The Chess Match
In a 2002 sermon I referred to a 19th century painting titled "The Chess Players," and how it bothered me. It depicts a young man playing chess with the Devil and losing. His head hangs down in despair. Based on our text I tell you that the Devil lost that chess match.
Our text says clearly, "There was no longer any place for them in heaven." It's not that the good angels came in and took the places of the evil ones like when one child gets the seat of another because he didn't save it. Based on it later saying that the Devil was the "accuser of our brothers day and night before God," saying there is "no longer a place for them in heaven," means they lost their standing. Standing is "The legal right to initiate a lawsuit." To have standing "a person must be sufficiently affected by the matter at hand, and there must be a case or controversy that can be resolved by legal action" (http://www.lectlaw.com/def2/s064.htm).
What probably surprises you is that the Devil and his angels did have standing before God in heaven prior to Michael and his angels throwing them out. But we know they did from the Old Testament. Job 1 and 2 are creepy as they describe how Satan was able to come and go from heaven at will. It says, "One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them." Or go to Zechariah 3. The prophet is shown what's going on in the spiritual realm that makes the rebuilding of the earthly temple so difficult. "Then [the angel] showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him." Or go to our Gospel reading. Jesus wouldn't have seen "Satan like lightening falling from heaven," if he hadn't been up there to begin with.
I've shown you that Satan was in heaven, but I haven't shown you why he had standing, why he had a right to bring a suit before God against us. His place, his legal standing was based on God's holiness, God's Law, and our breaking of the Law. God had created man holy; placed him in a paradise, and given him one command. "Don't eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day you eat of it you shall die." Adam and Eve ate but they didn't drop dead; moreover even when they did die physically the ground didn't open up and hell swallow them as it should.
What gives? God had made a promise: souls that sin shall die. Job was surely a sinner, yet God kept him around. Joshua the high priest was no less a sinner than you. In the vision Joshua is shown "dressed in filthy clothes." Satan was right. There were sins to point out. The holy God really had promised to punish them. But God did nothing, so God's Word and man's sins enabled Satan to enter heaven and demand God keep His promise to punish sinners or cease to be 100% truthful.
Revelation 12 is a vision given to John of Satan being overcome by Christ. It's depicted to John as a war even as the 19th century artist depicted Satan's afflicting the Christian as a hopeless chess match. Go ahead; flesh out the vision, paint in the colors. See gleaming swords flashing, white wings beatings, and the clashing of angels and demons as Michael and his angels pitch the Devil and his angels out of heaven. But recognize this is a picture. The reality is that nothing less than the Person and Work of Jesus Christ threw Satan out of heaven, removed his standing, and the Book of Revelation drops the symbols to make sure we don't miss the reality.
After the war in heaven is depicted, it says, "Our brothers who have been accused day and night before God have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb." The blood of Jesus is what gives you victory over the Devil and His angels. That blood sweated out in Gethsemane by the wrath of God against your sins; that blood shed on Calvary to pay for your sins covers up your sins, cleanses your sins, blots out your sins, runs between you and your sins like a river separating them from you forever. What sin of yours can the Devil find to bring before the throne of God? What filth of yours can the Devil point out if the blood of Jesus cleanses you from all sin? What sinful shame of yours has not been blotted out by the blood of Jesus? If His blood separated you from your sins not others, not conscience, not even Satan can join you to your sins again.
This is your confession too, isn't it? This is your testimony as to what Jesus has done for you? The objective side of salvation is that the blood of the Lamb conquered Satan. The subjective side of salvation is you and I confessing this fact. That's why our text says, "And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony." Our confession of faith is that we believe for Jesus' sake in the forgiveness of our sins. That confession sends the Devil and his angels running from us shrieking and covering their ears.
Based on our text I tell you that the outcome of the 19th century painting was that the Devil lost, but I warn you, sometimes the good angels do just stand there. That's what the 19th century painting depicts. The angel stands beside the table looking downcast, full of pity, with his hands folded. Contrast this with that more famous 19th century angel painting called "The Guardian Angel" that hangs in our library. There you see the angel keeping children safe from imminent peril. Sometimes that's exactly what happens, but other times guardian angels stand there with folded hands doing nothing as the Devil attacks. Our text answers the great question of our guilt, but the lesser (and note well it is lesser) question of the Devil's remaining power isn't answered here.
Jesus' victory over our sins as well as over the Devil's accusations and death threats doesn't mean the good angels always intervene. Revelation was written to the persecuted Church. It shows them that throwing Satan out of heaven was the great work of Jesus. That's why heaven can announce once that happens; "Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come." But the kingdom of God doesn't consist primarily in the suppression of the ungodly but in Satan no longer being able to accuse us. So the suffering Church of the 1st century as well as the suffering Church of the 21st century are reminded: salvation doesn't consist in being delivered from every bad thing but in being delivered from the guilt of sin.
We can live our life guilt free. That's what the blood of Jesus gives us and we may confess each day. "Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, says that if he could convince the patients in his psychiatric hospitals that their sins are forgiven, 75 percent of them could walk out the next day" (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 155). It's that spot of guilt that drives Lady Macbeth crazy, dries up bones of David, and makes him cry all night. It's guilt that keeps The Tell-Tale Heart beating and The Machinist wasting away. It's guilt that makes you feel like you walk around like Pig-Pen in the Peanuts comic: a cloud of dust and dirt ever around you.
You've been freed of your guilt by the blood of Jesus. Picture Michael and his angels taking your guilts one by one and pitching them behind God's back. That's not farfetched. That's how Isaiah 38:17 depicts forgiveness. "Thou hast cast all my sins behind Thy back." Micah 7:19 also has them being pitched away. "Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea." To be sure, the Devil goes on accusing; others go on accusing; your own conscience goes on accusing, but what sins, what guilt, what proof can they find? Your sins are buried in depths of the baptismal font; they're forever separated from you by God's Word in Absolution, and your sins are blotted out by the Body and Blood of Jesus you eat and drink.
But we're still left to wonder about the chess match where our guardian angel stands by watching with folded wings and hands. We're still left to wonder how this works out in light of the fact the Devil has come down to earth with great wrath and the loud voice in heaven has proclaimed woe to earth and sea because of this. Is "woe" really all that is left to the Christian in these latter days when Satan has his short reign of terror?
No. Look on whom the Scripture pronounces the woe and whom it calls to rejoice. "Rejoice O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea." Colossians 3 says the Christian dwells in heaven with Christ not on earth and sea. "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God." We're strangers here; we're just passing through. Our fate isn't tied to what happens to earth and sea.
Scripture makes a distinction between those marked by God in Baptism and those marked by Satan, between those sitting on the earth and those standing with Christ, between those living under the sun and those who don't. To those living under the sun all is vanity, useless, and futility. The best you can hope for under the sun is to enjoy what good things you have. But you've been marked by God not Satan; you don't sit on this earth; you stand with Christ in heaven. You don't live under the sun in the sky; you live above the sun with the Son who ever reigns in heaven and on earth.
Since we dwell in the heaven, when we hear, "Rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them," we rejoice at Jesus' victory over the Devil and his angels. We rejoice that our accuser has no more standing before God. We rejoice because even when it looks like we're losing the chess match with Satan our victory is as certain as Michael and his angels was because it's based on who Jesus is and what He did. So every Sunday we gather here with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven around that Body and Blood of Jesus. We laud and magnify His most glorious name evermore praising Him for the freedom from guilt and salvation for eternity He has won for us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Michael and All Angels (20100926); Rev. 12: 7-12