks that proved instantly effective thousands of years earlier: half-truths, outright lies, appeals to vanity, pressure to disobey the clear command of God. But this time, the Man would beat back the crafts and assaults of the devil. Satan tried tricking Jesus by using His stomach and desire to satisfy His hunger, but Jesus knows that, even if He had all the bread in the world, it would not satisfy. Only the Bread from heaven, the Word of God can satisfy hunger. Even the first question, “Did God really say…” makes a veiled appearance as Satan tries to get Jesus to test God’s promises. But Jesus defeats this misleading question by a full quotation of Scripture, “It is written…” Finally Satan tries to get God Himself to worship him, but unlike Adam, Jesus could not be pulled into the worship of darkness and self.
Even though the devil left Him, he did not give up. Satan simply hid himself in crowds and in Pharisees and crooked governments. Throughout the remainder of Jesus’ public ministry He is attacked by naysayers, rejected in His hometown, and once again tempted to prove His status: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:40). But Jesus, even at His weakest, could not be deterred from His work of defeating the devil for us. If the One who is fully God and fully Man could not do it, then there would be no hope for us. In Christ, in His perfect obedience to the Father, in His perfect rejection of temptation Satan is undone and has no power against us.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t trying still. He knows that the lies from Eden still work on us, born in the image and likeness of Adam (Gen. 5:1). Even though we know that Satan is the father of lies (Jn. 8:44), we are too quick to hear him. In fact, so many times we prefer Satan’s version to God’s. We like that he tells us we can give into our body’s lusts, that we can take risks without consequences, and that we can worship anyone we want to and walk away unharmed. Satan tells us we don’t need God, that liar, that one who is holding back on us, and we should serve ourselves. And time and time again, we fall for the lie because we like it. Just like television commercials promise us attractive lovers, smiling children, and exciting friends if we take the right pills or buy the right car and we know pills and cars can’t do any of that but chase after it anyways, so do we like Satan’s version because, even though we know it’s true, the fantasy he creates in our head seems pretty good.
And that’s why we sing, “With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected.” If it were only up to us, there would be no hope. If it weren’t for God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s promise, we would be lost and condemned, hopeless, and with nothing to look forward to but death and hell. But again we sing: “But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.”
When Jesus defeated the devil in the wilderness and ultimately on the cross, He didn’t do it for Himself, but for us all. He is your Champion in the fight. And more than that, He is your High Priest, the intermediary between you and the God whom you have offended by your sinful disobedience. He is the High Priest who was tempted, who rebuked the prince of this world, and remained steadfast. And as the writer to the Hebrews confesses: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15) The One who fights for you and is your Champion is God in the flesh. You are victorious against sin and the devil because He was and you are Baptized into Him!
And Baptized into Him, you come to the place where He has promised to be. He has promised to be here where His Word is proclaimed. Each time you are here and each time you engage the Word of God outside of this place the devil is fought using the same weapon that Jesus used. And when you fail in this battle, the word of Absolution that declares you to be forgiven of all your sin gives you comfort. The preaching of the Word reminds you that God has become one with you to rescue you by His crucifixion and death and His rising again for your justification. And the Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, send the devil and his evil angels running from the One whom God elected, the One who defeats them all.
Though the devil is defeated by the Word of God and the truth that he is a liar, he still comes back, time after time, trying to convince you of your unworthiness, appealing to your guilt, or, worse yet, telling you that you have no sins to be sorry for. And this evil will continue as long as you are in this body and life. But even in that terrible reality there is good news. You have God’s Word which defeats the devil. You have Jesus Christ, who is not only your Champion but your Weapon as well. He has already defeated the devil for you; Truth always defeats the liar. Soon the devil’s attacks will end, and you will be with the God who has won your victory and your freedom from sin and the devil. In Christ, you are victorious.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).