Lent 3, Oculi
✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
We usually think of Lent as a time to meditate on the suffering and cross of our Lord, and that is true. But the Gospel readings for Lent actually focus even more on spiritual warfare with the powers of darkness. These 40 days are very much like the 6 weeks of military boot camp, training to fight the ancient enemy. The first Sunday in Lent recounts Our Lord’s temptation by Satan in the desert for us. Last Sunday Jesus healed the demon-possessed daughter of the Canaanite woman. And this Sunday our Lord is casting out another demon, and then He is accused of being in league with Satan. Lent is about battle.
The Pharisee’s charge wasn’t quite as strange as it may sound to us. They were right in recognizing that something supernatural was going on here. There are only two options: either Jesus was casting out demons by the finger of God or He was doing it by the power of the devil. The idea that Jesus was simply a kind man, a wise rabbi who was trying to show us a better moral way is just not a possibility in Scripture. The Pharisees recognized that something real and serious was going on. There were only two options. Jesus was either a prophet of the God of Abraham, or he was promoting something that was of the devil.
And what is true for Jesus is true to this day of all prophets, all ministers, and all religions. If someone is not worshiping the Holy Trinity, they are worshiping the devil. For in truth there are no other gods. There is only the true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who together with the Holy Spirit is one God. Everything else is merely an impostor. The pharisees speak of “Beelzebub” which was the name of a Canaanite god, Baal. They call him ruler of the demons. Jesus doesn’t mince any words and calls him “Satan.” There are no other gods, no other ways, no moderate middle. If you don’t worship Jesus you worship the devil, even if it’s simply by being an agnostic. Jesus says, “He who is not with Me is against Me.” So even though the Pharisees were completely wrong, even though they accused Jesus of casting out demons by Satan, at least they realized what was at stake, what the options were. In that, they were mostly ahead of us.
Let this be to us a call to repentance. For we have so often played the mild-mannered Christian, more distressed about cruelty to animals than we are about abortion, more worried about the honor of the American flag than we are of our God, more expert in the things of this world than in God’s Word, that we’ve nearly forgotten what is real and what truly matters and what’s at stake. We’ve preferred the good opinion of our pagan neighbors to their salvation, not wanting them to be annoyed with us or to think us odd. We want to fit in and play both sides. But here is the truth: You either belong to God or you belong to Satan. Those who think they sit on the fence, the undecided who choose the calm, middle way, are as delusional as those who think they can be a non-practicing vegetarian or that a woman can be sort of pregnant. Christianity is not just about being nice and moral; it is founded upon the death of Jesus alone. Fence-riders belong to the evil one whether they know it or not. Jesus spits them out of His mouth. It is written in Revelation 3, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
Don’t let the demons tempt you to be moderate and lukewarm about spiritual matters, about sin and forgiveness and Jesus the Savior. There is no middle ground on such matters, for there is no middle ground in eternity. And also don’t ever think you’re living in neutral territory. This world remains a battlefield where the enemy seeks to lure you over to the other side through sin and false belief. Every sin is ultimately a temptation to forsake the true God and love and trust in another. The Epistle reading speaks of how there is no place in the Christian life for crude joking, which seeks worldly approval and belittles God’s created gifts. It speaks of how coveting is idolatry, setting your heart on and putting your confidence in money and things. And it speaks of how no fornicator has any inheritance in the kingdom of God. To willfully engage in sex before or outside of marriage, digitally or literally, is to cut yourself off from the God who created marriage. This is no game. Be watchful and prayerful. Be on guard.
Jesus continues in that same Revelation 3 passage, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
In those words we begin to see the good news. God does not give up on you. God comes to you and seeks you out and calls you back to Himself. As you repent and turn back to God you are no longer a fence-rider, though you have been tempted that way to be sure. For you belong to the Lord; you are baptized. And that is no small thing, no minor detail. For Baptism casts out demons. God’s Word and Spirit in the water drives them away. You will not be spewed out of the Lord’s mouth as you hold onto the words that proceed from the mouth of God.
So do not despair. Do not be afraid. Weak as you are, Jesus made Himself weaker. He made Himself a perfect target for all of Hell’s fury. He drew all their hatred, all their violence, all God’s wrath into Himself. He was stronger than the strong man precisely in His weakness and poverty, in His death. He disarmed the strong man by suffering all the strong man’s strength and attacks. Jesus emptied him of every ounce of poison he had, and now the devil has no strength left. He is spent; he is done. He used everything he had to kill Jesus on the cross. And there is no more. It is finished. He has no more accusations. The demons are mute in heaven’s courtroom. The blood of Jesus that they shed damned them to Hell. For they tried to consume Him and destroy Him. But whoever consumes the Body and Blood of Jesus in an unworthy manner is guilty of the Body and Blood of Jesus. They have their wages and their payback. They are judged and condemned. Jesus could not be consumed in that way. He broke the jaws of those beasts that tried to devour Him. And so you are declared innocent and holy. There is nothing left to do, nothing left to prove. You are pardoned. You do not have to face the charges the demons lay against you. There are no witnesses to accuse you. You are released from the power of the accuser, Satan. God does not recognize or remember your sins. You are free. You are forgiven and welcomed as the rightful heir and the beloved of the Father.
Isn’t it marvelous how our Lord works? The strong man is defeated by His own tactics being used against him! It’s worth rehearsing this every Lententide: The devil brought sin into the world by tempting the virgin Eve; and so the Lord brought forgiveness into the world by being born of the virgin Mary. The devil first overcame man by a tree, and so the devil is overcome by the tree of Christ’s cross. Satan bruises Christ’s heel, but with that same heel the devil’s head is crushed. Christ’s blood, spilt at the hands of the evil one, is precisely what pays for and takes away your sin, and therefore it also takes away the power of the devil to accuse you and hold you captive. It is written in Hebrews, “The Son of God Himself likewise shared in our flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime held in bondage.” Christ has divided and conquered Satan’s kingdom by the power of His holy cross.
Now it is true that the devil is still roaming about this earth seeking someone to devour. He is real and he is dangerous, but as long as you are in the refuge of Christ, you are safe. For you belong to God. His Name is upon you in baptism. His promise will not fail. He has not forgotten what He has done, whom He has declared you to be. You are given to hear the Word of God. Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it, holding onto it in faith. For that Word is powerful to drive out the demons, to declare sinners to be a saints. And you are given to eat the Body of Jesus. You drink His Blood. This miraculous eating and drinking is not done in rebellious unbelief like the demons, but in faith. And so as you consume Him you are given to share in the life of Him who conquered the grave. This eating and this drinking proclaims the glorious, life-giving death of Jesus. It proclaims the kind of death He died: a death to end death, a death that stands in for us, a death that draws us to Him, that destroys the gates of Hell, and shuts the devil’s mouth. This crucified One will come again. For He is truly alive in the body. He gives Himself as food and drink for your body and soul, to make you whole, to make you His. In this eating and drinking, He consumes you with His love. The Lord joins you to Himself. You are at one with God, in communion with Him. All that is His He gives to you; His righteousness innocence, blessedness, His good works. Everything. It is a sign of His love for you and a foretaste of things to come.
So, it can also be said of you: blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which nursed you; but more than that blessed are those who brought you to the font, that you might be born of God in the body of Jesus. For in this way, the Stronger Man became your refuge. The demons cannot have you. You belong to the Lord.
✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to David Petersen)