Sermon for Lent 3 – Oculi
Luke 11:14-28 + Exodus 8:16-24 + Ephesians 5:1-9
It’s serious business we have before us today. That’s always true, of course, when sinful people like you and I come into the presence of the holy God. But now in the season of Lent, and especially in the Gospel and in the Propers today, we’re confronted with just how serious things really are. There is a real battle being waged, all around us, and also within us, the forces of darkness vs. the forces of light, the kingdom of the devil vs. the Kingdom of God and of his Christ. The battle is raging all the time; it’s taking place right here, right now. You and I are in the middle of it, and the question before us today is, where do you stand? Whose side are you on? All of you who have been baptized were washed by Christ out of the devil’s kingdom and into his own. All of you, when you were baptized, confessed your faith in Christ, your allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. It’s time to ask, is that indeed still your faith? Is it still your confession and your allegiance? The Gospel gives us great comfort in Jesus’ victory over the devil and in his zeal to free sinners from the devil’s influence. But it also includes a warning. Understand from today’s Gospel what it means to be freed from the devil.
First, understand, there can be no alliance between Christ and Satan.
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work, and today is the third Sunday in a row in which we see Jesus doing just that. He stood up to the devil’s temptations in the desert. He makes quick work of the demons. The ones who give him the most trouble are the people who think they’re on God’s side, but in reality, are Satan’s slaves.
The devil really does have his own army, an army made up of both demons and humans, some willing allies of the devil, some his slaves without even realizing it. When Jesus cast the demon out of that mute (and blind) man (as Matthew tells us), many were amazed at Jesus’ power and authority over the demons. But some of them whispered in the crowd that it was by “Beelzebub, the prince of demons” that Jesus was driving out demons. “Beelzebub” means “Lord of the flies,” or “Lord of the dung heap.” It seems to be a derogatory title for the devil, given to him by the haughty Jews who assumed that they were far too god-fearing to be bothered by the devil. And since they assumed they were on God’s side, and they didn’t like Jesus’ message, they whispered in the crowd that Jesus and Satan must be allies, and so Satan has given Jesus power to cast out demons.
But Jesus knew what they were saying. And he explained to them how absurd it was to insinuate that Jesus and the devil were allies. The demons and the devil were allies. Jesus was the one fighting against the demons – and winning. If the devil were turning on his own demons – firing on his own army, then his kingdom would be a joke, because Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined. No, Jesus says, Satan’s kingdom is no joke; on the contrary it’s dangerous and deadly. And Jesus points out to these Pharisees the irony of their accusation. It seems that they sent out their own exorcists to try to get rid of these demons, but their exorcists weren’t very successful. Who was really on God’s side? Those who claimed to be but had no power over the demons, or Jesus, who claimed to be sent from God and cast the demons out each and every time, with nothing but a word. If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.
Only the Son of God could do what Jesus was doing. Satan, he says, is like a strong man, well-armed, with a well-guarded house full of treasure. Only a stronger man can beat him. Jesus is that stronger man. Only he can free prisoners from Satan’s control and give them their life back. Only he can break a person’s alliance with the devil and bring him into God’s kingdom. He and he alone can do it, because he is the Son of Man, the promised offspring of the woman who came to crush the serpent’s head. Sin is what gives the devil power over mankind. But Jesus came to bear the sins of men and pay the redemption price on the cross, taking away the devil’s right to accuse and torment those who trust in Jesus.
But, you see, that means that those who fight against Jesus, who speak evil of him and don’t want to be on his side – for as much as they claim to be on God’s side, they are in reality in league with the devil. For as much as they claim to be free men, they are really still captives in the devil’s kingdom.
That includes all the very religious people of the world who deny the doctrine of Christ as the only saving doctrine. It includes all those who fight for their god, but if that god isn’t Christ Jesus, then they still fight on Satan’s side. It includes all the secret slanderers within the Christian church, too, those who may speak highly of Jesus but who condemn the pure gospel, who speak ill of faithful pastors and preachers when they preach the truth, who persecute faithful Christians for following Christ. These people are serving Satan, not Jesus. They aren’t free from the devil. Their alliance with the devil has never really ended.
Understand what it means to be freed from the devil. It means you cannot remain neutral. Some of the people in the crowd on the day Jesus healed the demon-possessed man spoke up, demanding a sign from heaven to prove that Jesus was promoting God’s kingdom and not the devil’s kingdom. Jesus had an answer for them, too, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.”
