✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
C.S. Lewis once observed that when it comes to the Devil, there are two mistakes we can make. One is thinking too much of him, and the other is not thinking enough about him. Some people conceive of the devil almost as being equal with God, when in fact he is merely a fallen angel, very powerful and utterly evil to be sure, but a creature nonetheless. People become terribly frightened of the devil and forget that his rebellion has been crushed under the heel of Jesus, who died and rose again in victory over him. However, others don’t give the devil any thought at all. They think of Satan as the stuff of fairy tales, at best a figure who is only symbolic of evil, but not a literal being. They forget that the devil’s goal now is to lure people away from the safe refuge of Christ Jesus; and if Satan can do that by making people think of him as nothing real, just a Halloween caricature, all the better.
But I would add that there’s a third mistake we can make which, in a way, combines these first two mistakes. And it’s something even many Christians do. We know as believers that there’s more going on than what the eye can see, that there is a spiritual realm beyond the simple grasp of our five senses. But too often, instead of listening to God’s Word on this subject, we embrace all sorts of superstitious beliefs that also have the effect of doing the devil’s work. And in particular what I’m talking about here is our pop culture’s belief in ghosts and spirits. Whether it’s a belief that loved ones who have died are still roaming the earth and interacting with us in our lives, or whether it’s something more sinister and spooky, like spirits of the dead haunting buildings, far too many Christians are open to this false belief rather than hearing and holding to God’s Word.
Here is what Scripture says: It is written in Ecclesiastes 12 that when someone dies, their spirit returns to God–plain and simple. Hebrews 10 speaks of how it is given to man to die once and then the judgment of heaven or hell–certainly no reincarnation or inhabiting of other bodies or anything like that. To the thief on the cross, Jesus said “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” And on and on it goes. Never in the Bible is there a period of time where the spirits of the dead are doing unfinished business on this earth before they can enter into the light or some other such nonsense. Don’t let Hollywood movie fictions or TV shows about the supernatural and communicating with the dead and ghost hunting and prankster ghosts and good or evil spirits of the departed–don’t let such things lure you into foolishness. It’s not true. In fact, it’s occult. Scripture speaks about attempts at communication and interaction with the dead as wicked and an abomination. It’s in the same category as witchcraft and sorcery.
For in the end, while most of this is the stuff of hoaxes, if people really are having contact with a supernatural being, it’s not the spirits of the dearly departed, it’s demons that are at hand. It can’t be human spirits we’re talking about according to Scripture. It can only be angels or demons. And angels almost always do their work unnoticed. For it is their joy to glorify God and to draw you to Christ as they watch over you. These mighty creatures that God created in the beginning (who never were and never will be human beings, btw)–these mighty creatures would never distract you or draw you away from Jesus and His Word. But demons on the other hand, that’s all they want to do. And if they can get you to dwell on this mysterious occurrence or that supposed haunting or some supposed appearance of a deceased spouse or relative, then that’s right up their alley, for then you’re being distracted from God and His words. People think they’re being “spiritual” by doing this, when in fact they’re just engaging in another form of foolish unbelief. That’s why I say that this sort of silly superstition combines both mistakes C.S. Lewis spoke of–people are giving too much attention to the occult at the same time that don’t even realize they’re doing so. For the devil likes to come in disguise, even as an angel of light.
Again, it is the goal of the devil and the demons to lure you away from the safe refuge of Christ to something else, anything else, and to keep your attention there away from the Savior. And if Jesus is center stage, then they’ll try to pervert and distort who He is and what He has said. That’s what happens in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus casts out a demon, and what do the unbelievers say? That somehow He did this good by using an evil power, the power of Beelzebub, another word for Satan. This is the way of the wicked: to call good evil and to call evil good–we see that all the time in our culture. The devil is a liar, and like an obnoxious politician at a debate, he’ll do whatever he can to try to shout over the truth of Jesus and to keep you from trusting in Him. Our Lord does not cast out demons by Beelzebub. He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the satanic strong man with nothing but a finger, the finger of God, which is the power of His Holy Spirit.
