In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
The Lord knew that the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, would not let the people of Israel go unless he was compelled to do so. And so the Lord stretched out His hand and sent the 10 plagues upon Egypt. Beginning with the third and fourth plagues, the plagues of the gnats and the flies, the Pharaoh’s magicians knew that the Finger of God was at work. How? Because they couldn’t replicate them with their demonic arts. They tried everything they could from their little bag of tricks, but to no avail. The finger of God was working to bring His people out from their slavery and from the burdens the Egyptians had placed on them. The Lord was redeeming them to be His own and to dwell in the land He had promised to their forefathers.
And so by the plagues, by these great acts of judgment, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and the king of Egypt, the strong man, was overcome in his own kingdom by One stronger than him. And those oppressed by Pharaoh, those enslaved by the strong man, were led out of their bondage into freedom by the Stronger Man’s mighty arm through the waters of the Red Sea.
But as they gathered together with Him in the wilderness, many found that their last state was worse than the first. Even though they’d been miraculously delivered from oppression, even though they pillaged and plundered the strong man and his palace as they left–taking with them much silver and gold from the Egyptians as God directed–they quickly forgot the Word and Promise of the Lord. They grumbled and actually longed to be back in Egypt. They became idolaters, worshiping false gods and worshiping the true God falsely. And so the Lord scattered their bodies throughout the wilderness.
All this is the background to the Jesus and Beelzebub controversy in today’s Gospel. The Jews accuse our Lord of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, which in Hebrew means “Lord of the Flies.” Of course, they meant it as a condemnation. That he is casting out demons by the power of the evil one. That he is some trickster or snake charmer. That he keeps demons as pets so that he can get people’s money by winning their affection and praise.
But our Lord flips it on them. He asks them by whose authority then do their sons cast out demons? If Jesus is a trickster, so are they. And then He offers this warning: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” That is, if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then you’re dealing with the Lord, the one who sent gnats and flies for the judgement and destruction of Pharaoh. If it is by the finger of God, then beware, for that Lord of the flies will judge you too, just as he did to those who chased after false Gods and false worship, who rejected His Word and Promise in the wilderness. Jesus said, those who are not with me are against me. Those who do not gather together with me, where I am, scatter. For only those who hear My Word and keep it are blessed.
So what about you? You, too, have been rescued from your enemies, from the sin that enslaves you, through the waters of Holy Baptism. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the stronger man, has overcome the strong man of sin, death, and the power of the devil by His cross. For just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so also the Son of man was lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have everlasting life. By water and word, the fruits of His cross were delivered to you, and the demons, the unclean spirits departed, making way for the Holy Spirit.
But when Jesus gives the finger of God to the devil, the devil doesn’t just go away nicely. Satan is enraged, his heart is hardened, and he chases after you, as Pharaoh did with all his armies at the Red Sea. When the devil returns he doesn’t come back alone, but with some of his friends, to ensure that this time, he will not be overcome. And he always comes back at an opportune time. He waits for a time when you’re weak. And so you think you’ve cast out a particular sin–gluttony, drinking, lust and pornography, greed, anger and fear, doubt–then all of a sudden the demons are back in force and you find yourself caught up in that stuff even more awfully and dangerously than before.
Perhaps it’s because our great weakness is what we consider to be our strength. We think that we modern people are much more enlightened than ancient folk. At least the Pharisees understood that there is such a thing as demons, that evil actually exists, that it’s real, and that God has enemies. We, on the other hand, tend to look for natural, psychological causes, social reasons for our problems. And any mention of demons and devils, makes us think of fairy tales and ghost stories. And right there is Satan’s clever ploy. If you don’t even think he’s real, he can operate all the more freely. But remember this, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales don’t teach children that dragons and ghosts and demons exist. They already know they exist. Fairy tales teach them that they can be killed and how they are overcome.”
Let us never forget, then, that we’re in the midst of a battle, unseen, but very real. For if we ignore that reality, we’ll become indifferent to the things of God. If we pay little attention to the reality of sin and Satan, we’ll also pay little attention to Christ and the Gospel. And then we’ll get caught up with the world’s imaginary versions of good and evil, where it’s all about politics and and social justice and political correctness. We’ll become more concerned about so-called “tolerance” than faithfulness to God, about tax rates more than abortion rates. We’ll be more worried about our kids and grandkids growing up to be happy and successful than that they grow up to be good and devout. We’ve nearly forgotten what is real and what really matters. But here is the truth: there is no neutral territory. You either belong to God, or you belong to Satan. You either gather together where God and His Word is, or you scatter. You are either with Him or against Him. That’s what Jesus says here; there’s no middle ground. Those who choose the “enlightened,” middle way of moderation are deceived. They belong to the enemy.
Our only defense in all of this is Jesus and His Word. He alone is our refuge and our mighty fortress. In Him there is absolutely nothing that can harm us, nothing that can separate us from God’s love. The devil would like you to think that he’s a god alongside the true God. But he’s not. He’s just a fallen angel–powerful and dangerous to be sure–but nothing more. He claimed authority over you through sin. But now in Christ who has taken away your sin, the devil is beneath you. You belong to Jesus. Through Christ Satan is underneath your feet. For Christ crushed His head with His own bruised heel. In Christ you are restored to your proper place as human beings, with dominion over all creation, including the demons.
Jesus is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man. He 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 also outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil, turning the devil’s own weapons against him and utterly destroying him. Jesus deceives the deceiver. He 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. It is written in Hebrews 2, “The Son of God Himself likewise shared in our flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime held in bondage.”
Now, therefore, you are no longer slaves; you are free. Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated. Christ the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of goodness and righteousness and truth. Our Lord has cast out our unclean spirits at the baptismal font and made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit. And if you have strayed from your baptism, foolishly thinking you could co-exist with the demons, then return to the font in repentance and faith. For the demons must flee from you there. They cannot stand to be in the presence of Christ. He is the One who welcomes you back, speaking His powerful, forgiving words into our ears. He is the One who feeds you with His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify you and fortify and strengthen your spirits. Gathered together with Jesus in His church you are safe and secure from the crafts and the assaults of the wicked one.
“Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” Just like our Lord’s mother, we too are blessed as we cling to the Word made flesh, as we hold to His powerful, life-giving words. For just like Mary, we too carry the Lord’s physical presence in our Body as we partake of the sacrament of Holy Communion. And we too hold the Lord in our bosom, you might say, as the Word of God is preached into us and rests in our hearts. Blessed are you who hold to God’s Word and abide in it. For no lasting harm can come to you from the evil one. 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, and to the font, pulpit, and altar where your salvation is given to you personally. 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 on the Last Day.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
(With thanks to the Rev. Jason Braaten, whose sermon notes were adapted for much of the above.)