Sunday, November 4, 2018

Smashing Satan: Sermon on Romans 16:17-27

An older Jewish man stood, lost in Rome and lost in thought, at the edge of the new forum, in front of the world's first covered shopping mall, six weeks after its opening day. Seemed as good a place as any, or better, to do the grocery shopping. He reached into his pockets and pulled out a handful of shiny new coins. One denarius in his hand caught his eye. Didn't feel like they used to – the ruling emperor, Trajan, had slashed the silver purity to coin more, so it was lighter. On the front, the man saw the side of Trajan's face, grim and curly-haired and crowned with laurels. The man flipped the denarius over to look at the back. Around the rim, the usual dedication: “The Senate and the People of Rome, to the highest prince.” In the center, the goddess Pax – 'Peace' – stood, holding a horn of plenty in one hand, filled with abundant supply for all the Roman people. The man's stomach growled just seeing it stamped in silver – hard to avoid going grocery shopping on an empty stomach, back then. In the other hand, the figure of Peace held forth an olive branch, the symbol of reconciliation. All well and good. But this coin had been minted in the wake of Trajan's victories in the Dacian Wars. And so there was a familiar dark side to how the coin portrayed peace. The man rubbed his finger over the bottom of the coin. The figure of Pax, or 'Peace,' was trampling a barbarian into the dirt, crushing him under her Roman feet.

The figure reminded the man of a story he'd heard in synagogue once, a story out of the Sefer Yehoshua. Long ago, when his people first entered the promised land, a strong Hivite city called Gibeon saw the wisdom in not fighting against God's people. So the Gibeonites had dressed themselves in worn-out clothes and shoes, had made their provisions dry and crumbly, and tricked Joshua into thinking they'd come from a far-away place beyond the land of Canaan. So he made a covenant with them, and only realized too late that they were among the inhabitants they'd been meant to drive out. Still, a covenant's a covenant (Joshua 9).

But other local city-states had been quite displeased at the Gibeonites allying themselves with the Israelite invasion. So five of the Amorite chieftains conspired to attack Gibeon together. From Eglon, Lachish, Jarmuth, Hebron, and Jerusalem they came and besieged Gibeon. The Gibeonites had appealed to Joshua, as a military ally, to lead the Israelites to their defense. Joshua marched from his base at Gilgal all through the night, struck by surprise early in the morning, and sent the Amorites fleeing up and down Beth-horon, where God pelted them with hailstones. The five chieftains escaped, though, and hid in a cave. So once Joshua was ready, he came to the cave and captured them. Joshua had summoned his captains to him, all the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him. And as a sign of their victory, he had the native chieftains pushed over into the dust, and told his captains, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Just like the Roman peace-goddess and the beaten barbarian, so the Israelite captains trod the Amorite chieftains underfoot (Joshua 10).

It seems harsh, perhaps, to later ears. It seems triumphalistic, imperialistic, hopelessly violent. Seems like the worst of ethnocentrism, for the Israelites to have come in and struck down city after city of the local Canaanites. But the point was to create space for God's people to enjoy peace in the land that God had given them, and on which the Canaanites were, in God's eyes, no longer welcome tenants. The promised land was meant to be a second chance at Eden – one which, one day, would be destined to be shared with redeemed nations of every stripe, once they saw the light. The hope was to someday share Eden with redeemed Gibeonites, redeemed Amorites, redeemed Dacians, even redeemed Romans.

The man reflected on his coin. A secretly Christian neighbor walked past him into the market, carrying similar coins in his own coin-purse. Fifty years before they were minted, his late parents had listened to Phoebe come into their gathering and explain an apostle's letter, all the way down to its closing personal touches from Paul as he greeted everybody he knew in the Roman churches and passed along well-wishes from his own companions. Tucked in alongside those last greetings are the two passages we read this morning, and they're all the more striking for where they are.

Those last lines cap off the whole letter with a beautiful doxology: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ, amen!” (Romans 16:25-27).

