Print Version July 8th, 2001
“I saw satan falling from the sky like lightning.” That shadowy figure from the Book of Job and from millenia of myth. The prosecuting attorney, the accuser, the adversary. My spellchecker has been insisting all week that “satan” has a capital “S” while the whole point of Jesus’ strange, ecstatic outburst in the gospel seems to be that satan doesn’t deserve one. Doesn’t deserve a capital S. Doesn’t even deserve a personal pronoun. It—satan—the accuser—has fallen from heaven—fallen like lightning from the sky—and that really matters.
The voice of the accuser is one we all know—here in our heads, in our hearts—keeping us in our place, keeping us under a spell, keeping us out of the battle—and that voice speaks with such quiet authority we never doubt the capital letter—we have been bamboozled to believe satan speaks for God, accuses us in the name of truth and goodness and beauty but, whatever the pretence it might make, the voice of the accuser speaks for no one but itself.
And pretend it does. The world is full of accusing voices, voices that would have us afraid, or bent, or broken—deny our dignity, denigrate our merit, undermine our significance. Voices that claim to know our dirty secrets. And I use “our” broadly—yours and mine, here today, just ordinary Christians just going about our daily labour for daily bread, but, more inclusively, all the ones living as lambs among wolves, and all the ones who have lost the battle with lies—the poor, the sick, the hurt, the oppressed, the despised—every scapegoat of our society.
Every voice that speaks with accusation, every whisper, every insinuation, every final verdict, every sexist jibe, every gay joke, every unequal paycheck, every ad holding up an unattainable ideal, every bully, every accusing voice—don’t they all make the same, silent claim to be holy writ, to divine authority? The satan’s only power is that it puts on a good show of speaking with authority, of being unquestionable, beyond debate. But satan has fallen from the sky and, though the glitter and clamour of the fall might be like lightning to hold our eyes and make us cringe in fear, Jesus himself stands witness—the accuser has been thrown out of heaven and all the pushing and bullying and fear-mongering is only bluster. Whatever satan might have said, might still say, our names are written in heaven, but its is not. There is nothing heavenly, nothing divine, nothing holy about the voice of accusation. Jesus has unmasked it.
And that is what the kingdom is about—unmasking—that is what discipleship and following Jesus is about. Not about the power to go head-to-head with satan, treading spirits underfoot, nor about any kind of comparison, but about unmasking the lie, the lies, that have been told from time immemorial. Lies simple; lies political; subtle lies; holy lies.
Here’s one lie long told: how do you get on in a dog-eat-dog world? Not just live—not just get by—but get on—do what needs to be done? In today’s gospel that question is in its sharpest form—how do you build a church? Who does Jesus entrust the kingdom to?
And the answer seems so frail and yet so demanding. When Jesus sends out the 72 to go before him, to prepare the way for him, he gives them stupid instructions. You or I would know better. Clearly the way to do this is to plan and prepare. To estimate your needs, calculate your expenses, plan a route, book some advance accommodation. Maybe do a seminar on public speaking, the habits of highly effective people, or how to sell. Perhaps plant an ad in the local paper or phone some contacts. Above all I guess you have to know the message you are to spread, make it snappy, cogent, clear.
Jesus has different rules. Rules for lambs among wolves. Don’t travel alone but travel light: no purse, no backpack, no shoes for your feet. Don’t stand and chatter along the way. And when you get there eat what is set before you, offer peace, cure the sick and say simply, “the kingdom of God is here.”
There’s a logic to all that which both attracts and repels me. I can see it. I can see why, if you have to be wolf-bait it makes sense to not have too much meat on your bones. I can see how the way you travel can undermine the message—like the shiny suits and elaborate hairpieces of televangelists—I mean, who hears you when you rise from your comfortable bed to instruct the starving, or who hears you when walk in safety among those struggling to survive.
But it seems such a hard way, that simple way. Such a challenge to my fear. I have listened too well to years of accusation. I do not know how to be simple any more. I do not have the trust. How can I just eat what is set before me when two thirds of the world have little enough on their tables to offer to me?
And even if I braved the journey what peace do I have to give, what healing is in my hands, and where O where is the kingdom of God?!
Satan is very convincing. Better to doubt, to protect, to stay at home. Better that life be complicated and safe than simple and just. Better that I survive than others live. Better not build a church at all than let it change me. I couldn’t possibly … I don’t know how to … I’m not … I don’t deserve …
But satan has lost its capital “S”—never had one. Satan has fallen from the sky and its lies speak for no one but itself.
I could … I do know how … I am … Maybe if we gave Jesus as much inner air-time as we have given the accuser we might be astonished, might be changed, set free, set loose. And the world with us.