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This past week marked the 68th anniversary of D-Day, which took place on June 6, 1944. It was on that day that the Allied forces invaded Europe by crossing the English Channel and landing on the beaches of Normandy. It was the largest amphibious assault in world history, as air, land, and sea forces sought to turn the tide of World War II by getting a foothold in Europe and inaugurating its eventual liberation. By the end of that day, 160,000 American, British, and Canadian troops had landed along a fifty-mile stretch of the French coast. The enemy fought hard to push back the assault from dug-in bunkers that had been under construction for four years. It is still unclear to this day how many Allied soldiers died on D-Day, but estimates range from 2,500 to 5,000. It was a costly victory, but a victory nonetheless.
In fact, one might say that we won the war on D-Day. It was the decisive battle. From that point on, the Allied forces advanced until the war was over nearly a year later. May 8, 1945 is called V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day); it marks the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces and the end of the Third Reich.
So, the war was won on D-Day but not over until V-E Day. In between, a lot of fighting went on, but the outcome was certain.
This is analogous to our Christian faith. When Jesus came, he inaugurated the Kingdom of God. Through his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Jesus won the war against the forces of sin, evil, and death. However, as we are all well aware by experience, the battles are not yet over. We still await the consummation of Jesus’ great victory and in the meantime, the fight goes on.
One might say that Christians live between D-Day and V-E Day. The decisive invasion has occurred. Victory is sure. God’s Kingdom has gained a sure foothold in this world. Nevertheless, we still find ourselves in a fight, we still sustain our losses, we still struggle and wonder sometimes if final victory will ever come.
God the King Who Sets Up His Temple in the World
Imagery of conflict and battle is present throughout the Bible. It actually starts on the first page, with the story of Creation. The Ancient Near Eastern peoples all had their myths and stories of creation. And they followed a similar pattern:
- One of their gods would engage in cosmic warfare against rival gods who threatened to turn the universe into chaos.
- The god would conquer his rivals and bring order out of chaos.
- The god would then set up his temple and throne and begin to rule.
These are the myths that the Genesis story both reflects and refutes. We see a similar pattern:
- The world is portrayed as being overwhelmed by the forces of chaos: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”
- Then the true and living God, Yahweh, rises up and speaks. Darkness flees, there is light, and God begins ordering the world by separating the waters and assigning them their boundaries, and he eventually brings order to the chaos and turns the world into a place that is “good.”
- Finally, God turns the entire world into his cosmic temple, hanging the lights in its dome and filling it with good things. He assigns human beings to be his priestly representative and to multiply his blessing throughout the earth.
This Biblical story of Creation reflects the creation myths of the Ancient Near East by portraying God as the King of all, who overcame the forces of chaos, created order, and established his Temple in the world.
But it also refutes those myths. In Genesis we don’t read elaborate accounts of battles between Yahweh and other gods. Instead Genesis portrays him as the one true and living God who has no rivals, who only needs to speak a word and his will is accomplished for his glory and the good of his creatures.
God the Redeemer Who Defeats the Gods of Egypt and Frees His People
Another great portrayal of God as a cosmic warrior and King is given in the story of the Exodus.
Exodus 12:12 says that what God was doing in the Exodus was “executing judgment on the gods of Egypt.” This was not just a battle between Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner! In fact, there is evidence that the plagues were sent specifically to point out that Yahweh was greater than the gods the Egyptians worshipped. For example:
- The Egyptians worshipped the god of the Nile. Through Moses, God turned the Nile, the source of Egypt’s life and fruitfulness, into blood.
- They also worshipped a goddess of fertility who had the appearance of a frog. Frogs represented fertility and God said, “You want to see fertility?” and he filled the land with frogs.
- The Egyptians had a god of the sun. The plague of darkness was God’s judgment on this god.
- They also had a god of death and the underworld. In the final plague, God showed his power over life and death, despite the best efforts of the Egyptians to appeal to their god for help.
Another act God performed in the Exodus was the parting of the Red Sea, which led to the deliverance of Israel and the destruction of the Egyptian armies. This act, by which God parted the waters in order to bring his people to a good land, reminds us of God’s work in creation, when he put the waters of chaos in their place so that the land might be made good for his creatures.
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These are two great examples of how the Bible portrays God as the King above all so-called “gods,” the One who has no rivals, who rules without peer over the forces of chaos and oppression, who saves his people, brings them into his Kingdom, and rules over them with goodness and mercy. The Psalms that reflect upon these stories put these truths in unforgettable words:
O Lord God of hosts,
who is as mighty as you, O Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.