Previous generations couldn't see what the story of Joshua was really about. They couldn't see what the rest of the scriptures were really about. Not the fuller story. Couldn't see it until a second Yehoshua came – the Greek form of the name 'Joshua' is 'Jesus.' Long before Jesus the Messiah was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead, this book, the Sefer Yehoshua, was encoding the threads of this mystery of hope for all nations. God kept his secret, woven hiddenly into the scriptures, until the time came. And then he made the sovereign decision to announce the mystery openly to all who'd hear: that the story was never just about the forced repression of the nations, but about an invitation for them to join a voluntary covenant of peace, and enter a new Eden. This deep mystery is hope for every nation, to dwell in a worldwide promised land together as a complex unity of peoples in one people. The good news is that what God is looking to grow is not just any kind of obedience, but the obedience of faith, a willing trust in Jesus, who allowed himself to be stricken and slain for us so that he could be our real peace. And, Paul said, this good news can strengthen us in any time, no matter how dark, because Jesus is for every time and every place. It's in Jesus that the beautiful secrets of God are brought into the open, and through the obedience of faith, he aims to unite all nations in an Eden that will last forever and of which his church now is a foretaste of the new creation.

But as Paul reflects on this mystery, as he passes along greetings in the garden, he has a terrible thought. See, if there's one thing Paul knows from experience, it's this: if you're strolling in Eden, watch out for serpents. Don't let serpents catch you by surprise. Don't be oblivious to who and what they are. And so he has to interrupt the greetings to let the Roman churches know that serpents will slither into their midst eventually. They may not have seen any yet – lucky them! But they're coming. They soothingly hiss crafty messages, presenting their trickery as a way of tempting us into falsehood. In Paul's words, they're those who “cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught … for such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own bellies, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:17b-18). Them's a bunch of slippery snakes, alright.

The Roman churches, for all their conflicts and misconceptions, haven't been dealing with false teachers. Not yet. But Paul knows they'll make their way there, at some point after he passes through. Even pagan Roman historians said that Rome was where every ridiculous and shameful idea from around the world would come and find an audience. These serpents will come in and tempt the churches away from the obedience of faith. They'll tempt them into mistrust. Tempt them into disobedience. Tempt them into dividing. The churches there had already had too much division, and the serpents will entice them to keep building walls from each other. The serpents will come and tempt them into rebellion, disruptive behavior. The serpents will come and tempt them with weird ideas, craftily constructed theologies that seem to make sense but veer away from the mystery of hope for all nations. The serpents will come to steal and ruin Eden. They always do.

Our neck of the woods is different from Rome. But not different enough to be empty of serpents. The Cocalico runs through our land, and we know that's the native word for “place where the snakes sleep.” Serpents may well at times wriggle into the churches and hiss soothingly. What they say may appeal to our deepest instincts. Serpents may come quoting scripture out of context. Serpents may come wrapped in the stars and stripes and hissing patriotic tunes. Serpents may come playing on our pride or our fears. They come to entice us to divide. They come to entice us to think ourselves too big and great to be accountable to each other under God. They come to entice us with bizarre theories and twisted scriptures that will have us building a god of our own vain imaginings, who will be our own puppeted mouthpiece for what we really want to hear. Serpents can slither 'round all the jargon. They can hiss in Americanese or in Christianese or in corporatese or in the dulcet tones of so-called 'common sense.' But make no mistake: their “smooth talk and flattery” can trick you into trading Eden for just another patch of wasteland.

So what did Paul want Roman believers, or us, to do? Well, the main things Adam and Eve didn't in the first Eden. They weren't paying attention and keeping watch; they weren't policing the boundaries of the garden like they were supposed to. They weren't on the lookout. So Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for,” well, serpents (Romans 16:17a). Adam and Eve failed to be vigilant; Paul says, don't make that mistake – look how that turned out.

