Third Sunday in Lent

One Way or the Other

Saint Luke 11:14-28

If you’ve been attending the Wednesday evening Lenten services, you will have heard that, not only is there a point in the earthly life and ministry of our Lord Jesus where He “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” that is, He steels Himself and presses on with great determination to the Cross and the culmination of His mission of salvation, there also corresponds to this, a great increase in opposition to Jesus from the devil and from those in thrall to the devil. Last Wednesday I said it’s like a switch had been thrown and the gloves are off. We see an example of this in today’s Holy Gospel, of how those opposing Jesus will say anything to discredit Him, even something so incredibly ludicrous as saying that Jesus is actually in league with “Belzebul, the prince of demons,” otherwise known as the devil.

At the same time as such opposition to Jesus is ramping up, support for Jesus is also growing—at least it seems that way. Saint Mark tells us that great crowds from all over—“from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and [Edom] and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon”—are following after Him. Some, most likely, like the disciples, follow Jesus because they believe He is, as Peter confessed, “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The rest, however, don’t know quite what to make of Jesus. Is He John the Baptist, back from the dead after being killed by Herod Antipas? Or maybe the prophet Elijah, or one of the other prophets of old? They don’t know. But what they do know is that Jesus can do some amazing things. The sick are healed and demons are cast out. So while some follow after Jesus with real faith and devotion, others follow for the spectacle and show.

We see this also in today’s Holy Gospel, for when Jesus casts out “a demon that was mute,” meaning a demon who had left a man unable to speak, some, “to test him, kept seeking from him signs from heaven.” They want Him to do more incredible feats to further amaze them. Their desire may seem innocent enough, compared to those who accuse Him of being on the side of the devil, but they, too, stand opposed to Jesus. We cannot look at them, or others like them, and charitably think that they stand on neutral ground. This is why the Gospel writer clearly points out that they sought more signs from heaven to “test” Jesus. They are of the same spirit as another who put Jesus to the test in the wilderness after our Lord had fasted for forty days and forty nights. No, they are most definitely not neutral, for as Jesus says to them, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” There is, and can be, no neutrality when it comes to Jesus. If you’re not for Him, you’re against Him.

In the same sentence and with the same breath, Jesus adds, “and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” With this, He reminds them of Old Testament Scripture in which Israel is described as a flock of sheep, often beset by false prophets who would scatter the people with their false teaching, to send them off into the way of destruction. He also reminds them of the gracious promise of God to send a true Shepherd to gather the sheep unto Himself and care for them. Jesus tells them that He is this Shepherd come from God.

Jesus speaks to the crowd about gathering with Him or scattering, about being with Him or against Him, after He addresses and deals with the accusations made against Him that say He comes not from God, but from Beelzebul. He makes a number of points to refute their allegation.

First, He says, “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?” In other words, if Jesus were indeed working in concert with Satan—on the devil’s behalf—He would surely not be driving out demons. It would be like a king hiring a mercenary army to fight against his own army! It doesn’t make any sense!

Secondly, Jesus asks His accusers, “if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” We know that it isn’t just Jesus who is casting out demons back then. His disciples have also done so in His name. And there are others through whom God is also working, and yet none of these others are being accused of being on the side of the devil. Furthermore, since these others know that Jesus’ actions are by the power of God, just as are their own, “they,” Jesus tells His accusers, “will be your judges.”

Therefore, our Lord concludes, “if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” With this, He refers to what we heard today about Moses besting the magicians of Pharaoh in a contest of miracle working. The magicians admit that the power Moses displays comes from the “finger of God.” Thus, if Jesus casts out demons by the “finger of God,” it is because He is the one spoken of by Moses, who told the children of Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” In Christ, this promise is fulfilled, and, as Jesus says, the kingdom of God has come upon us.

