Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sermon: Oculi (Lent 3)

19 March 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 11:14-28 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis observed that when it comes to the Devil, there are two mistakes we can make. One is thinking too much about him, and the other is not thinking enough about him.

We see the first mistake when people become fascinated with the occult. Especially these days when our culture is pushing the New Age Movement and witchcraft – especially marketing it as “empowerment” for young women. If you take a look at the children’s and teenager section of one of the large bookstores, you might be shocked at what you’ll find.

For us, the second mistake is probably more common. We really don’t give the world of the “unseen,” (as we confess in the Nicene Creed) a whole lot of thought. We tend to think of exorcism as a strange ritual of the past, and may even fall into the trap of believing that when Scripture speaks of demonic possession it means nothing more than epilepsy or mental illness.

It used to be the custom of Lutherans to invite the pastor over to bless the home. This was traditionally done when a new home was bought, or if something horrific happened in our houses, or even just an annual visit. Such customs today may seem downright superstitious or quaint.

But let’s make no mistake, dear friends, there is a devil, there are demons, there is evil. And while we Christians have nothing to fear from the devil, being that he is held back from harming us, it is equally true that he lurks about like a lion seeking prey. We ought not make either of the mistakes Dr. Lewis points out.

In our Gospel reading, our Lord is casting out demons. And as usual, his critics get it wrong. They accuse him of exorcising demons by being a demon himself. Jesus points out the ridiculousness of this claim by a simple appeal to logic. The devil doesn’t cast out the devil.

Notice how Jesus says he is casting them out: by the “finger of God.” Isn’t this a curious expression? It appears twice in Scripture, in the book of Exodus. The first is in our Old Testament lesson. As the plagues are ravaging Egypt, Pharaoh’s helpless magicians tell the wicked king that “this is finger of God.” And later in Exodus, we are told that the stone tablets of the Law were engraved “by the finger of God.” In the first case, exercising his power to overcome evil, and in the second, God is making his Law known to man, so that evil might be exposed.

God’s finger both points out evil, and casts it out.

Jesus is likewise exercising divine power, and overpowering Satan by God’s Word. Remember our Lord’s temptation? What was his weapon to turn aside Satan’s darts and arrows? Holy Scripture, the very Word of God.

Jesus warns us about the need to be vigilant about our ancient enemy. For once an unclean spirit is cast out, if he gets the opportunity to return, he will do so – and it will be even worse next time. This is why the Church won’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 (which is being restored in the new hymnal) begins with an exorcism: “Depart unclean spirit, and make way 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.

Some may find such talk about the forces of evil, unclean spirits, demons, and Satan to be the stuff of fairy tales. But dear brothers and sisters, evil is very real. All we have to do is look around us. All we have to do is look to our own flesh. All we have to do is observe that accidents and natural disasters occur, that sickness and disease are all around us, and that we all die.

A good deal of Jesus’ ministry involved battling unclean spirits – and his body, the Church, continues to wage this battle today. Indeed, exorcisms of possessed people are rare – but they do happen. Typically, the devil and his minions 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.

So how do we fight an enemy we can’t see? Fortunately, “for us fights the Valiant One, whom God himself elected,” the Valiant One who has already defeated Satan at the cross, the Valiant One who calls us out of darkness and exorcises our unclean spirits at the baptismal font, the Valiant One whose sacrificed holy Flesh and Blood are given to us to sanctify us and fortify us against the crafts and assaults of the devil.

And this champion, our Lord Jesus, fights on our behalf by giving us his very Word, his holy scriptures, the Gospel proclaimed and preached by his ministers, the glorious gifts of absolution, baptism, and the Lord’ Supper. We come to this church week after week to be strengthened against the devils and to be equipped to resist them.

There is only one way to be safe from evil: to be with Jesus. Listen to our Lord’s preaching in our text: “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 devil, when Jesus casts out our demons, our tongues are loosed, and we can thank and praise God for his gift. We can tell the marveling multitudes just who it is who has delivered us. We can also raise our voices and our fists at the devil, and curse him to hell in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Only in Christ can we obey St. Paul’s exortations in our epistle lesson. For notice that Paul says: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” That was then, this is now! Our days of being imprisoned to Satan are over. We have been released from our shackles and led out of the dark prison into the glorious light of Christ!

And this blessing from God is for all of those who “hear the word of God and keep it.” For as the woman shouts to Jesus, his Mother Mary is truly blessed. She is blessed by the very presence of Jesus in her womb and at her breast. As the Blessed Virgin sang (and as the Church continues to sing): “All generations shall call me blessed.” Indeed, the Mother of God is blessed by her Son’s real physical presence in her body. And notice what our Lord says. This blessedness is not only for St. Mary, but “more than that,” it is for all of us as well. For Mary is a type, or a symbol, of the Church, and the Church is indeed the pure virginal mother who, as Luther teaches us in the Large Catechism, gives birth to every Christian.

We too are blessed, just like our Lord’s mother. For we too carry the Lord’s physical presence in our Body as we partake of the sacrament of Holy Communion. And we too carry the Lord in our breast, as the Word of God is preached into our ears and rests in our hearts – fulfilling King David’s ancient prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

Dear brothers and sisters, if we abide in our Lord’s Word, no harm can come to us from the evil one. For nothing can snatch us from the hand of God, the fingers of which cast out demons and point us to where our salvation was won: the cross, and to where that salvation is distributed: the font, the pulpit, and the altar. “Though devils all the world should fill,” and no matter how persistent, crafty, sneaky, and hungry the old evil foe is, truly “they can harm us none.” For Satan is already defeated, “one little word can fell him.”

Having been liberated from all your sins by our Lord Jesus Christ, you are now free to surround yourself in his Word and to partake freely of his sacraments! You are now free to be imitators of God, free to walk in love, and free to walk as children of light.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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