Satan Falls Like Lightning
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Thirty-five pairs of disciples go out from Jesus like lambs into the midst of wolves. Yet as they fan out and set to work, Jesus will later say he ‘watched Satan fall again and again from heaven like lightening.’ (Luke 10:18)
The seventy are almost giddy with the thrill of their first endeavors. They are filled with joy and amazement. This decentralized gospel proved unstoppable working through their mortal hands and voices. For proof now they may offer the same evidence that Jesus did in response to the doubts of John the Baptist: The blind see, the lame walk, the spirit is with us, Christ is alive.
But what in the devil does this have to do with Satan falling like lightning? Answering this question is the key to understanding what the disciples achieved and how they accomplished it—which is unfortunate for us because what we know about the devil mostly comes from books and movies, not the bible. Truth be told, contemporary progressive Christians like us hardly know how to talk intelligently about Satan without embarrassment and generally prefer to avoid the subject all together. Of course, that’s just the way the Devil likes to keep it.
As it happens Kari and I watched a classic horror film a few weeks back. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called The Exorcist. Honestly, finally watching it, I was shocked, but not in the way you think. It took soooo long for the story to develop. Scenes went on for minutes that would last no more than two or three seconds in a film today. By contrast movies in 2016 are almost frenetic. (It’s a bit of an aside, but I wonder, what does it say about our lives today?)
Movies like The Exorcist tell us a lot about what people imagine about the Devil. Hollywood’s version of the Devil is locked in another realm and hidden in obscure objects. On rare occasions Hollywood Devils break through to this world by tragically inhabiting a human body. Then suddenly, there is hell on earth. Bodies are contorted. We hear the strange voices of demons. Furniture begins to jump around. People who get too close are filled with murderous, suicidal thoughts. In The Exorcist, the Devil uses shocking foul language, and seems weirdly obsessed with sex. Inevitably, Hollywood Devil struggles to break further into the world until the brave exorcist drives Hollywood Devil back into hell using a cross and baptismal water like a lion tamer’s whip.
Clearly, we have to erase everything we’ve learned and absorbed about Hollywood Devil in order to make room for the Satan Jesus and the bible are talking without. It’s probably not a bad idea to go ahead and cleanse your mind of Milton and Dante too. Stop thinking about magic and metaphysics and just look at what the gospels actually say about the everyday, everywhere reality of evil, sin and Satan.
Far from being magical or fantastic, the gospels use pretty simple language for a commonplace reality. Satan is called “the tempter,” “the accuser,” the “prince of this world,” “the prince of darkness,” “the murderer from the beginning.” A functional reading of Satan in Luke makes it clear Satan is always lurking in the background of this world, delights in violence, inspires fear and is involved in orchestrating the death of Jesus.
Paul lists some of the Devil’s favorite weapons in Galatians: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (Galatians 5:19-21) The point is these are not just bad behaviors or poor choices. They are the Devil’s traps and snares. They are sticky. We easily get ourselves all caught up in them. We cannot free ourselves.
People in bible times used the name Satan or the Devil to refer to a daily presence pressing down on us, a brutal, violent and dehumanizing force. This Lucifer effect is the diabolical pattern of this world tempting, taunting, demoralizing, yelling, whispering, and squeezing the life out of us. Tirelessly molding us into its dark image—and if not to mold us, then to break us—to walk us toward despair and suicide. This force may or may not have a red face and pointy horns; may or may not be malevolent, but it is most definitely malignant and it is most definitely as real today as ever. (Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch p. 187)
So yes, you can imagine the harvest of souls yearning to be free of the power of death is plentiful (Luke 10:2) even as the forces arrayed against those few who might liberate them in the name of Christ is everywhere, deep, hateful, and strong. The seventy went out like sheep among wolves. Their work was urgent. There was no time to waste. They were made strong for this work because they put on the body of Christ.
They stepped into a living sanctuary of grace and hope and wore it like protective clothing. They put on the full armor of God, so that they could take their stand against the devil’s schemes…they took up the shield of faith, with which they could extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one (Ephesians 6:11,16)
They fought this war in two theaters simultaneously: both in their personal lives, and in the culture and society. Conservative Christians are right, the fight against the Devil is a deeply personal struggle to be cleansed morally in order that we may become holy. The journey toward goodness, wholeness and peace is difficult. We are constantly tempted to get off track. Progressive Christians are right the fight against the Devil must be communal, cultural, and political. The battle against injustice is a fight against the powers and principalities opposed to the Kingdom of God. Conservative and progressive Christians have allowed an unholy divide to grow up among themselves that keeps Satan safe from falling down among us like lightening.
But we are free from the power of death and scarcity. We are all exorcists. Together, especially in pairs and in community with one another, we wield power to drive the devil out. Our greatest weapons are joy, generosity and thanksgiving. These gifts are abundant and ours for the taking through prayer, worship, through Word and Sacrament, and especially through song. Singing together makes community in Christ. Black Lutherans, White Lutherans, Latino Lutherans and Asian Lutherans become as one Body through song. Singing is the Lutheran crucifix and holy water. Singing is how we come along side one another to lift our spirits in the midst of darkness and despair. Singing is exorcism.
Like the seventy we are safe and protected in Christ even as we go out like lambs into the midst of wolves, shining a bright light in a dark world in order to bring more brothers and sisters home. The harvest is plenty and the laborers are few. Even now, Satan is falling from heaven like lightning.