The Devil's Footprints
There's a place in New England where the Devil is said to have wrestled with a preacher in the 1700s. Supposedly the preacher threw the Devil over a cliff. The Devil landed on his feet. Tourists are shown two cloven hoof prints in the rock. In 1855 after a heavy snowfall in England, strange, hoof-shaped prints were found for over a hundred miles in straight lines passing over rooftops, through walls, even crossing a river.
Are these the Devil's footprints? I don't know what they are, but I know they're not that. Do you know what the Devil's footprints look like? Do you know how you can tell where he is has been? Some think that a devil-may-care attitude, i.e. being relaxed and not worried about the results of your actions is a sure sign of the Devil.
A devil-may-care attitude is not always the Devil's footprint. In fact, it is quite remarkable when found in regard to this life, in regard to facing the first, physical death. Stonewall Jackson was noted for this in the Civil War. He rode up and down his front line as Union musket and cannon balls flew. Douglas MacArthur did a similar thing in World War I. He was first out of the trenches leading his men. He never carried a weapon or a gas mask. He was awarded 7 Silver Stars for bravery under fire.
You can a have a devil-may-care attitude to the first death and not be a Christian, but there is a Christian way to have it. We sing about it in hymns. We sing, "It is not death to die." "Come disaster, scorn, and pain! With Thy favor loss is gain." We read about it in St. Paul, "To be at home in the body is to be away from the Lord." "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Or Jesus' words in our text, "Whoever loses his life for Me will find it."
Christians can have a devil-may-care attitude toward the first death because they've already died. Paul says, "We have been crucified and buried with Christ in Baptism." Hebrews 2:14 says of Jesus: Through death He destroyed the Devil who has the power of death and delivered all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. The first death is the Devil's trump card. Through fear of it he enslaves people into thinking they can lengthen their lives if they just do or don't do this or that. He enslaves them with the thought that the greatest evil in the world is dying. From this slavery the Christian is free. He has already died in Christ. He's been into the grave and back out with Christ.
A devil-may-care attitude in regard to the first death isn't necessarily the Devil's footprint, but it is if it's in regard to the second, eternal death. This too you find in the world, and the Devil promotes it. He keeps people in bondage to the first death while pooh-poohing the idea of a second. From articles in newsmagazines, to preaching from church pulpits, to Fox TV's cartoons hell is played down, made fun of. A 1985 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article said, "Has anyone ever sinned grievously enough to deserve horrible torture for not just a millions times his life on earth, but literally forever? A few centuries ago the average Christian would have answered with an easy yes, but modern ideas of justice in the West are offended by the idea of an implacably vengeful God."
There you have it; no need to fear the second death; it doesn't exist. Our ideas of justice are too sophisticated to allow it. The 2 teens that committed the massacre at Columbine High and then killed themselves had no fear of going to hell. And when that's the case, what can you do with a person? If he doesn't fear the God who has the power to send him to hell forever, he surely won't fear men or what they might do to him. The person who has this devil-may-care attitude can only be handed over to the Devil.
Now we've come to Peter. He had a devil-may-care attitude toward the first death. He boldly said if faithfulness meant dying with Jesus then he would die. And he certainly didn't have a devil-may-care attitude toward the second death. He said he would not leave Jesus because He alone had the words to save him from hell. Yet what happens in our text? In the space of 1 1/2 sentences Peter lost his soul. He went from being enlightened by the heavenly Father that Jesus was the Christ to being benighted by the things of man, and so Jesus handed him over to the Devil.
Here the Devil's footprints are clearly seen. Peter is sure he's doing good; sure he's being the rock Jesus said he was by saying, "Never Lord will you suffer at the hands of the church and be killed by the state." He thought he was a solid rock foundation on which Jesus could stand and put away all those negative thoughts, but Jesus says he was not being a rock but a stumbling block.