Second, Paul says, if you do uncover some serpents, if they really do slither into your midst, “avoid them” (Romans 16:17c). Adam and Eve didn't do that. They let the serpent practice its wiles on them. They heeded every hiss. They should have walked away from its tempting words. But they stuck around to hear it out, and they deferred to it, and look how that turned out. Now, make no mistake: all throughout this letter, Paul's been insistent that the churches in Rome need to be open to one another's different backgrounds, different customs, different scruples, and to welcome one another without qualms. And it's because he's encouraged such mutual love and inclusivity and tolerance that he now has to remind them that such things can be taken too far. There's a fellow believer who simply does things differently, but then there's a serpent. And the difference is, a serpent will aim to disrupt the obedience of faith. Their weird ideas won't actually mesh well with the basic gospel that Paul handed down.

And so Paul says, third, that you need to be discerning. You need to develop the skill at telling apart a brother or sister, on the one hand, and a serpent, on the other. This is a post-'tree-of-the-knowledge-of-good-and-evil' kind of world. And in that kind of world, Jesus told his disciples, people need to be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Be clever and clear-thinking enough to match wits with a serpent, but let the distinction be that, in discerning good from evil, you accept the definitions God writes and keep yourself on the side of good, of innocence, like a dove. Or as Paul rephrases Jesus' words, “For your obedience is known to all, so I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19). Don't be naive. Know the difference between a hymn and a hiss. Trust God to lead you into deeper truth and deeper moral maturity, in accordance with everything he's already said as read in context.

A growing Eden infiltrated by snakes is not the most comfortable place. And that's the condition of plenty of churches. Serpents slither in – some as human false teachers and false leaders, but sometimes as spiritual influences among authentic believers – and try to stunt the garden's growth. I've watched it at work. They hiss and they twist and, working through the noble but sin-infected motives of decent believers in disagreement, they cause divisions and create obstacles and trip up Christians and lay waste to Eden.

But God doesn't want us to think that Eden will be overrun. Long ago, God gave Israel a promise in one of the songs they sang. It was a song that Israel's army, like the army Joshua commanded, might sing or hear as they went out under God's command. The song is full of daring promises for the Israelites as they march to the beat of his drum. And one of those blessings is this one: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (Psalm 91:13). The serpent doesn't get the last word. The armies of Israel stomp serpents into the dirt. And when those soldiers sang that, they were looking back to an even bigger promise God gave right outside Eden. God cursed the original Serpent and said that he'd have to tangle with a Child of Eve who was to come: “He shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). In striking at Jesus on the cross, the devilish Serpent took a blow right to the skull.

That promise from Genesis is most perfectly about Jesus. But it foreshadows countless points throughout the Old Testament where villains die of head trauma, being identified with the offspring of the Serpent. It gets applied in the hope for Israel's army to trample the serpent underfoot. And it all leads up to this amazing line from Paul to the Roman churches and to us today: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Have you ever read that verse? What a verse! “The God of peace will soon” – or 'swiftly,' in some translations – “crush Satan under your feet.” Maybe there were Christians in Rome who remembered that verse when they looked at those coins, portraying Peace crushing disruptive enemies under her feet.

A few important things here. The focus in this verse is not chiefly about human minions of the devil, the false teachers themselves, and their fate. Our hope is for even false teachers to be converted, for them to respond to the brighter light of the real good news of Jesus and be saved from their own hissing lies. That's why Paul, in another letter, insists that church leaders need to be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9) – to at times “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). But here, Paul takes aim, not at human minions for whom there's some hope, but at the spiritual serpent behind them – and not just any, but the headliner of the roster of evil, 'the Satan' himself.

Second, we don't overpower Satan. We don't take the initiative to hunt him down. That's not what St. Paul says here. Paul doesn't write, “You will soon crush Satan under your feet.” That task belongs to God. It has to be God who hands out victory, or there won't be any victory at all. We deceive ourselves if we think that we have enough strength, enough resources, to tackle the devil – or the evil and corruption he leaves in his wake through all the world or even in the church. It has to be God who deals with it. And not just God, Paul writes, but “the God of peace.” Just like that coin. Roman peace is a cheap counterfeit of God's peace. The God of peace must reign in his church. This is the God whom Paul preached (Romans 15:33), the “God of love and peace” who insists that we “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11). This is the “God of peace” who promises to be with those who put into practice the gospel Paul taught (Philippians 4:9). This is the “God of peace” who has no intention of stopping short from “sanctify[ing] you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). He's none other than “the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20). That is the one and only God who can crush Satan, who can “crush the heads of Leviathan” (Psalm 74:14).

