The Finger of God

Text: Luke 11:14-28
Date: Lent III
+ 3/11/07

      In the little catechism we are taught that when the Christian prays “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are there asking God to break and hinder every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature that would get in the way of our preaching, hearing and believing God’s Holy Word by which alone we are saved. Again, the other side of the coin is when the Christian prays “And lead us not into temptation.” For there we pray for Godly defense against the devil, the world, and our sinful nature that wants to deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. These three—the devil, the world, and our sinful nature—describe all that would keep us or tear us away from the salvation and life of God. Certainly the devil, Satan, is the personal, powerful force behind it all with his murderous lies bent only on destroying us and all mankind. The world is his realm, his kingdom where he tempts people to worship and serve created things rather than the Creator. But ever since the fall into sin each and every person has even within his or her own flesh that rebellion against God that results in words, thoughts and actions like those listed in today’s Epistle. St. Paul calls our sinful nature “darkness” and the salvation of Christ “light.” In today’s Gospel we see what St. John called the Light shining in the darkness (John 1:5) or to use a different metaphor, a Voice speaking into silence as Jesus casts out a demon from a man who could not speak. What’s interesting is that not everyone who witnessed this miracle was at all glad about it. What is interesting is that, while the devil and his demons obeyed the mighty Word and command of Jesus who casts him out of a possessed man, among those who witnessed the exorcism, some remained firm in their unbelief and darkness and opposition to Christ. Today’s Gospel describes the depths of the slavery of sin within us from which only Christ can redeem us and set us free. So you see that, while the devil and the world are external forces “to keep [us] from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4), our own sinful flesh also must be conquered, that is must, to speak in baptismal words, “by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, in order that a new man daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” It is the power of being baptized into Christ that we are given the faith and the armor with which to stand against the temptations and onslaughts of the devil, the world and even our own sinful flesh.

     These are they (and we) that the prophet Isaiah described, saying, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” [Isaiah 5:20 (ESV)]. For what else is it than calling good evil and light darkness when the Pharisees (Mt. 12:24) in our text accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan, saying, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons”? “Beelzebul” refers to the devil and means “prince and lord of earth.” Martin Luther noticed the linguistic parallel with the German word meaning bumblebee or big fly and calls the devil the “lord of the flies” and “bumble bum.” The name recalls the fifth plague of flies God sent against Pharaoh in Egypt before the Exodus. Luther proceeds to proclaim the truth that those who consider the devil and his temptations to be a little thing, like an obnoxious fly, are those who are so easily caught in his trap. “We Christians,” he says, on the other hand, “know the devil’s power and might. For we have learned from experience that he is able in a moment to recast and pervert a godly man who has a strong faith, and beguile a pious husband, who today is living chastely in his marriage, to become an adulterer tomorrow…. He is, therefore, no bumblebee but, as we see and experience, a strong, powerful spirit who sets upon us everywhere, against whom, with all our wisdom and strength, we are much too weak. Besides, once he determines to lead someone into error, heresy, unbelief, and sin, he holds on so tightly that the individual cannot free himself…. For this reason we Christians are not so overly confident and so scornful of the devil as are the work-righteous; nor do we call him a bumblebee, but a powerful lord, prince, and god of the world, who is able to accomplish more than all princes of earth, yes, over against whom all kings and lords on earth, with all their power and might, are but bumblebees and powerless flies.”

     This is why our Lord takes up their accusation and points out their illogic giving them two choices. If he is, as they say, in league with Satan, then it follows that “Satan is divided against himself,” and a kingdom divided is laid waste and falls. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” So which is it, Beelzebul or the finger of God?

     In the mighty signs and disasters God sent through Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, where Pharaoh’s magicians could imitate the first few signs performed at Moses’ hand, they could not, by their secret arts, produce gnats and therefore said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” The only other time this phrase is used in the Bible is when God gave the two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments inscribed on both sides, “written with the finger of God” [Exodus 31:18 (ESV)]. “The finger of God” means God’s creative omnipotence. It is said that, since most of the Old Testament speaks of God acting by means of his “hand” or “arm,” perhaps “finger” implies that the actions are easy for God, for Jesus, and do not tax the limits of divine power. If Jesus casts out demons “by the finger of God” he is the new and greater prophet like Moses. As the miracles performed through Moses served to free Israel from bondage by “the finger of God,” so God’s liberating power is at work through Jesus. He is the one stronger than the strong man, who disarms the devil, takes away his armor and divides his spoil, that is, liberates sinners from his fearful hold, releases them from their bondage to sin and gives life and light. He did this beginning with his own temptation in the wilderness and ending with his triumphant death and resurrection.

     I hope that you see this, like holy baptism, is not just a one-time thing but an ongoing struggle and warfare of faith. Those cryptic words of Jesus that follow, about the unclean spirit who has gone out of a person and then returns with seven other spirits more evil than itself to reclaim the house once swept and put in order mean to say that that “God-shaped void” in a person (as St. Augustine described it) must be filled with the Messiah, the stronger one, or else Satan will return with even more force and vehemence. When you were baptized you were brought to the faith and instructed in the Word. You were exorcised as you renounced the devil and all his works and all his ways, delivered from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. One must remain in the faith and not allow the devil to reclaim you. There is no neutrality. “In a world where demons roam, there are no empty houses.”

         That’s why our text ends with the beatitude, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” The point of this text is clear. The kingdom has arrived in Jesus. God is present in him. Yet some refuse to let Jesus into their house and shut out Christ. Jesus takes up residence in the heart through Baptism and catechesis, through continual hearing of the Word of God and keeping it. That Word has already been shown fully able to defeat Satan and cast him out, to defend us from the temptations of the world, and to transform us from sinners into saints by the renewing of our minds and hearts, giving us godly desires. So we pray, “Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word,” which is nothing else than to faithfully keep the Third Commandment, that “we should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”