Two weeks ago I preached for the first time in five years. I preached about satan. The father of lies is not something I’d choose as my introductory sermon at a church where I will soon be serving as interim associate pastor, but what’s a girl to do when the date she’s needed corresponds with the middle of a five-part series and the day’s topic is fallen angels? I relished the opportunity to craft a sermon again, but I was more than a little wary of the topic. Can you imagine my dilemma? Picture me smiling, speaking with my usual enthusiasm as I say, “Hi, I’m Corrie, one of your new pastors and I’m excited to minister alongside you. Now let’s turn to the Bible and talk about a serpent, a ferocious dragon, a murderer, the great deceiver who, along with a horde of demons, is trying to destroy our lives and tear us away from God.” Not a great beginning for ministry, is it? My challenge was to tackle an intimidating topic without getting lost in the bad news that is a very real part of satan.
(By the way, I’ve de-capitalized satan’s name. Any being whose vocation is deception should not be awarded the respect of a capital letter. )
There’s plenty of bad news in our world: tornadoes that suck a teenager through a sunroof, earthquakes that send tsunamis that cause nuclear meltdown, broken marriages, drowned children, domestic violence, human beings abducted or enticed into the sex-trade, etc., etc., etc. Bad news is as easy to spot as an SUV on a city street. All we have to do is live to know that destruction and pain and evil are real. What’s more evil, more depressing, and perhaps more frightening, than the reality of a being whose sole purpose is to keep each of us from living the full, joyful and free life that God intended?
To use a very evangelical phrase, I grew up in the church. I have a hymnal full of memories from a childhood spent in stiff pews and paste-scented Sunday school rooms. The most striking memory I’ve retained from those pews, other than the bold mauve of the church carpeting, is hearing preachers expound on the bad news – sin, satan, hell and its fires waiting to devour sinners. It wasn’t preaching with the hair-raising force that I imagine came from Jonathan Edwards, but the themes were the same. I saw these fearsome descriptions motivate many people forward during regular altar calls so they could give their lives to Christ.
As an adult I cringe at the idea of hellfire and brimstone preaching. Yes, I believe that evil is real, that satan is real and that he is the worst of all bad news, but I worry when fear sets the stage for faith. Would you become a patron of a theatre where each play gave the brightest spotlight, the longest monologues and the power to control major plot shifts solely to the antagonist? If tragedy and menace was all that was ever reported, would you rush to buy magazine subscriptions?
I’m exaggerating with a purpose. Of course the good news was shared at my childhood pulpits; how could I have become a joyful Christian otherwise? But the problem that I see as an adult is too much time and attention given to bad news. As a pastor, I am truly concerned anytime I see or hear bad news overshadowing good news. Hearing too much bad news is like pumping tar into our veins. The human heart is a strong organ but if you fill it three-quarters full with the oozing blackness of guilt, personal depravity, the presence and power of evil forces, how can it possibly keep pumping? Have you ever seen seabirds blackened and disabled by a oilspill? Rescue workers spend hours soaking and stripping the crude oil from the birds’ feathers so they can fly again.
Jesus preached the gospel, literally the good news of the kingdom of God. Though he was born into a time and place that had a lot of bad news – Roman oppression, Jewish corruption, poverty, demon possession, unjust beheadings, crucifixions for petty theft – Jesus walked all over his country preaching about redemption, freedom, salvation and eternal life. His news was about a good king, his father, who loves humans so much that the king prepared a mansion big enough for all who choose to follow him. Jesus’ headlines read: Man Blind Since Birth Healed, Lazarus Alive After Three Days in a Tomb, Forgiveness of Sins – No Ritual Sacrifices Necessary, Living Water of Eternal Life – FREE! Jesus spoke plainly about the reality of sin and confronted the sins he saw in people but he did not beat them over their heads with their own guilt. He exposed the black parts of their hearts, offered forgiveness, symbolically cleansed them through baptism and then told these new children of God to spread the good news. Jesus acknowledged the reality and power of satan, but he did not give satan any kind of spotlight. Instead, Jesus preached sermon after sermon on the reality of the kingdom of God that is more powerful than the kingdom of darkness. He proved his words by resisting temptation, casting out demons, curing diseases and raising people from the dead. Jesus gave life.
Christianity is life-giving when there’s the right calibration of good news to bad. Unfortunately, not all Christians and not all preachers get the storytelling measurements right. This is what I was thinking about as I prepared my sermon on satan. I wanted to follow the best example of preaching that I knew. My goal was to simply and clearly confront the reality and power of satan, being very careful to not let message get bogged down in the tar of fear or hopelessness. We turned to the good news and embraced it like a dear friend just arrived at a party. I expounded about the limits of satan’s power when compared to the almighty power of the resurrected Christ. We talked about our empowerment by the Holy Spirit. We read the end of the story where we see satan’s everlasting torment and God’s everlasting glory. And then we worshiped together. Our worship was the true conclusion of my sermon. The people of Hope Covenant Church sang loudly in celebration. I had a big smile on my face because the bad news had been overshadowed by the good news, as it is and should be.