But, third, God doesn't just promise to crush Satan under his feet. He doesn't just promise to crush Satan under Jesus' feet. That's what we would've expected, and fairly so. God goes on to promise something so much more personally relevant. What did Paul write? Listen again: “The God of peace will swiftly crush Satan under your feet (Romans 16:20). Yours. Remember that scene from the old Jewish book, the Sefer Yehoshua, the Book of Joshua. When Joshua had beaten the Amorite chieftains, servants of the devil, he called his captains together and said to them, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings” (Joshua 10:24). And as they did so, Joshua said to them, “Don't be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the LORD will do to all your enemies against whom you fight” (Joshua 10:25). And here's the mystery woven into the scriptures long in advance. What Joshua said to his captains over the defeated kings, a Greater Joshua – the one we call 'Jesus' – will say to us over the defeated devil! So don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed; be strong and courageous!

Because here's the God-honest truth, from Genesis to Joshua to Romans to Revelation: Satan is a loser. That old serpent, that raging dragon, will not come out on top. The God of peace will knock him to the floor. Evil does not take the day. And not only that, but God then calls for your personal involvement in the victory. Think about what Joshua's captains must've seen and felt as Joshua called them over to trample on the Amorite chiefs. Now think what you'll see and feel as Jesus calls you over to stomp Satan into the dust. We – me and you – will be given the victory over Satan and over every dark thing in this world he inspires. Every surge of darkness, every prevailing sin, every tragic twist – it's not forever. It's part of Satan's works that will perish with him – and he will perish, after God has crushed him under your feet. Because you are the body of Christ.

Satan's head will be crushed under our feet. The God of peace said it, we believe it, that settles it! So no matter what comes on today's or tomorrow's or Tuesday's headlines – be it car wrecks, be it storms, be it shootings, be it election returns, be it wars or rumors of wars, be it the horsemen of the apocalypse galloping across your front lawn – do not be afraid, do not be dismayed, be strong, and be courageous, for thus the Lord will do to “the spiritual forces of evil” and “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” against whom and against which we fight (cf. Joshua 10:25; Ephesians 6:12)! The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet. And with him will die sin, and with him will die war, and with him will die addiction, and with him will die carnage, and with him will die slavery, and with him will die poverty, and with him will die death!

Satan's head will be crushed under our feet, but it will never be the other way around. No matter what he does, no matter how many fiery darts he shoots, no matter what wiles he hisses to deceive the hearts of the naive, he cannot crush your head, for a believing church member's head is Christ, and “the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3), and “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9)! “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and neither the devil's works nor the devil himself can survive the march of Christ's feet – or, in him, ours.

So whatever this week holds for you, whatever this month holds for you, whatever this year holds for you, take heart! Don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed; instead, be strong and courageous! Satan's rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure – for “the God of peace will swiftly crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). God will give each of you a share in Jesus' victory over Satan. And on that day, the devil will regret ever having tangled with you, because you're entangled with the unconquerable life of Christ – through whom be glory to the God of peace, the only wise God, forever and ever, amen (cf. Romans 16:27)!

And what a day that will be, when the God of peace crushes Satan under our feet. But it will be a good day for us because of who God has adopted us to be, and how he's written our stories. I leave you with the words of Jesus to his first disciples: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:18-20). Even better than Satan hitting the dirt at your feet – which is the promise of God – is that, both already now and long after Satan meets his fiery lake, your name will still recorded in heavenly triumph by the God of peace. So don't be afraid. Don't be dismayed. This week, this month, this year, this life – be strong and courageous. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Romans 16:20). Amen.

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