The north and the south—you created them;
Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.
You have a mighty arm;
strong is your hand, high your right hand.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
- Psalm 89:8-14, NRSV
Jesus, “The Stronger Man” Who Binds the Strong Man
What does this have to do with our Gospel text for today? Beginning in Mark 3:21, we read these words:
…people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
The Gospel of Mark regularly portrays Jesus as what this text calls, “The Stronger Man.” Satan is the “strong man” in this saying, but Jesus is stronger — he binds the strong man and plunders his goods. The other gospels may emphasize Jesus’ teaching or his parables or his healings, but Mark emphasizes the encounters he had with the forces of evil. It stresses the battles Jesus had with the devil and his forces. It shows him rebuking those forces, casting them out of afflicted people, conquering the forces of chaos that bind our lives and bringing order and peace.
- It shows him at his temptation, surrounded by wild beasts in the wilderness, overcoming Satan’s tests. (1:12-13)
- It shows him in the synagogue at Capernaum, silencing and casting out an unclean spirit, and the people were astonished, saying, “What is this? An new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (1:21-28)
- It shows Jesus, going “throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” (1:39)
- It shows him being crowded by throngs of people so great they threatened to crush him, and he healed them and helped them. The text says, “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.” (3:11-12)
- On two occasions in Mark 1-6, it shows Jesus exercising power over the chaotic forces of the sea. On one of them, a storm came up while Jesus and the disciples were crossing the sea in the evening. Jesus stood up and rebuked the sea, saying, “Peace, be still.” And all was immediately calm. (4:35-41) On the other occasion, the disciples were caught in a storm on the sea and Jesus came to them, walking on the sea, and again with a word he calmed the winds and the waves. (6:45-52)
These portrayals of Jesus, especially those that show him as what one songwriter called, “Lord of the Troubled Sea,” call to mind the God of Creation and the God of the Exodus. As God ruled over the waters of chaos and separated them so as to bring order and a good land for his creatures, and as God parted the waters of the Red Sea, delivered his people and conquered his enemies, so Jesus came to be the One who would bring order out of the chaos of our lives and establish his Kingdom in us and for us.
So, what I’d like for all of us to know and embrace today is this Good News: no matter what you and I have in our lives that seems strong against us, Jesus is the Stronger Man.
No matter what forces of chaos threaten to overwhelm you and tear your life apart, Jesus is the Stronger Man, and he has come to bring order and peace to your life.
No matter how much the seas of circumstance may rage against you so that you feel like you’re going under and about to drown, Jesus is the Stronger Man who rebukes the wind and the waves and creates calm.
No matter how much you feel you are losing the battle against sin and brokenness in your life and relationships, Jesus is the Stronger Man who defeated sin on the Cross and through the Empty Tomb.
No matter how much life threatens to discourage you and get you off course and make you want to quit, Jesus is the Stronger Man, and he can awaken courage, faith, and hope in you to face the most troubled situations.
Satan and the forces of chaos, sin, evil, and death may be strong, but Jesus is the Stronger Man. When the world was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep he breathed his Spirit and spoke his word, and brought order and goodness.
When the strong powers of Egypt enslaved God’s people and held them in bondage, he showed he’s the Stronger Man. He put the gods of Egypt to shame and parted the waters so that his people could be liberated.
Then, at the climax of history, when darkness covered the land, and Jesus hung on a Cross, crying out that God had forsaken him, at the point of his most apparent weakness, Jesus was, in reality, the Stronger Man, for by his humiliation, suffering, and death, he destroyed the power of sin and death forever.
And when he rose from the dead, appeared to his disciples, ascended into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of the Father, when he poured out the Holy Spirit to create a new community and send them into the world as his witnesses, Jesus showed that he is the Stronger Man and that the cruel forces of this world will ultimately fall before the power of faith, hope, and love.
Now I know it doesn’t always look like Jesus is the Stronger Man. Sometimes the battle is fierce and we get wounded, and sometimes we fall and those around us fall, just like our soldiers did in the fields and villages of Europe between D-Day and V-E Day. The victory had been won. The Stronger Man had prevailed. A foothold had been established, guaranteeing ultimate triumph. But they had to keep going.
Our forces had to believe it, to keep fighting, keep advancing, keep supporting and encouraging each other, keep tending to the wounded, keep setting free the people bound by chaos and oppression.
That’s what this life in Christ is all about — Walking in the victory of Christ. Going forward, and helping one another, and setting the captives free.
…in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8:37-39
And it’s all because Jesus is the Stronger Man.