Text: Luke 11:14-28
When I was a child, one of the most popular novels in the Christian circles in which I traveled was Frank E. Peretti’s This Present Darkness. The book is was probably one of the most important works of fiction to popularize, portray, and influence contemporary Christian ideas of spiritual warfare, depicting the conspiracies and crimes of a small college town as really being a manifestation of a bigger battle between angels and demons in the unseen world. While it’s been years since I’ve picked up the novel or its sequel, I distinctly remember it being a riveting read with all the literary excitement of decent fantasy or horror fiction. That said, depending on your church background, you may have experienced an approach to the idea of angels, demons, and spiritual warfare that looks more like a Peretti novel than the Bible!
As we reach our halfway point in Lent, you may have noticed that our gospel passages do indeed portray our Lord engaging in spiritual warfare. In the gospel from the first Sunday in Lent, we saw Jesus battling Satan after his forty-day-fast in the wilderness. If you remember the story, Jesus didn’t exercise any supernatural theatrics against the devil. Rather, he simply countered Satan’s temptations with the Holy Scriptures. He modeled for us a simple, yet powerful battle strategy that can be followed by any decently-catechized Christian. Last week we saw Jesus healing the demon-vexed daughter of a Canaanite woman. Not only do we not see any dramatic displays of power in this instance, but Jesus heals the child without even being in physical proximity to her! He simply assured her mother of God’s promises obtained by the mother’s faith. Throughout our Lenten passages we see that spiritual warfare is mostly about combatting the lies and temptations of the Enemy with Scripture, prayer, and obedience.
In today’s passage we see Jesus casting out a demon and addressing the very concept of warfare with the devils. Turn in your bibles to Luke 11, beginning at the 14th verse (page 129 in your Prayer Book):
Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “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? 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. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
If you’re reading this pericope from the Prayer Book, you won’t notice this, but the passage that immediately precedes today’s Gospel in Luke 11 is the Lord’s Prayer and a teaching on how willing the Father is to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. That is, the immediate context of the chapter is a discussion of Christian prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray, we pray to the Father, and the Father gives us the Holy Ghost. Next, by the power of the Holy Spirit (for this is what the Fathers and Reformers believed Jesus meant by “the finger of God”), Jesus casts out a demon, but some of the people present accused him of casting out demons by Satan, whom they call “Beelzebul,” a term of derision that means “Lord of the flies” or “God of the dunghill.” In St. Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus tells his accusers that they are in danger of the unforgivable sin, “Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” That is, refusing to see the Holy Spirit at work, but instead attributing the Spirit’s work to the devil. So how do we recognize the Spirit’s work? How do we know when we are seeing the “finger of God”? And how do we walk in the Spirit as we make our Lenten journey, that journey that is so often characterized by spiritual warfare?
One thing evident from our Lenten gospels is that Jesus’ miracles are performed by the Holy Spirit. As we read all four Gospels, we see that a primary reason for Jesus’ miracles is to prove that he is indeed the promised Messiah, the promised Son of God. Satan would not cast out demons. Satan would not heal the sick. Satan would not raise the dead, and Satan would certainly not draw the lost sheep to their Good Shepherd. It’s easy to think of the miracles we see in the Gospels or Acts as being for the sake of the miracles themselves. After all, that’s how some who claim to perform miracles often treat them today. But always, they point to Jesus. When the Holy Spirit is at work, Jesus will always be glorified. Remember our Lord’s own words from John 15:26: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” The Holy Spirit points us, and others to Jesus. When Christians put the spotlight on themselves rather than on Jesus, when the things they claim to be the work of the Spirit bear no resemblance to the Scriptures through which the Spirit speaks and which point to Christ, you can be sure that they are not working “by the finger of God.” Conversely, when a Christian’s works point to Jesus and conform with the Scriptures, we can be assured that they are indeed by the Spirit, even if they are not dramatic or theatrical.
When Jesus went into the wilderness to fast and pray, to do battle with the devil by resisting temptation by means of the Scriptures, the gospel said he was led by the Spirit. The same is true for us. Satan will not lead us to prayer or self-denial. Satan will not lead us to resist temptation. But the Holy Spirit will. Indeed, it is by the Spiritual disciplines that the Lord trains us for battle, strengthening us for the inevitable fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
A few nights ago, I was particularly grumpy (sinfully so, to be honest) as I was looking at all the ways I needed to play catch-up in my personal, professional, and pastoral life. It’s funny how often the fruit of vacation is extra work! The main temptation coming my way was to skip prayer, skip my time in God’s Word, blow off my Lenten disciplines, ignore my family, all with the excuse that there was just too much to do. The temptation to self-reliance and worry, a temptation to which I confess I often succumb, seemed overwhelming. But the Holy Spirit reminded me through the voice of some mentors, past experience, and remembered Scripture, that my entire mental state was not from God, but was rather a temptation from the world, the flesh, and the devil. And after praying the Office (somewhat reluctantly at first, but with a much softer heart by the time I finished the Psalm), I found things to be in proper perspective. Yes, I had duties. Yes, things needed to be done. But God is bigger than the tasks, and my job was to seek him and his kingdom first.
I’m sure that many of you have many similar stories. Nothing dramatic. Nothing theatrical. But nevertheless, a true illustration of the Christian life being one of Spiritual warfare. We’re not called the Church Militant for nothing. The thing about spiritual warfare is that it cannot be done in our own strength. We must be empowered by Jesus, through the Holy Spirit; we must be fighting with Jesus’ strength. I’m reminded of the verse from Martin Luther’s seminal hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”:
Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right man on our side, The man of God’s own choosing;
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he;
Lord Sabaoth [that is “of Hosts,” or “of Might”] his Name, From age to age the same
And he must win the battle.
In our Gospel, Jesus spoke of the strong man being overcome by “one stronger than he.” The strong man is fully armed, guarding his own palace. That strong man is the devil, the strong man is Satan. His arms are temptations, and his palace is fallen humanity. But the stronger man is Jesus himself who overcomes Satan, taking away his arms and armor, and plunders his goods. St. Cyril of Alexandria says that Jesus has “hamstrung him and stripped him of the power he possessed.” When we are born again, baptized in the waters of regeneration, and turn to Christ in repentance, Satan has been overcome by our Lord Jesus. This is why we have a little exorcism with each baptism: the world, the flesh, and the devil are being hamstrung and stripped by God’s work, signified in the waters of baptism. Don’t try to fight temptation by mere willpower. You must have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, to be successful.
In our Collect for this week, we pray:
We beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against our enemies, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is God who is our defense against the enemy of our soul. And if we are truly humble, our “hearty desires,” the desires of our hearts, will be for the things of God’s kingdom. In the last verse of our Gospel, Jesus says “Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” We often think of keeping God’s word as being synonymous with obedience. But the Greek word used for “keeping” God’s word is the same word used for the strong man “guarding” his palace. That is, our hearty desires, our greatest treasure, the treasure that we guard with all our might, dressed for battle in the Whole Armor of God (as we read in Ephesians 6) is God’s word. By God’s word are our hearts transformed. By God’s word do we have his promises. By God’s word do we know our Lord Jesus. By God’s word do the Sacraments become more than mere bread, wine, and water. By God’s word is the spiritual warfare that is the Christian life, that warfare of which Lent is a yearly reminder, won, through the Stronger Man, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.