Better the Devil You Know...?

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“And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man’” (Mark 9:31-33).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I’m sure most of you have heard the saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” It means that it is often better to deal with someone or something you are familiar with and know, even if they are not ideal, than to take a risk with an unknown person or thing. But the problem with such an approach is that the devil you know is still a devil, and no devil has your good in mind. Certainly, no devil should be taken lightly, for you or I, on our own power, are no match for the evil one. There is only one who can and does defeat the devil and his demonic hordes—Jesus the Son of God, our Lord and Savior!
You may not have thought about it before in such a way because it is so familiar to you, but the Gospel of Mark is written as a sort of mystery: not a whodunit?, but a “who-is-He?” Who is this Jesus who is baptized by John in the Jordan, who teaches with amazing authority and works miraculous wonders, who dies on a cross, rises again and ascends into heaven at the right hand of God? It’s not a mystery to you. The first verse of the Gospel tells you who He is. It says, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” You know from the very start who Jesus is: then, as you read through the Gospel, you watch for who people think He is, who they say He is. You watch for who gets it right and who gets it wrong. And you are often surprised and amazed at the results.
It’s not until the end of Mark’s Gospel that anyone gets it completely right. It’s a Roman centurion, who says, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” He says it as he stands at the foot of the cross. He says it while he looks up at the powerless, lifeless body of Christ hanging crucified. It’s an extraordinary confession of faith, to look at the corpse of Jesus and say, “I believe that that’s the Son of God.” But that is where Jesus most shows that He is truly the Son of God: as His dead, bloodied body hangs on the cross for the sins of the world.
Our Gospel reading for today is a turning point of Mark’s Gospel. Up to this point, Jesus has been quite cautious, almost coy, about revealing His full identity. From this time on, Jesus begins to teach His disciples very clearly who He is and what He has come to do. He begins to instruct them on what it means for Him to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, and what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
 So far, Jesus has been recognized as the Christ only two times. Very early in His ministry, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum when suddenly He is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. The demon cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:23-25). Jesus thus demonstrates that He has divine power over unclean spirits, even as He seeks to avoid any interest and amazement in His authoritative teaching and powerful wonders which might actually distract from His real mission.
In Mark 5, Jesus is on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in the country of the Gerasenes. Stepping out of the boat, Jesus is immediately met by a man with an unclean spirit. He lives among the tombs. And he’s so strong that no one can bind him, not even with chains. When he sees Jesus from afar, he runs and falls down before him. And he cries out with a loud voice: “What have You do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”
Jesus rebukes the demons, saying, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And then He casts the demons into a herd of pigs. At this display of His raw power, the townspeople beg Jesus to leave. As a primarily Gentile area, they do not have the false messianic expectations of many of the Jews, but they do display a superstitious suspicion and fear of anything divine.
Jesus recognizes that such people may be more willing to listen given a little time. So when the formerly demon possessed man begs Jesus to let him come along with Him, Jesus tells the man, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had mercy on you.” The witness of the man seems to work for many marvel at what Jesus has done for the man, and the next time Jesus comes into the region, He is heartily welcomed (Mark 7:31-36).
And so it is the devils who first recognize Jesus. And they try to put their own spin on Jesus’ person and work, before He has a chance to properly teach His followers. They want to imprint upon the people their own false impressions of the Messiah—His person and work—before He can, before Jesus can teach His disciples why the Son of God has truly come in the flesh—for the redemption of all people, for the forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation of all God’s people.
Sadly, St. Peter keeps this satanic streak going. Like the demons, he first identifies Jesus as the Christ and then takes Him aside and tries to tell Jesus what to do (or what not to do). So Jesus has to rebuke him: “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Jesus has just asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am,” and the disciples have given Him a range of answers—from John the Baptist to Elijah or one of the other prophets. Then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” Finally! The right answer! Peter’s got the person of Jesus right—He is the Christ, the Messiah whom God has anointed to save. What good news!
But Jesus tells the disciples to tell no one, because the people will still get the wrong idea about what He’s come to do. But for the disciples, it’s time for Him to fill them in. So He tells them plainly that the Christ has come to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes; He will be killed and after three days rise again.
Jesus' death on the cross for sin might make perfect sense to you and me; we hear it each week. But it’s a terrible shock to the disciples—so much so that Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Him. Dying on a cross is just not the sort of thing that the Son of God does. Crucifixion is torment and death, and the Christ is all about miracles and powerful preaching… right? So Peter, speaking on behalf of the other disciples tries to talk Jesus out of this plan that seems so insane.
Jesus rebukes him and says, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Did you catch that? Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” At this point, Peter’s confession of faith is the same as the demons’: they know who Jesus is, but they don’t want Him to go to the cross. Peter’s rebuke is really no different than the devil’s temptations for those forty days in the wilderness: both encourage Jesus to be the Christ without the suffering.