Jesus is warning us here to be vigilant about our ancient enemy. For once an unclean spirit (a demon) is cast out, if he gets the opportunity to return, he will do so–and it will be even worse the next time. This is why the Church generally doesn’t baptize a child unless the parents are committed to teaching the child the catechism, the Word of God, and making sure the child is brought to God’s house. For baptism is truly a form of exorcism. Luther’s ancient baptismal rite begins this way: “Depart unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.” It is not enough to baptize a child, only to have his tender faith starved by parents who deprive their son or daughter of God’s Word. In such a case, it is better not to put a target on the child’s back in the first place. Christians are to be continually on guard against the evil one by being devoted to the Word of God and prayer.
A good deal of Jesus’ ministry involved battling unclean spirits–and his body, the Church, continues to wage the battle against lying, satanic spirits. Now demon-possession may indeed be extremely rare. Typically, the devil and the other fallen angels are more subtle, tempting us behind the scenes, working through our sinful flesh to drive a wedge between us and God, chipping away at the stone, gradually eating away at us until we are alienated from God and don’t even realize it or care. Remember that the devil’s ultimate goal is to take away your faith in Christ. And that’s best accomplished not by an obvious frontal assault but by deceptively trying to undermine what you believe, by planting doubt, by turning your attention to other spiritualities that appear holy but are devoid of the Gospel of Christ the crucified.
So how do we fight an enemy we can’t see? How do we guard ourselves against such a crafty enemy who is more powerful than we are? The answer, very simply, is to take refuge in Christ. For He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man. He is the One who not only won the victory for us in the wilderness, the Son of David slinging the smooth stone of the Word and felling the Goliath Satan. He is also the One who outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil and utterly destroyed Him through the cross. He turned the devil’s own weapons against him. Jesus overcomes the crafty one with His own divine and holy craftiness, sneaking into the devil’s kingdom of death, allowing Himself to be crucified, and then from the inside nuking and laying waste to the devil’s power, rising from the dead in glory on the third day.
Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated. Christ is the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of mercy and love and goodness. Our Lord has cast out our unclean spirits at the baptismal font and made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit. He has spoken His powerful, forgiving words into our ears. He feeds us with His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify us and fortify and strengthen our spirits. We come to this church week by week because we need it all the time, to be strengthened against the crafts and assaults of the devil and to be equipped to resist them.
There is only one way to be safe from evil: to be with Jesus, our fortress and our refuge. Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” We gather with Jesus right here. And like the mute person who was gagged by the demon, when Jesus casts out our demons, our tongues are loosed, and we give praise to God for his gifts. We are given to tell the marveling multitudes just who it is who has delivered us. And we can also raise our fists at the devil and give him the “finger of God” and curse him to hell in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The Epistle reading said: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Your days of being imprisoned to Satan are over. You have been released from your shackles and led out of the dark prison into the glorious light of Christ!
And this blessing from God is for all of you who hear and believe and hold on to His Word. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” Holding on to Christ’s words, you are blessed and you are safe. So if you are concerned or fearful about strange or unexplained experiences in your life, remember that all things are sanctified and made holy by the Word of God and prayer. At the name of Jesus, the demons must flee. Call upon His name, not only here in this place, but also in your homes. Read the Word and pray out loud so that both the angels and the demons can hear. God’s Word cleanses and blesses and makes holy. God’s Word sets you apart as His own, and it sets apart your dwellings as the place where God dwells. Don’t allow the things of demons into your homes, only the things of God. It used to be a common practice to have house blessings of Christian homes, especially when someone was just moving into a house. And on at least one occasion that I was involved with, when there were some unusual and frightening things happening in someone’s home, when the Word of God and prayer were brought to bless that house, those things stopped happening.
It is written that God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7). So cling to the Word of God spoken and given to you in your baptism. Let the words of God continually be in your ears and on your tongue. And be filled by the Holy Spirit with the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins. For the Scriptures say, “Greater is He who is in you (Jesus), than [the evil one] who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
And if you want to be close to departed loved ones, don’t try to do that in superstitious ways. Meet them instead at the altar. For if they died in the faith, they are with Christ, and Christ is here. Here is where the communion of saints is. Let the highest love of your heart always be fixed on Jesus. For through Him, nothing can snatch you from the hand of God. For on that hand of God are the fingers that cast out demons and that point you to the cross where your salvation was won. You have been liberated from all your sins by the Lord Jesus Christ. You are now free to walk in love as children of light. Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your feet out of the net, who conquers your enemy, and who will deliver you from all evil in the resurrection of the body.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