Three boys are in the school yard bragging about their fathers. The first boy says, "My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem, they give him $50."
The second boy says, "That’s nothing. My Dad scribbles a few words on piece of paper, he calls it a song, they give him $100."
The third boy says, "I got you both beat. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!"
I like this joke for a couple of reasons. First, it’s clean. Enough said about that. Second, it’s about a boy unashamedly proud of his father’s profession–a father who just happened to be a pastor, like me. Third, it’s a classic example of the games of one-upmanship we all like to play at some point and time in our lives.
I mean, I don’t know what it is about our species, but when it comes to telling stories about the things that we have experienced, someone always seems to have a story that one-ups everyone else. Maybe you’ve run into such a person before. They’ve always got to have the last word or the tallest tale.
I remember sitting down and talking to a couple of our members over a game of cards. They were talking about a guy who had at least one such tall tale. Apparently, there had been some scattered showers around Cat Spring, and folks were commenting about how it seemed like the rain just seemed to hit a certain spot and then just shut off. This one particular gentleman–I wish I could remember the name, said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. The other day, I was riding in my cart holding my shot gun when such a rain shower hit. After the storm was done, one barrel was completely dry, and the other barrel was full of water.” I’m not sure anyone could top that one.
Neither do I think anyone could top Jesus as He one-ups the disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning. And, He teaches them an important lesson to boot. Let’s set the scene.
As Jesus’ ministry was taking off, He wanted to get the word out about God’s Kingdom. He brought together 70 of His followers, and He sent them out to proclaim the message of God. Here were Jesus’ exact instructions in fact, “‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” 12I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”
That’s the background. The 70 went out and did what Jesus instructed them to do, and in today’s Gospel reading, we get the results. It’s like sitting down at a corporate meeting and asking them, “So how did the venture go?”
The disciples respond with absolute enthusiasm! ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’
Now, this is no small feat for those disciples, particularly in Jesus’ day. For, you see, most folks had a particular worldview. They believed the events on earth were directly related to events in heaven. Up in heaven, there was a tremendous battle being waged between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Events on earth oftentimes mirrored the events in heaven. When evil was winning a hand or two, evil things happened to people on earth. When good was winning in heaven, good things happened on earth.
When the disciples were giving their reports, they were convinced there were some very good things happening up in heaven. They were convinced the cosmic battle was going well, and that they were on the winning side. If the forces of darkness were being defeated down here on earth, surely the cosmic battle was being won and handily.
Jesus says a quite interesting thing at this point. Scholars have wrestled with this saying for quite some time. “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Oftentimes, one will ask, “Did Jesus really see such a thing?”
My answer is no. I don’t think so. In fact, I think Jesus is being quite sarcastic. I mean, if you take a look at our second lesson for today, John, the writer of Revelation, talks about the culmination of the final battle. During that final battle, the Enemy, the Serpent, the Great Deceiver is finally thrown out of heaven and down to earth. Mind you, John is writing many years after Jesus’ walked the earth. So, in effect, Jesus didn’t see Satan fall from heaven. The battle was still ongoing. Jesus knew this which is the first reason I think Jesus is being sarcastic. The second reason is that I believe He was using such rhetoric to set His disciples straight.
“See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” This is what the disciples are all excited about, and what does Jesus think of it? See how He starts the next statement? “Nevertheless.” That’s the word Jesus uses. Nevertheless. Jesus is drawing a stark contrast between what the disciples are excited about and what Jesus thinks is more important. Hence, sarcasm to begin with. Finishing out what Jesus says, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Jesus one-ups them with that which is truly important. Sure, it’s nice to win a battle in the cosmic war between good and evil. Sure, it’s nice to have the spirits submit to you in the name of Jesus. Sure, it’s nice to accomplish something nice for a change, but these things, while important, pale in comparison to knowing your name is written in heaven. These things pale in comparison to knowing that you are a child of God. These things pale in comparison compared to knowing that you have a place reserved for you in eternity with all the saints who have gone before.
Why would Jesus emphasize such a thing? Why would Jesus steal the disciples’ thunder? Why wouldn’t He allow them to just revel in the moment and celebrate their accomplishments?
I think the reason is clear. These skirmishes are just that: skirmishes. These battles might have been won, but in the future, the battles might not go so well. In the future, there will be times of loss. There will be times when the forces of evil will seem overwhelming and all powerful. There will be times when for the sake of the Gospel these same disciples will face torture, persecution, hatred, loneliness, and even death. And what will they say at those times? Where will their belief and faith rest? Will they still be rejoicing, or will they cower in fear?
For those who know that their names are written in the book of life, there is no fear. For those who know that their names are written in the book of heaven, there is no anxiety. For those who know that their names are known by God, there is the realization that even though the worst may happen, God will ultimately bring about a positive outcome. Even though we die, we will live. That is the promise.
As modern disciples of Jesus, most of us know both the thrill of accomplishment and the agony of defeat. Most of us know happiness and sadness. Most of us have felt total elation at some point as well as overwhelming grief. We know the ups and downs of life. We know there are wins and losses. There is no shame celebrating those wins. It’s nice to have them, but they are not the sum and substance of our lives. They are not what gives us inspiration. They are not the reasons we hold onto our faith and call ourselves Christian.
Some preachers believe these things indeed are a result of becoming a Christian. They proclaim that when we become followers of Jesus and just have enough faith, then everything will be great in our lives--we will have health, wealth, and happiness. Most of you here this morning know this isn't always the case. Most of you here this morning know the reality of life. Most of you know the pain of loss, the agony of having cancer or having a loved one who has cancer, the sorrow in having a family torn apart by divorce, and all other manners of hurt. Some of you have been mocked and teased and made to feel down and low. If your faith rested on all the good things in life, what would have happened to it when you ran into all of these things? Where do you think your faith in God would have ended up?
This is why Jesus one ups us today as well. He does not wish for us to have our faith rest on the idea that good things happen to us because we believe in Him and have been given the power of the Holy Spirit. For to live God’s Word daily means we know these things pale in comparison to the fact that God loves us, God calls us, God works on us to transform us into His likeness, and God has our names written in heaven. Knowing this gives us tremendous strength to face both the good and the bad in this world. Amen.