Third Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The crowds are confused, as crowds often are, when a sort of mob mentality takes over and all previous rational thought goes down the sewer. When Jesus casts out a demon, the crowds respond by hurling accusations and innuendo. Perhaps there were one or two bad apples moving among them, inciting them to hatred for the gifts that Jesus gave. Perhaps a dangerous groupthink had possessed the crowds as much as the demon had possessed the individual.
Whatever the reason, the crowds confused supernatural activity for demonic activity. Jesus presented a healing that was beyond the arts of worldly medicine, and the people thought it was the devil. And He was casting out a demon, who was also mute. And it happened that, when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke; and the crowds marveled. But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, He is casting out demons.” And others, testing Him, kept seeking a sign out of heaven from Him (vv 14-16).
First of all, isn’t it ironic that the people demand a sign from Jesus immediately after He performs a sign? Not only did He cast out a demon with supernatural authority, but the details of the healing are dripping with symbolism. Jesus will unpack that in a bit. The people demand a sign from Jesus, apparently to prove that He was indeed sent from God, and not Himself possessed with secret, demonic power.
Of course, the sign that Jesus is from God is right in front of them, but they can’t see it. It’s not the supernatural phenomenon they witnessed, but the fact that Jesus stands against the work of the devil. But He, having known their intentions, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is desolated, and a household upon a household falls. And also if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? Because you say that by Beelzebul I am casting out demons” (vv 17-18). The devil does not stand against himself; he wouldn’t have lasted this long and caused this much havoc in the world if he were that clueless. On the contrary, the devil is a master tactician in his spiritual battle.
The crowd’s confusion makes them drop their guard for another kind of demonic activity. The demon possessing the man prohibited him from speaking, but there was another demonic activity at work in the crowd itself. The devil was very much at work in their very calm, lucid, and casual opposition to Jesus. Demonic activity is just as often—if not more often—plain, everyday, earthly opposition to Christ and His gifts.
The devil works in concert with human nature. He knows just how to poke and prod and goad the Old Adam to draw his hand back from the gift of God, as if it’s something that would harm him. Because it’s Satan’s chief work to lead us to false, believe, despair, and other great shame and vice. His aim and goal is to get you to refuse the gift of God, to dismiss it, despise it, decry it. He wants to you to demand a sign from God apart from the divinely given signs that are set before you.
The devil’s supernatural powers are great, but they only can ever be a crude imitation of the work of God. Like the magicians in Egypt, who could replicate the signs of Moses and Aaron to an extent, the devil can imitate the power of God. St. Paul writes, It’s no wonder, because Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). But the supernatural activity of the devil is only a distraction from his chief aim—to cause you to speak against God.
This is the devil’s strong armor, by which he would keep you under his spell. And it’s a confusion and delusion that is too hard to break by an act of the will. You can never convince someone that he is in Satan’s domain by reason; the crowds saw a devil go out of a man and still demanded a sign from Jesus. How do you break free of this demonic dominion?
You can’t. You need someone to free you. And if by the finger of God I am casting out demons, then the reign of God has come among you. When a strong man has been fully armed, that he may guard his own palace, his possessions are in peace. But if a stronger man than he comes up that he may conquer him, he takes away his complete armor from him in which he had trusted, and divides his spoils (vv 20-22).
The magicians in Egypt recognized the Finger of God as a power stronger than their own demonic power. But this phrase is not just an anthropomorphism, that is, a way to try to understand God by ascribing to Him a human characteristic. The phrase, “the Finger of God,” means precisely, “the Spirit of God,” as St. Matthew writes in his parallel account.
With this strong Finger, Jesus casts out the unclean spirit and makes room for the Holy Spirit. He, the stronger Man, defeats the strength of Satan and takes from him the spoils of war. And
You Are the Spoils of the Stronger Man’s Victory
Claimed for His kingdom.
As I said, the healing of the demon-possessed man is dripping with symbolism, and Jesus begins to unpack it for the crowds. First, the demon prevents the man from speaking, but he finds his voice when the unclean spirit departs. Then, Jesus explains what happens when an unclean spirit departs, as well as the danger of having an “open house.”
“When the unclean spirit has gone out from a person, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and when he does not find it, then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it having been swept and arranged in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself and after going in takes up residence there; and the end of that person is worse than the beginning” (vv 24-26).
The unclean spirit is cast out into waterless places. In Scripture, the wilderness and the desert are often depicted as the places of the devil. Dry, arid, lifeless. The curse of Adam realized. On the contrary, the Spirit of God is often found in and around water. In the beginning the Spirit hovers over the water. A supernatural wind blows back the water of the Red Sea. The Spirit descends on Jesus at His baptism. Jesus says that a birth from above is the birth of water and the Spirit. The unclean spirit goes where there is no water, but where the Holy Spirit is, there you can also count on finding water. Because water and the Spirit give life.
There is danger, though, if the place from where the unclean spirit left is left unoccupied. Cleanly swept, Jesus says. The unclean spirit finds his first home to be just the comfortably arid, waterless place he was looking for. And the last state becomes worse than the first.
In Luther’s baptismal liturgy, he included three separate exorcisms. Not spectacles like you see in Hollywood movies, but simple statements of fact. “Depart you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.” This short command was also a confession first, that all people are born with an unclean spirit by virtue of being born with sin. But Holy Baptism is the application of not just plain water, but water with God’s Word and command. It is truly a washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
In spiritual warfare, you are a completely passive participant. You are born with an unclean spirit—you didn’t somehow choose evil and fall from an initial state of grace. And it’s God in Christ by the power of the Spirit who casts out your unclean spirit and occupies you with the Holy Spirit. You are the spoils of Christ’s victory, which He won by shedding His blood to pay the debt you owe. But here’s the rub. The only way you become the loser in this battle is if you insert yourself into you.
That’s how the house becomes clean and swept. It’s to refuse the gift of God, like the crowds who refused to believe that Jesus was from God. Your house is clean and swept if you say, “Oh, I was baptized. There’s no need for me to confess my sins again.” “I learned everything I need to know in Sunday School; I don’t need to hear that preacher drone on and on again about the same old stuff.” “Yeah, I heard the Word of God. I don’t need to take the Sacrament unless I feel really, really bad about my sins.” This is nothing other than to say, “Depart you Holy Spirit, and make room for an unclean spirit.” Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
It is a spiritual, wonderful Word that Jesus speaks to the crowds. It is a spiritual, wonderful Word that Jesus speaks to you. One of the women was so moved by what Jesus said, she shouts, “Blessed is the womb which carried You, and the breasts at which You nursed” (v 27b). But that’s not the true blessing, to serve and nurture Jesus. Rather, the blessing is for Him to serve you, for Him to feed you.
But He said, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and guard it” (v 28). This is how you are occupied by the Holy Spirit—to be occupied with the Word of God—preaching, absolution, supper. Here the Word, believe the Word, eat the Word. Inwardly digest it. And you will be flooded with the water that flows from Jesus heart, the spiritual water of forgiveness, and the devil must depart.
In+ Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard