Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent - Oculi - Lk 11:14-28

                                                                                                Lent 3
                                                                                                Lk 11:14-28

            “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Abraham Lincoln lived at a time when the language of the Bible was part of American culture.  Speakers could allude to biblical passages and phrases, and expect that their hearers recognized they were doing so.
            Lincoln’s words were based on what Jesus says in our Gospel lesson, and in the parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark.  He spoke them in 1858 at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield as he argued that the United States could not remain partially free and partially slave holding.  The Dred Scott decision had declared that a black individual was not a person who could be an American citizen, and therefore couldn’t sue in federal court for their freedom – even if taken into a state where slavery was not allowed.  It also stated that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery on federal land that had been acquired after the original creation of the United States.  It is a helpful reminder that yes, the Supreme Court does make huge mistakes.  It is not some kind of infallible arbiter of truth.
            Lincoln made the speech as he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination to run for the U.S. Senatoe.  The speech launched his campaign in which he ran against Stephen A. Douglas.  Lincoln and Douglas went on to debate seven times around the state of Illinois. The third of those took place just south of us in Jonesboro.  It interesting to note that while these words are famous, the campaign they initiated failed.  Lincoln lost to Douglas – one of many failures in his life.
            Lincoln was of course correct.  The nation couldn’t remain divided part free and part slave.  He didn’t express himself in the exact form that the words occur in our text where Jesus says: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste.”  However, this is certainly what happened.  In bringing about an end to this division there were 1.1 million American casualties and at least 620,000 deaths.  The south was the setting where most of the battles and the movement of armies took place, and it was devastated – a fate exemplified in the destruction wrought by Sherman’s march to the sea from Atlanta to Savannah.
            In our text this morning, Jesus takes a point that is common sense and applies it to the spiritual reality of what is happening in his ministry. He refutes the charge that he is in league with the devil.  Instead, the exact opposite is happening.  In his ministry, Jesus is the presence of God’s reign that is overcoming the devil.
            Our text begins by telling us, “Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled.”  Now obviously it was not that the demon was mute.  Instead the oppression by the demon prevented the man from speaking.  Jesus cast the demon out of the man, and when the crowd saw it, they were amazed. 
            Luke’s Gospel emphasizes how Jesus did signs and wonders, such as casting out demons and healing people.  These miracles did two things.  First, they freed people from a form of the oppression that Satan and sin had brought into the world.  And second, they bore witness to Jesus.  Jesus performed the kinds of miracles that the prophets in the Old Testament had done – especially Elijah and Elisha.  They showed that Jesus was a prophet. But he was not just any prophet.  He was the great prophet like Moses whom God had promised – the One to whom the people were to listen.
            The people were amazed.  How could they not be?  But we learn that some there said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.”  Beelzebul was another name for the devil that was present in first century Judaism.  These people attempted to discount Jesus’ miracle by saying that Jesus was actually cahoots with the devil!  He was some kind of spiritual “double agent” who appeared to be working against the devil by casting out demons, but in fact really was on the devil’s side.
            Jesus immediately rebutted the accusation and pointed out its absurdity.  He said, “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 argument was just plain dumb.  The history of the ancient world was filled with kingdoms that had been brought low because of internal division.  Nobody intentionally fights against himself.
            And then Jesus raised a different possibility – the true one.  He said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  Jesus used the same phrase that we hear in our Old Testament lesson today.  When the Egyptian magicians were not able to replicate the miracle that Moses announced, they knew that they had encountered something that was beyond them. They said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.”
            Jesus announced that if it was by the finger of God – by the power of God – that he was casting out demons, then there was one inescapable conclusion: the kingdom of God had come upon them. As many of you know by now, when Jesus referred to the kingdom of God, he was not talking about a place.  Instead he was referring to God’s action – to the reign of God that was present in Jesus to free people from Satan, sin and death.
            As the One who brought God’s reign, Jesus had the power.  And he was using that power to overcome the devil.  He went on to say, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.”
            The bigger, stronger man wins.  We see this in football all the time.  It is an impressive sight to see an offensive line dominating the game as the team runs the ball again and again.  They blow the defense off the line, and linemen get down field to lay crushing blocks on defenders as the offense marches the ball down the field and takes what they want.
            Jesus says that he is casting out demons because he is the stronger One.  He is the One in whom God’s reign had arrived.  Jesus had been anointed with the Spirit as his baptism. And then at Nazareth in the very first sermon in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus read the words of Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
            Jesus came to proclaim release to the captives of sin and to make this freedom a reality – to free us from enslavement to Satan.  The problem is that we have a tendency to forget what he has done … or at least to overlook it.  We get so busy doing all the things we do in the world that we lose our spiritual glasses.  We fail to see that our existence is lived in the midst of a winner take all spiritual conflict.  You belong either to Jesus or to the devil.  And though you have been freed by Christ, the devil is making every effort to get you back under his control.  He is working every angle – and our culture today gives him so much stuff to work with. He doesn’t want you to think about life in these spiritual terms because then you make for a much easier target.
            On the other hand, Jesus instructs and commands you to recognize this.  He does so because he loves you dearly and has paid an incredible price to free you.  I mentioned earlier that in Luke’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is a prophet – the great prophet like Moses promised by God.  But here’s the thing about God’s prophets in the Old Testament – they suffer and they die.  Jesus had come to be the ultimate example of this.  He came to be far more than just a prophet because he is true God and true man.  He came to be the suffering Servant – the One numbered with transgressors in order to take your place and receive God’s judgment against your sin.  On the evening of Easter Jesus said to the disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
            This is what Jesus did as the anointed One to win freedom for you, people who were captives of Satan and sin.  And then in Holy Baptism he delivered this freedom to you.  He caused you to be born again of water and the Spirit.  He washed away your sins.
            You received God’s reign through baptism and the Word.  It was by the finger of God that Jesus cast out the devil as your lord because of his death and resurrection.  And now, in the face of an enemy who still wants to control you, you continue to need God’s saving reign.
            This too is something that we are prone to forget.  God has given his Means of Grace.  He has given us the Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Certainly God could have given us just one.  But instead he has given us multiple Means of Grace.  He has surrounded you with a variety of ways by which he forgives sins and strengthens faith.
            Yet this abundance should also lead us to the recognition that God thinks we really do need it – we really do need to be sustained in the faith.  We live in the ongoing struggle against the old Adam within in us.  We face the continuing battle against the devil and the world.  The devil wants to use every means at his disposal to separate you from Christ and bring you back under his control.  And you know what?  Most of those ways seem easy. They seem pleasant and enjoyable. They are, after all, the broad path that leads to destruction.
            It is for this reason that God has given us all of the Means of Grace.  He has given them to deliver the forgiveness won by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He has given them to nourish and strengthen us in the life of faith – to keep us as his own. 
            And it is through these means that the Holy Spirit leads and enables us to live as those who are on the winning side.  You received the reign of God that Jesus Christ brought into the world. The power of God’s reign has freed you from the devil. And now that same power is at work in you so that you can seek to live like you belong to Jesus.  



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