To illustrate everything He’s been saying, Jesus tells the crowd a little story in which there is a “strong man, fully armed,” who “guards his own palace,” and, for a time, keeps “his goods … safe.” But then, along comes “one stronger than he,” who attacks the strong man, “overcomes him,” and “takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” Essentially, dear friends, this is a little parable, for it relates spiritual, heavenly truths in terms familiar to this world. Also like a parable, this story requires faith to perceive and understand the heavenly truth imparted by it. Without faith, one might look upon the stronger one as a villain who unjustly attacks the nice strong man in his palace. This is how the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees see Jesus. They consider Him a villain, an outlaw who has come to do war against God in His palace. But God is not the one in the story’s palace. That one—that strong man—is the devil, who, with the weapons of lies and deceit, had taken, as his own, goods that did not belong to him. The devil took you and me and all of humanity as the spoil of his war and rebellion against God. He held everyone captive with chains of sin and unbelief—chains that he forged when the world was young with the tempting and fall of our first parents—He held us prisoner until Jesus, the “one stronger than he,” came to set us free by triumphing over that old evil foe.

Isaiah had foretold this. The Lord anointed him to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed,” and that the one who would do this would prevail in the battle by being made “an offering for sin.” Indeed, it is as the Lord God decreed through the prophet, “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus, in the triumph of His cross, divides the devil’s spoil, meaning He takes a portion—those who believe—and He takes them to “be His own, to live under Him in His kingdom,” as Luther says, “and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

So then, with the false allegations against Him properly refuted, and the truth brought to light and illustrated with the story, Jesus tells the assembled crowd what it means to have the kingdom of God come upon them. He confronts everyone with two alternatives—two paths that lie before them because of His coming. These two ways were prophesied by Simeon at the temple, when he beheld the infant Jesus and he said to Mary, “Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” These are the two alternatives—either to fall because of Jesus or to rise because of Jesus—either to believe and trust in Jesus and be saved, or don’t, and come to learn how that has brought you only death and everlasting damnation. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” The Word of Christ is most certainly true!

Our Lord Jesus follows this up by adding that there is one more thing needed. As well as being with Jesus and gathering with Jesus, one must also stay with Jesus. Again, He illustrates this point with a little story about an unclean spirit and the house from which the unclean spirit has been evicted. That house is you, dear friends, and the unclean spirit is the devil. Before you were baptized, before you were given faith to believe and trust in Jesus for your life and salvation, the devil hung his hat in your heart and completely ruled the roost of your life. But then came Jesus, and through the water and Word of Holy Baptism, He cast out that unclean spirit, replacing it with a clean spirit—with the Holy Spirit, in fact. And this is how you are to remain.

As one who has been cleansed of the devil—your life swept and put in order—you are accepted by God the Father; you are a part of His kingdom and His own dear child again. This is the reason why Jesus “poured out his soul to death” for you. And this is why He continues to do everything to keep you as a devil-free zone—to keep the “no vacancy” sign burning brightly in you so that the devil does not return. This is why he offers His gracious forgiveness in such abundance to you through His Word and Sacraments.

This is also why Jesus warns you of what will happen if, through impenitent sin and unbelief, you turn your back on the blessings of salvation that He freely offers and gives. If you no longer gather and remain with Jesus, the devil will return to you. Jesus pictures this as the unclean spirit of His story not only returning, but bringing roommates along—“seven other spirits more evil than itself.” And Jesus adds, “And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” It’s not impossible for faith and salvation to come again, “for nothing will be impossible with God.” But sadly, it is unlikely. So keep that in mind as you set priorities in your life.

Hearing all that Jesus has to say, “a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed’”—a nice thing for her to say, right? Jesus, however, replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” With these words, Jesus does not disagree with the woman or take away any honour rightly due His mother Mary, but rather puts things back into the proper perspective by emphasizing that faithfulness to the Word of God is what really matters. For it is through the Word of God that we have faith and are saved. God keep you always with His Word, dear friends, in the way of righteousness that leads to life everlasting, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.