Now, I’ve little doubt that Peter’s motives are better than those of the devil or his demons, but we all know what highway is paved with good intentions. The simple truth is that both Peter and Satan are trying to prevent Jesus from dying for the sins of the world. But that is exactly why Jesus becomes flesh and dwells among us. He doesn’t have to become flesh to give us His Word—He’s been doing that through the prophets throughout the ages. He doesn’t have to become flesh to work wonders, either. He becomes flesh so that His flesh can be nailed to the cross, so that His blood can be shed, so that He can be the substitute sacrifice for the sins of the world. He becomes man to take man’s place and to be condemned for man’s sin. The cross is how Christ defeats sin, death, and the devil.
That is why it is vital to believe and confess both the person and work of Jesus, that He is the incarnate Son of God who died on the cross for our sins. It is not enough to say, “I believe in Jesus.” Even the demons and the devil believe Jesus is the Son of God, but they certainly do not believe in Him as their Savior.
Today you can find numerous opinions of Jesus just as wrong and just as devilish. Some seek to redefine the person of Jesus into one god among many, one son of God among many, a life-force, a life coach, or a nice man who was mistakenly crucified. Others seek to redefine Jesus’ work so that He’s all about social or environmental justice, communism, feminism, or hedonism. Instead of acknowledging Jesus for who He is and what He does, they want Him to meet their own desires and expectations and agendas.
But the devil is in the details. Because if you get the person or the work of Jesus wrong, then you don’t have faith in the Son of God who died for your sins; and if you don’t have such faith, you have no salvation. That is why the creeds we confess are anything but old, dusty, and irrelevant. In a world that wants to redefine the person and work of Jesus, it is never more important than now to keep saying what the Church has always said, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…”
We give thanks that, in a world that so dearly wants to distort Jesus, He preserves His Word so that we might know who He is and what He does for our salvation. We give thanks for preaching “Christ and Him crucified.” The cross is central to our theology. It is only through the lens of the cross that we get a proper understanding of who Jesus Christ truly is and what He has done for us.
And same goes for His Christians. The cross shapes and defines who we are and what we do. Therefore, Jesus says: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34).
But what does this mean? It sounds like a call to suffering, doesn’t it? “Jesus suffered on the cross for your salvation. Follow in His footsteps. Take up your cross and suffer. That’s how you’ll be saved.” But this cannot be! For this sort of devilish reasoning also denies Christ’s cross, and replaces it with a cross of your own making. If you must suffer to be saved, then you must do something for your salvation. And if you must do something for your salvation, then Jesus’ horrific suffering and death wasn’t enough to get the job done.
So then, what does it mean to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him? Consider these words from St. Paul, in Galatians 2: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Paul speaks of bearing a cross, but it’s not his own. Having already suffered for Paul’s sins, Jesus shares His cross with Paul. He gives Paul the credit for His suffering and death. This is what it means to take up your cross. It means that Jesus makes His cross yours. He gives you the credit for His suffering and death, so that you don’t have to suffer and die for your sin.
But how? How does Jesus make His cross to be your cross?  Paul answers in Romans 6: “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (vv 3-4).
There you go. In Holy Baptism, Christ gives His cross to you. He shares His death with you and He shares His resurrection with you. In Baptism, you have already died to sin because there Jesus shares His death for sin with you. As His baptized child, you already have eternal life. You still face physical death, yes; but that’s only because your body hasn’t quite caught up with you yet. You’ve already died to sin because Christ joined you to His death.
And here’s the thing. For you, it didn’t hurt one bit. It felt like a splash of water to the head, because it was a splash of water to the head. Your Baptism, your death to sin, didn’t have to hurt you—because Jesus suffered all the hurt for your sin 2,000 years ago. He gives you the credit for His cross, but He does not pass on the cost because He has made the payment in full.
So let’s return to Jesus’ words: “If anyone would come after Me, He must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” This is the life of a Christian. In your Baptism, Jesus placed His cross upon you. Now, daily you deny yourself. In other words, you confess your sins. You confess that, like Peter, you prefer the things of man to the things of God. Then you take up His cross. You trust that, because Jesus has placed His cross on you, the Lord does not hold your sins against you. God looks at you and says, “I see My Son’s cross on you! I see that your sins have been paid for by Jesus, so I will not make you pay again.”

That’s why it has long been the custom of Christians to make the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is a way of declaring your salvation. Jesus has made His cross to be yours, so that you do not have to suffer for your sin. It is a reminder of all the gifts given to you for Christ’s sake in your Baptism—forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins (+) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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