Author Keith Hopkins entitled his book about the conversion of the Roman Empire: A World Full of Gods – The Strange Triumph of Christianity. The title is a helpful reminder that the ancient world was a world full of gods. Hopkins deals with the Roman Empire from the time of the first century A.D. However, his title applies just as much to the near eastern world during the two millennia before Christ in which our text takes place.
The ancient world was a world full of gods. Their existence was something that people took for granted and it was assumed that the larger issues of geopolitics were simply a reflection of the contest between the gods. So, if my nation conquered your nation, it was obvious that my god is more powerful than your god.
It is widely recognized that the Passover and the Exodus is a contest between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt in which Yahweh shows that he alone is the true God. For example, the sun god Ra is rebuked in the ninth plague as Yahweh brings darkness. And of course Pharaoh himself was worshipped as a god, and in the tenth plague of the Passover Yahweh kills his firstborn son.
In our text this morning we see the reality of Yahweh’s power begin to dawn on the magicians who serve Pharaoh. They recognize that in the events that involve Moses and Aaron, they have encountered something that goes beyond their power. It is the power of the true God which is present in the world. Our Old Testament lesson this morning helps us to understand better what happened in the ministry of Jesus Christ – and what continues to happen in the Church today.
When God called Moses at the burning bush, he said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Israel had been enslaved by the Egyptians, and Yahweh announced to Moses that he was now going to act in order to free them and return to the people to the land he had promised to Abraham. He sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’ If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.”
God sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh with this message. In order to demonstrate that Yahweh had sent them and that he meant business, God told Aaron to perform a sign. He cast his staff down on the ground and it became a snake. Pharaoh summoned his own magicians and they were able to do the same thing. We can’t lose sight of the fact that power of the demonic is very real. And yet Aaron’s snake ate the snake of the magicians.
Next Moses and Aaron turned the water of Egypt to blood and sent frogs on the land. In each case the Egyptian magicians were able to perform the same kind of sign. They were able to stay with the servants of Yahweh step for step in this contest.
Then, we learn in our text that Yahweh said to Moses, “
“Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.’” Aaron did so and the Egyptians were afflicted with gnats. Next, the Egyptian magicians attempted to do the same thing, just as they had on the previous three occasions. Yet this time, there were not able to do so. And in this experience, they recognized that there was something very serious going on. They said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.”
In many ways, things were much more straightforward when the world was full of gods. It made it easy for God’s people to see life in spiritual terms. The presence of the demonic wasn’t hard to spot – you could see it in the temples and processions of gods and goddesses like Cybele, Isis, Sarapis, and Artemis.
In time, the Gospel of Jesus Christ overcame all of these false gods. And then, around the year 1700, the devil began using a new approach. Through the intellectual movement we now know as the Enlightenment, he began to convince people that the world wasn’t full of gods. Reason became king, and all that talk about gods – including the God who revealed himself in Scripture – was dismissed as the superstition of a benighted past.
Through this shift, the devil has helped to create the world in which you live today. In a brilliant fashion he has hidden himself, even as he works in incredibly powerful ways. He has hidden himself, even as he tempts you to return to him.
He tempts you to submit to him by defining the good life in terms of what you have. He seeks to place you in a gilded cage as you perpetually strive for the money that will “allow you to be happy” – the money that will provide the house, the car, the clothes, the vacations you “need.” He tempts you with the new idea that you can only be happy when you use sex in ways that please you and define you. So have sex while dating. Live together without getting married. Define yourself as LGBT or any other letter you wish to use. He tempts you to create your own spirituality – to be “spiritual but not religious” – because in this “freedom” you are actually his slave.
The devil may be selling the idea these days that he doesn’t exist. But things have not changed. It is still a world full of gods. The names have changed but he uses all of these things as the means to enslave. They are all false gods because that which you consider to be most important; that in which you put your trust is your god. And any time you have a god other than the triune God, it is the devil who is your lord.
In all of these he uses sin to enslave, for sin separates you from the true God and places you under the devil’s reign.
In our text today we see God in the process of freeing his people from slavery. The Egyptian magicians recognize that they have encountered something different. They tell Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” Through the Passover, God forced Pharaoh to let his son Israel go. And when Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued Israel, God destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea as he brought Israel through the midst of it on dry ground.
The Exodus is the great Gospel event of the Old Testament. This dramatic action by God in rescuing his people from slavery points forward to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. In fact the language of redemption – of being redeemed from sin and the devil – is first used in describing the Exodus.
In the Gospel lesson for today we see Jesus in the midst of his saving ministry. Jesus has just freed a man from demon possession. Those who are critical of Jesus make the accusation, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” They say that Jesus only has power over the demonic because he is in league with the devil.
Jesus knew what they thought and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul.” The Lord pointed out the absurdity of saying that the devil was working against himself. And then he added:
“But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
Our Lord challenged them to consider another possibility. If as Jesus said, he was casting out demons by the power of God, then the saving reign of God was present in the person of Jesus. God’s end-time reign was present right there in their midst.
Anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, Jesus did cast out demons by the finger of God. It was God’s power at work in him that was turning back the forces of Satan, sin and death as he reclaimed individuals and creation itself.
The reign of God that was present in his ministry set Jesus on the path that took him to the cross. For there he received the judgment against your sin in order to redeem you and give you forgiveness. And then on the third day he rose from the dead in order in order to defeat death and begin the resurrection of the Last Day. Sin was defeated. Death was defeated. And therefore the devil has been defeated.
Jesus Christ carried out this saving work for you. And then he applied it to you through the water and the Word of Holy Baptism. In the water of baptism you were reborn by the work of the Spirit as God’s child. Now, for you, Jesus is Lord, not the devil. You belong to him, the One who died and rose again for you.
The final act, the return of Christ on the Last Day has not occurred yet. The devil knows that his time is short, and so he is the roaring lion who prowls around looking for someone to devour. He wants to reclaim you. He seeks to tempt you into sin and to draw you further and further away from Christ, until finally you are his once again.
And so the good news of the Gospel is that God’s reign is not something that was just there and then in first century Palestine. Instead, it is also here and now. For through his Means of Grace, Jesus Christ continues to keep you as his own. Your baptism into Christ’s death continues to be the means the Spirit uses to give you forgiveness and strength for living in faith. Through the audible word of preaching and through the visible word of the Sacrament of the Altar God’s reign in Christ is present here this morning, keeping you as God’s child. So rejoice in what God has done for you in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rejoice in what God is doing right now. Know that in Jesus and his gifts, the kingdom of God has come upon you.