Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Finger of God

Third Sunday in Lent
March 3, 2013
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus casts out a demon. The man was mute, unable to speak. It goes to the core of who we are as human beings that we communicate. For most of us, this of course happens with talking. Those who are unable to speak find other ways to communicate. Without being able to talk, you lose something of who you are as a human being. Right before Luke tells us of this man in whom Jesus casts out the demon, Luke tells us of Jesus giving the Lord’s Prayer and His teaching on prayer. He concludes with these words: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
There are two spirits. There is the Holy Spirit and there is the evil spirit. Satan is the power behind all evil spirits and demons. Without the Holy Spirit we are bound by Satan. This is helpful for us to understand because most of us in our country don’t quite know what to do with demon possession. The closest some of us might expereince it is in seeing Hollywood’s take on it in a movie.

What we learn from the account of the man in our Gospel reading who was demon-possessed and from Jesus’ teaching that follows is that what that man experienced is exactly what we experience today. The form it takes may be different, but it’s no less Satan at work. Immediately after Jesus taught that our Heavenly Father desires nothing more than to give us the Holy Spirit when we ask Him, we are told of a man who could not speak and who was deprived of the Holy Spirit. He was under the power of an evil spirit.

Jesus has come to bring what the Heavenly Father desires to give. So Jesus casts out the demon from this man and he is able to speak. Jesus gave this man the Holy Spirit, replacing the evil spirit. Understandably, the reaction by the people was that they marveled.

But after spending any amount of time studying the four Gospel accounts we know well that there’s always more than just people being amazed. There’s always those others, aren’t there? Those who look at the dark side. Yes, what Jesus has done is spectacular, no doubt. We don’t deny it, but how is it that He has cast out this demon? Could it be that He has done so by the prince of demons? Could it be that Jesus is a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

There were those religious leaders, ever present. Always warning the crowds against Jesus. People, do not be swayed by Him. He’s a miracle-worker, but one whose power comes from the evil one himself. Any man who claims to be God is in fact the opposite. And so the religious leaders warned the people. Never mind that what had just happened to that man was a good thing! Never mind that they had just witnessed something that up to that point for that man couldn’t be done! If the hymn says, “I was blind, but now I see,” this man was now saying, “I was mute, but now I can speak!, I was possessed by an evil spirit, but now I have been given the Holy Spirit!”

The religious leaders were under that same power the man had been under. The man was now freed from it, the religious leaders refused to believe that they needed to be freed from the sway the devil had over them. And so they did what any person who is wrong would do and who is staunch in their position, they accused the other person of exactly what they were guilty of. They, as Jesus said on another occasion, were offspring of Satan, and so they logically concluded that Jesus was the one who was under the power of Satan and operated by the power of Satan.

Some of them took a slightly different approach. It’s an irony of life that some very serious things end up coming across as humorous, such as those who, in order “to test him,” as Luke tells us, “kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.” So, what exactly was it they were hoping to see from Him? It’s almost laughable that upon Jesus miraculously healing a man of his demon-possession and being mute, that these people are seeking a sign. Prove to us that You are who You say You are, Jesus. Well, He had just done that, hadn’t He? Yes, He had, but these people weren’t really seeking that at all. They, as Luke says of them, were testing Him. They were actually trying to prove the whole thing about Jesus doing what He was doing by the power of the devil.

Jesus knew their thoughts. He knew what was deep in their hearts. He knew that they were digging in and holding to their own righteousness and raging against the freedom, the righteousness, the true peace that Christ had come to bring. If Jesus could do that—cast out a demon—to that guy, what does that mean for me? It means I have to be beholden to Jesus. It means I no longer call the shots. It means He does. And the religious leaders weren’t going to have any of that.

Sadly, it’s how we think of Jesus today. If He gets rid of what’s ailing me, I’m beholden to Him. He calls the shots. It’s no longer my way. This is true, in its way. But the thing we don’t understand is that this is a good thing. We don’t see that, because like that man who was demon-possessed, an evil power holds sway over us. You may not be demon-possessed, but you don’t need to be. Satan has you right where he wants you. He is perfectly happy to hang out in the background and let the world and your sinful nature do all the work. He works in concert with them. He doesn’t mind at all if you don’t think twice about him. It is his design to bring you down, and however he does that, he’s fine with that. If it’s your sinful nature ignoring the very real effects of your sin, he’s done his work.