I know you're confused. Peter looks like he is rock solid showing a devil-may-care attitude to all the evil that the Devil wanted to do to Jesus. But Peter has lost his soul. Peter has become the Devil himself according to Jesus. Why? How? Because Peter thinks he doesn't need his soul bought back. Do you see the Devil's footprints? We have no trouble seeing them when someone makes the Faustian deal of selling his soul to the Devil. It's much harder to see them in Peter's case, yet we're more likely to be Peter than Faust. We don't sell our soul to the Devil; no, we think we can buy it back ourselves or it doesn't need buying back at all.
Last week Peter confessed Jesus to be God's Son, the Messiah. This week's text immediately follows that confession. Here Jesus explains what that meant. "Messiah" or "Christ" literally means "anointed one." He was the One anointed by God to buy back fallen mankind by crushing the head of the Devil even as the Devil bit Him in the heel. The Old Testament proclaimed clearly that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. Though He would be guiltless, innocent, holy, He would suffer and die as a criminal.
What exposes Peter's cloven footprints is not only that He takes the one he just identified as God the Son aside to rebuke Him, Peter also declares that God will be propitious toward Jesus. You don't see this in any English translations because they are all translating a Greek idiom. Some have "Never Lord," "God forbid," "Be it far from Thee." The closest one is "God be favorable to Thee."
The Greek word translated is the noun "propitious." When the penitent tax collector prays, he uses the verb form of this word, "Be propitiated to me O Lord." Propitious and propitiated aren't words we often hear, but they are easily understood. They mean that someone who is mad at you for owing them a debt is paid off and is no longer mad. Peter is saying that God the Father will somehow be placated, appeased, paid off so that the horrible things Jesus has said will happen to Him won't. Peter thinks he is protecting Jesus, but he is denying that Jesus is God the Son who needs no propitiation, and he is denying that he is a sinner who the Devil owns for all eternity unless God's wrath against him is propitiated.
The Devil owns Peter's soul, and yours too, because God's Law says if it's not kept perfectly by a person he or she can't live with God. Therefore, they have to live with the Devil. The Devil owns Peter's soul and yours too because God is enraged at your sins and sinfulness. You've been so mad at your own child that you said, "Get out of my sight." How much more angry is God against us because we've dared to correct, reject, or deny His will as Peter did? How angry a parent gets when a child maintains they have no reason to be mad at them when they do? How much more does God's wrath burn when we don't think our soul needs to be saved from His wrath?
What can a man do to save his soul from God's wrath? People think God's wrath is satisfied by their being passionate about some thing, but His wrath is only satisfied by the Passionate suffering and death of Jesus. People think God puts away His wrath against them when they give something back to the community, but God only puts away His wrath for the sake of the holy life and innocent death of Jesus. People think, like Peter, that God's vengeance can be satisfied by doing something for Jesus, but it's only satisfied by Jesus doing every thing for them. People think God's hot wrath is mollified by their going green, but what soothes the hot wrath of God is only the red Blood Jesus shed for sinners. People think God's burning wrath is put out by their saving water, but it's only quenched by being saved by Water.
Oh so there's nothing good in being passionate, giving back to the community, doing things for Jesus, protecting the environment, or saving water. Surely there is good in all of these, but your soul is not saved and God's wrath is not satisfied, mollified, appeased, or even lessened by doing any of them. It's only when you see that for Jesus' sake that God is no longer angry at you that the radical discipleship Jesus describes is lived by sinners like us.
I can deny my grass water in my strength, but I cannot deny myself. I can take up the chore of recycling in my own determination, but I'll never muster up enough determination to take up my cross. And I can follow community leaders on the truly fine path of serving society, but it takes a miracle for me to follow Jesus.
And that miracle has happened. Paul describes it vividly, in 2 Cor. 5, "God made Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God." That means Jesus had all of God's wrath, so you have all of God's grace, mercy, and peace in Him. In Jesus totally free from God's wrath and judgment, losing your life looks like saving it; gaining your soul is worth more than having the whole world, and the Devil's footprints are going away from you, and they're not walking, they're running. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
15th Sunday after Pentecost (20080824); Matthew 16: 21-26