Exodus 8:16-24 / Ephesians 5:1-9 / Luke 11:14-28
Pharaoh’s magicians knew when they had met their match. They could not mimic the miracle of the gnats, for they did not serve the God who gives life and who calls into being which does not exist. They tell their master flat out: “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh will not listen to them; his heart was hardened. He would persist in resisting the will of the God of Israel, even to his own great hurt and the near ruin of his land.
Even as in today’s Old Testament reading, where a miracle brought some to faith and others persisted in their unbelief, their refusal to heed the words of God, so in today’s Gospel. Our Lord Jesus performs a great miracle, releases a man who had been kept mute by a demon by driving the demon out and setting the poor man free.
As the formerly mute man begins to speak, some marveled. No doubt their thoughts ran to the prophet Isaiah and how he had foretold that when God would come to save his people, “then shall the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, them shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.” Surely, they said to each other, we are living in the days the prophet foretold. Listen to that mute man now sing for joy to the Lord, his Healer!
But others, seeing the miracle, did not smile and rejoice; they frowned and scowled. “You know how he’s able to cast out demons?” they asked. “I’ll tell you: he’s in league with them! He’s made a pact with Beelzebul, the Lord of the flies, the prince of the demons. He’s Satan’s pawn.”
Others, then, thrown into perplexity by the contradicting opinions begged him to make it all clear by some sign from heaven, something to show that he really was on the side of God and not the demons.
Our Lord is positively amazed that folks can even think such thoughts. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” As though he said: “Open your eyes people. Does it look to you like Satan has a civil war going on? No way. He’s got you just where he wants you. He wants you miserable, afflicted, torn down and discouraged. He wants you fearful and doubting and fighting each other as though YOU were the enemy. His army is in lockstep formation; they’re not about to break ranks with him.”
“And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.”
No, it’s not a civil war in the demonic realm that Jesus’ coming among us has triggered. Rather, it is the case that Satan, that strong man, fully armed with his lies that he has sold us completely, was guarding his palace, and thinking that we were all safely his. Until one day a stronger than HE showed up on his doorstep - that would be our Lord - who proceeded to attack him, to overcome him, to take from him the armor of his lies and expose them for what they are, and then to divide his spoil - to release those he had kept in prison. No, not civil war among the demons, but a divine invasion of demonic territory by the Stronger Man. St. John would put it like this: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:8
But Jesus warns that the unclean spirits do not easily give up their prey. Rather, when driven forth, they are in misery and seek a way to return to their human host. And should they come back and find their host with house swept and put in order, but not filled with the Stronger Man, they bring a bunch of their buddies and move back in with a vengeance. “The last state of that person is worse than the first,” Jesus said.
No, it is not enough that Satan be driven out. Baptism surely accomplishes that, as its liturgy confesses and the Word of God promises. But Satan must not only be driven out, he must be kept out. And the only way for that to happen is when the demon rings the doorbell, for you to ask the Stronger Man to go answer the door. If the Stronger Man, the Lord Jesus, dwells in you, then you have nothing to fear from the demons.
A woman in the crowd cried out: “Blessed the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!” She was thankful for the Lord and His teaching. But the Lord comes back with a surprise answer: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” That was no put down of the Blessed Virgin - for if there is one thing St. Luke reveals about Mary it is that she loved, treasured and kept the Words spoken to her. The Lord is rather pointing the way to how HE may dwell within us: He comes with His words.
Where the Words of God find a home inside of you, the Lord Jesus finds a home in you, and His Father. Did He not say: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him”? Jn 14:23 So on this Third Sunday in Lent, the Church would remind her children that only when the Stronger One lives within us can the evil one be kept at bay. Then we will not be like those Paul spoke of in the epistle, who lose the inheritance that was given in Christ because they invite the demons back in through their sexual immorality, impurity and covetousness. Instead, we who once were darkness get to be light in the Lord, walking as the children of the light, as He who is the Light makes His home within us.
Here at the Eucharist He who loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God upon Calvary’s tree [epistle], comes to us to fill our lives with His own forgiveness and divine life. Here the finger of God touches us still. Here the Kingdom of God comes upon us, and the Stronger Man whom Satan is no match comes to dwell among sinners to set us free, to keep us free, to keep us His. Forever. Amen.