Notice, these people didn’t care at all what the Holy Scriptures said about the Christ. They were blind to all the miracles Jesus did in God’s name, even these miracles of casting out demons. None of it mattered to them. They were going to sit on the fence until they heard God speak directly to them from heaven, to tell them which way to go.
Today many people try to stay neutral when it comes to Jesus. They don’t accuse him of being evil, they’re just not ready to follow him. These are the Enthusiasts, as the Lutheran Confessions call them, who will never be satisfied with the Word of Christ, never convinced, always skeptical, always doubting – unless they have a personal experience to push them in one direction or another. “Let’s just all get along,” they say, “and not worry about this doctrine or that doctrine – you can’t know which teaching is right or wrong anyway.”
But there is no such thing as “neutral” in the battle that’s being waged between the devil’s kingdom and Christ’s kingdom. You can’t “sit it out.” All those in Christ’s kingdom actively fight alongside him. If you’re not fighting with Christ then you’re fighting against Christ. Apathy and indifference toward God and toward your brothers and sisters in Christ is even more destructive to the soul than outright rebellion. This includes those who come to church out of habit but not out of conviction, those who come to socialize but not with the urgent purpose to confess sin and receive absolution and to support their fellow members in love. It includes those who were baptized long ago but are not zealous to bring others to be baptized, those who have no interest in gathering with Christ. And by not gathering, they end up scattering. These are the ones who have fallen into neutrality, but as Christ reveals, there is no such thing in his Kingdom. Those who are neutral are really fighting for the devil.
Understand what it means to be free from the devil. It means a heart will be occupied with the Holy Spirit and his fruit. Jesus describes – as only he can – what happens with a person who has been freed from a demon. The demon goes out and wanders around for awhile, but will then go back to the one who has been freed. And if the demon finds a heart that is empty, swept clean and in order, a heart that is not occupied by the Holy Spirit, then the person who has been freed will not remain free for long. The demon will return and will bring seven more demons even more wicked than himself and make that person’s life a true living hell, even worse than before.
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. He had freed us from the devil’s kingdom by suffering the torments of hell on the cross, by rising from the dead and by calling us to faith through the Gospel. But to be freed from the devil does not mean that the fight is over. It means that, for you, the fight has just begun. Christ has not freed us so that we can serve no one. He has not freed us so that we can keep living like children of darkness. On the contrary, there should not be even a hint of the devil’s reign in your life, not even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving … For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.
Understand what it means to be free from the devil. It doesn’t mean that your sinful nature – the devil’s constant ally – goes away. Your sinful nature will still rear its ugly head each and every day and fight for control over your words and actions. A Christian will struggle. A Christian will sometimes fall in weakness, but immediately sorrow over his or her sin and repent of it. If that is the case with you, then you still remain free from the devil’s accusations and control by faith in Christ.
But it’s when the struggle doesn’t take place that the light fades into darkness. It’s when you let sin have free rein in your life, when you live in bitterness and anger, when you stubbornly and knowingly keep on sinning, live in it and refuse to humble yourself in contrition – that’s when the Holy Spirit leaves and the demons return and you fall captive again into Satan’s kingdom.
So, you see how serious this business is of faith in Christ, and the battle that is being waged for your soul. The devil fights to win. He’ll work hard to turn you against the true doctrine of Christ. He’ll battle to lull you into sleep, apathy and neutrality so that you don’t care about the true doctrine so much anymore. He’ll struggle to keep you from living as children of the light.
But Christ fights to win, too. His very incarnation as the God-Man spelled defeat for the devil. His blood shed on the cross redeemed mankind from the devil’s right to accuse and control. His resurrection from the dead took away death’s right to keep you a prisoner. And now he is very serious about calling you to repentance and to faith in the Gospel, calling you to fight side by side with him as he takes on the devil’s kingdom and grows his Church through the preaching of the Gospel. Christ is very serious in his warnings, because he does not want the devil to succeed in deceiving you. He sends you back to your baptism for comfort. He invites you to his Holy Supper for peace. And he calls on you to get serious about his Word – Blessed, he says, are those who hear the Word of God and keep it. That’s what it means to be free and to remain free from the devil. Let the words of today’s Introit be your words every day. “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.” So be it, by the power of Christ. Amen.