Satan is evil incarnate, but he is smart. Jesus says as much, as He shows the religious leaders the illogic of their charge against Him that He casts out demons by Satan himself: “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. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” Satan is devious in that, he’s not concerned about how you’re brought down, so long as you are. He will not work against himself. That’s why you always need to be aware that it’s the devil, and also the world, and also your sinful nature that are constantly attacking you.

It’s striking the power Jesus ascribes to those who do not believe in Him. There are those who don’t believe in Him who are indeed capable of miraculous acts. In the Old Testament reading Pharaoh’s magicians were operating head to head with the plagues Moses and Aaron brought about by the command of God. That is, up to a point. Pharaoh had been becoming more and more smug as each plague came about and his magicians matched them. Why should I believe in your God, Moses and Aaron, when my magicians can do the same things by my gods? But there came a point where their ability to bring about the miraculous, which was done by the power of Satan, came to an abrupt halt. No longer able to match what Moses and Aaron accomplished, the magicians spoke in awe to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.”

How like the people in the Gospel reading were to Pharoah. Met with the power of God in the face of the power of Satan, and their hearts were hardened. They dug in all the more, holding on to that power they received directly from Satan. Jesus said to them, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The Kingdom of God was coming in the midst of Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron, but Pharaoh rebelled all the more against the Triune God. The Kingdom of God was coming upon those people in the Gospel reading in the person of Jesus, but they dug in their heels. They would have no part of Jesus.

The overwhelming power belongs to God. The overwhelming grace of God is poured out in Jesus. Satan knows this and so entices people with anything that will take their sights off of Christ and onto anything other than Him. Satan knows he’s powerful. As Jesus says of him, he is a strong man and guards what is his. But Satan knows who is more powerful. And so, as Jesus says of Himself, “when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” Satan puts up a fight, as we see from those who dig in their heels, who continue to reject Jesus as Lord and Savior, but Satan cannot win.

Satan cannot overcome the power God brings about in His Son. Satan, the evil spirit, cannot overpower the Holy Spirit. Satan was unable to prevent Jesus from casting out demons. He was unable to stop Jesus from taking on Himself the sin of the world. Satan will try to plague you with thoughts of guilt, that your sin is too great for God to forgive you, but Satan cannot undo what has been done. Your guilt has been removed. Your sin has been atoned for. The finger of God was on display when all was dark and seemed hopeless, as Christ hanged on that tree, weak and seemingly helpless. Satan appeared the strong man, the conqueror who vanquished his enemy the Triune God. How great a victory Satan thought it when the plan of God was in sending His only-begotten Son into the world, and He died. He died! Could things have turned out any better for Satan?

Forsaken of God, left to die on the cross, Jesus was alone. There was no power here on display. No casting out of demons. No raining lightning bolts down from the cross on his evil captors. Just a weak man, nailed to a cross, and going to His death. This is the ultimate problem with Satan, and with us. We think that the best way, the most powerful way, the way we want, is the way that corresponds to our sinful nature, and the way the world operates, which is in power, and finally, the way of Satan, which is the way of the self, the way of making yourself out as god rather than submitting wholly to the one true God. God shows, on the other hand, that His ultimate power isn’t to be found in proving that He’s got power by casting out demons and giving voice to those who can’t speak.

He shows His power in His Son. He comes, and the Kingdom of God comes with Him. When He does things, the finger of God is at work. Even when it’s suffering for the sin of the world. When it is Him at His weakest, Him in His apparent downfall. It is at the cross that God shows you who He really is and what kind of power you need. You need forgiveness. You need the Holy Spirit. You need salvation. You need Baptism, in which you receive the Holy Spirit and are brought into new life. You need the Kingdom of God to come among you in your Lord coming to you in His body and blood.

This is what you need. This is what you get. It is what He gives. To you. Now and forever. Amen.


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