Thanks to our field worker, Seminarian Matthew Fenn, for preaching today’s sermon.
14 Now [Jesus] was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” 16 while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. 18 And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; 22 but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
24 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
27 As he said these things, 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!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (ESV)
In a New York Times article, a University of Notre Dame philosophy professor wrote a provocative article: “Forget the church; follow Jesus.” He suggests that the moral and ethical standards taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere are the important takeaway from Christianity. No church, miracles, or theology is required. He claims that Jesus needs to be understood apart from “dubious theology and corrupting politics that have plagued the history of the church.” This is not a new idea. Many non-Christians over the centuries have taken this position. Thomas Jefferson once called Jesus’ moral teaching, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.” Even atheist Richard Dawkins has said, “Jesus was a great moral teacher.” Is it enough that Jesus be a good teacher?
I. Conspiring with the Crowds
Controversy surrounding the identity of Jesus is nothing new, and we find such a controversy in our Gospel reading. While Jesus was on his way towards holy week in Jerusalem, He cast a demon out of a man, which had prevented him from speaking. Now casting out demons is not the kind of thing one can do with the aid of artistry and technology like erecting a building. You cannot cast out demons by practicing long and hard like a musician or athlete. The only way someone could cast out demons the way Jesus did was by having power. That power had to come from somewhere. And the source of Jesus’ power sparked a controversy in the crowd. Some in the crowd thought they knew where Jesus got his power from: collusion with the Devil. Jesus wasn’t the type of messiah they expected, and so they claimed that Jesus’ exorcisms were all an elaborate ruse to get them to follow the Devil.
Some in the crowd attacked Jesus deliberately and maliciously. So also, many today do not find Jesus all that exciting either. Jesus the exorcist embarrasses modern Christians too. We know how to handle a teaching and preaching Jesus, but exorcism embarrasses us. Demons went out with the Middle Ages. We’re inclined to agree with crowds. People who begin to act like the world is overrun with evil supernatural beings belong in institutions. The biggest lie the Devil has told us is that he doesn’t exist. Those people who like to think that Jesus is only a great moral teacher, and never accept his claim to be God are faced with a dilemma. A man who was just a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a crazy person—on the same level as a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can dismiss him as a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as in league with the Devil or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. You can’t have the nice teacher, without the exorcist! Jesus claims to be the eternal Son of God, who has come to destroy the works of the Devil. Either he’s telling the truth, he’s lying, or he’s crazy. Those are you only three options.
So also, many today conspire with the crowds to have Jesus the exorcist put away. And there is a danger for us also. Many who claim to be Christians deny that Jesus performed miracles, and some even deny that he rose from the dead. There’s a temptation to not talk about all that miraculous stuff, and stick to the “love your neighbour” stuff. The pressure is to relegate Jesus to the position of life coach. Instead of our risen saviour, Jesus can become our therapist, our guru, the guy who tells us how to live our lives and the example we imitate. For all intents and purposes, we can live our lives like atheists, all the while pretending to be Christians. In so doing, we forget who Jesus really is, and why Jesus the exorcist and miracle worker is vital for our salvation.
II. Conquered by the Cross
The distance between the present and the past has allowed some to say that Jesus did not really perform these wonders or claim to be the Son of God. They attempt to relegate Jesus to the level of other greats of religion, just another good teacher. But the crowds living in Jesus’ time did not have the luxury of such a claim. They could not deny he had performed deeds of unusual power. Those who opposed Jesus took the only option left to them when faced with his supernatural power: they claimed that Jesus’ exorcisms were all an elaborate ruse to get them to follow the Devil.
If Jesus is colluding with the Devil, then that means that Satan’s kingdom has a civil war on its hands, and it isn’t going to last! Jesus’ response shows us that this isn’t a civil war, but a real war. There are two kingdoms, engaged in a bitter warfare! Either Jesus casts out demons by the power of the Devil, or by the power of God. One the one hand, you have the kingdom of the Devil. On the other hand, you have the Kingdom of God. There are no other kingdoms, nor any neutral territories. All who are outside the Kingdom of God are under the dominion of Satan. So, this war isn’t over land or power, but it’s over souls! A stronger ruler than Satan is laying siege to his fortresses and establishing another Kingdom! When Jesus drives out Satan’s minions, that is a victory for God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is at war with Satan’s Kingdom, and it is God’s Kingdom which is invading this world through Jesus!
Suppose you wanted to rob the house of some great big bruiser of a guy, a man with bulging biceps and rippling muscles. Only a fool would try to rob a guy like that without somehow taking him out of the picture, perhaps by tying him up. Only then could you go into his house and carry off his prize possessions. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” the dwarves cannot reclaim their treasure from the Lonely Mountain until they’ve taken care of Smaug the Dragon.
First Satan must be defeated; then his possessions can be plundered. His possessions, that’s you. You are the loot. Jesus is the one who has come into the world to steal the devil’s stuff. He never could have done that if he had not first tied the powers of evil in knots. Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection has bound the devil, tied him up, cast him down, all so that he could set you free from the Devil. Jesus allowed Himself to be bound tightly on Holy Thursday by Caiaphas’ men. He allowed Himself to be sealed up tight–not only in Joseph’s tomb, but in the bowels of death itself. He handed himself over to the power of the devil, and not even the Devil, not even the grave and not even death could not hold him. We are loosed because Christ was bound. You once belonged to the Devil, and now you belong to Christ. Christianity is not just about a set of ethical rules to live by. It is the proclamation that you have been set free from the Devil so that you live under Christ in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
The point of Jesus’ exorcisms, after all, was not simply to heal as many individuals as possible. If that were his aim, He wasn’t very successful when seen in the longer term. It isn’t to teach us how to be good boys and girls either. Rather, Jesus was bringing about God’s kingdom. And that same kingdom still comes to us today! The same Jesus who worked miracles and defeated the devil continues to do so right in this church. Through the Water and the Word in Holy Baptism, Christ comes to claim us as His own. Baptism is God’s way of adopting individuals into his family, the Church. Through Baptism demons are cast out and Christ takes up residence in the heart through faith created by the Word in the water. When the Devil throws ours sins in our face after we’ve seriously made a mess of things, we can confess our sins to a pastor and he will forgive us in the stead of Christ. In Holy Communion we receive the very blood of Jesus. This blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, and if we have the blood of Jesus and the forgiveness that it wins and delivers, then the devil has nothing to accuse us.
Jesus is not a crazy man, nor is he in league with the Devil. He is not a liar. He is not just a fine moral teacher. His claims are true. Jesus is the very Son of God who has delivered us from the Devil in Holy Baptism, and he is still casting out demons, by His Word of life and forgiveness. He has defeated the Devil. In his family, the Church, Christ continues to keep us safe from the devil through the Word, and for this we give Him thanks and praise.