In the summer of 1983, when the threat of nuclear war seemed very close at hand, the movie WarGames was released, starring a young Matthew Broderick as a high-school computer hacker who accidentally sets off just such an event. He thinks he’s playing a war game against a computer, but in reality he is instructing a very powerful military computer program to launch actual nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviet Union.
At the climactic final scene, David, military officials, and the reclusive computer programmer are watching, seemingly helpless, as the computer appears to be seconds away from launching nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviet Union. Suddenly David has an idea. “Make it play tic-tac-toe,” he says.
The computer plays tic-tac-toe. Over and over again, game after game, computing faster and faster, until it announces its findings:
Strange game, it says. The only winning move is not to play.
And that is the triumphant message from a text in Revelation that has the potential to seem dark and frightening.
War broke out in heaven, we are told, Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
Here at the end of the Scriptures, we are drawn back in a circle to the very beginning. In Genesis, the serpent beguiles Eve and Adam in the garden, and as a result, all humankind loses immortality, and death and sin become a part of the human journey. So now in Revelation, we are told of a war in heaven and the dragon, the serpent, the devil falls from heaven to earth, taking with him sin and darkness and death.
From beginning to end, in other words, sin and darkness and death are a part of all our lives. But when we play the game – when we grant them dominance – we fall as well. The only winning move is not to play.
Every decision we make, every word we speak, every action we engage in, every encounter with another person – we make the choice for darkness and death or we make the choice to follow the path of light and life. We do not have to let the dragon win. Why? Because the dragon has already lost.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them!
In the beginning, in the Garden, the serpent is turned loose on the world of humankind. But here at the end of all things, we are told, in the final battle, goodness defeats evil. Light triumphs over darkness. And love wins.
Knowing that truth, knowing that the ultimate victory goes to life and light and love, how do you and I live as a result of that promise? The readings for today tell us.
In the book of Daniel, an angel visits the prophet and says, Do not fear, Daniel. There is a further vision for those days. At that time, Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise.
At a time of anguish, the angel says, your people shall be delivered.
Strange game, the computer says. The only winning move is not to play.
And in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reminds his disciples: I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 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. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, Jesus tells his disciples. To do that is to miss the point. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
You and I do not have to live our lives as the world would dictate. We do not have to submit to the siren call of popular culture, which worships wealth and celebrity and celebrates scandal and rewards reprobates. Because of the victory of Christ our Savior, who is on our side, we have already been shown the way of light, the way of life, the way of love.
I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
Pope Francis has described Satan as “the prince of this world,” whose work, whose daily temptations, begin “like a trickle of water.” They then grow “by infecting others and in the end [they] justify [themselves].”
Each day, each minute, with every word we speak and every action we take, every time we encounter another person, you know and I know that we have a hedge of protection around us, one that helps to keep out the daily temptations of the prince of this world. To reject the ways of the world and to walk in the light does not mean to be judgmental and superior when you and I see someone making different choices. Instead we are invited to live humbly, with glad and generous hearts, in gratitude for the knowledge of the promise.
On this Festival of St. Michael and all Angels, I invite you now to rise for the prayer to our church’s namesake.
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.