Oculi – Third Sunday in Lent
“The Word of the Lord”
Seminarian Brendan Harris, Vicar
St. 11.14-28; Ephesians 5.1-9; Exodus 8.16-24
07 March 2021
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus ☩ Christ; Amen.
Today, we are reminded of a stark reality that often goes unnoticed and disbelieved in our times: demons, they are real, and they are a threat. I cannot prove this fact to you, because demons are only spirits, they do not have bodies, thus there is no proof to proffer; but even though they are invisible to the eyes, they do have the power to possess things and to use them. Jesus in our Gospel today confronts a man who is possessed by one of these soldiers of Satan, and so He drives it out, making the mute man able to speak again. This man had been robbed of his senses by the demon, of any ability to communicate, to feel or emote; he was bound and gagged by the power of Satan, a man in a hostage situation who was about to become a casualty. But our Lord Jesus has power over demons, and power over this man, and so reclaimed what belonged to Him. So too are we like this man from the day of our birth, unable to form words or confess His Name, completely under the possession of the devil. This is why we have been given the rite of Baptism, for in it Jesus exorcizes the old demon, that we may receive the new Spirit, that we may receive His Word and confess Him with our lips.
And yet, those who were looking on could not see any demon. They had no appreciation for what just happened, they saw only the man convulsing and then speaking afterwards. They thought to themselves, “this could very well have been staged; these two could be in cahoots together to put on a show, so that it only looked like Jesus had power over demons.” In their limitless skepticism, in their impeccable ability to doubt against all odds, the Jews cried, “aha! You are casting out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons!”
Now, where did they get that idea? Beelzebul—or as it is more commonly rendered, Beelzebub—was a Philistine deity, an ancient pagan god. You may be more familiar with the term used in the Old Testament—Baal. Rendered literally, his name is actually Baal-zebub, with “zebub” separated by a hyphen. This is because the word “Baal” was the ancient Semitic word for “lord” or “master,” much like we use the term “lord” for God in English. “Zebub” means roughly “things that fly,” or more simply rendered as just “flies.” Thus, Beelzebub is known as “the lord of the flies.” The people of the ancient Middle East would call on him for deliverance when they were afflicted with swarms of flies, or gnats, or locusts, as these things could mean life or death for them, it could mean starvation. And because Beelzebub was thought to be directly responsible for what the “things that fly” did, they would try and appease him to make the afflictions stop, often with sacrifices, perhaps sometimes with people.
But this Lord of the Flies was proven to actually be the lord of nothing at all. When the Lord sent Moses to Pharaoh to demand the release of His people, and Pharaoh refused, He sent ten plagues on Egypt to prove to them that the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob is the one who has the real power over the things that fly and everything else. At the Lord’s decree, gnats swarmed Egypt, and the magicians who called on their Beelzebub were unable to replicate this miracle and unable to dispel this plague, thus they rightly recognized and confessed: “This is the finger of God.” The Lord further sent flies and locusts, He even turned the Nile to blood, so that no one with any sense could possibly still call on Beelzebub for deliverance, but must recognize the power of the “finger of God,” which is none other than God’s Word, His righteous decree. And yet, we still hear that, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” And so all the minions of Pharaoh had to be swallowed by the Red Sea, and the chosen ones of Israel would be ritually washed in the crossing of these same waters by Moses, and yet would pass through them dry and unharmed, in order that they could then worship the true God.
And yet, ironically, it is in the name of their god Beelzebub and their ancestor-in-the-faith Pharaoh, that these wicked Jews invoke Jesus to be in league with the prince of demons. Like Pharaoh of old, these folks did not speak with any sense, but continued to doubt and only resisted Jesus out of hatred. The Lord knew this, and so says, “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 Beelzebub.” If it is as they say, then what Jesus is doing would be absurd, because in the name of Beelzebub He would be making Beelzebub weaker by banishing his own demons, there would have to be a proper civil war going on down in Hades. But if that isn’t the case, then it must be like those magicians once confessed: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” “This is no civil war,” says Jesus, “this is an invasion, and I am the general. The legions of demons flee before Me, for I am the Word of God, I and the Father are one, and I am His Word made flesh, come before you as His finger, to reclaim that which was lost, and to make clean that which was once defiled.”
But these hard-hearted Jews would not hear Him, they had stopped up their ears and had become as mute as the demoniac once was. They had instead determined to confide in their strong man, their Beelzebub; they had all his laws and ceremonies for armor and his spells for weapons. Yet Jesus came into world to strip these demons apart piece by piece, to disarm them, and bind them so that they would be completely devoid of power. By His Word, the Word of God become flesh, the Lord has cut them off at the head: this Beelzebub is sent packing, and Satan’s skull is crushed. But it would not appear this way to the Jews, or also to the Romans, or anyone who looked on, for what did Jesus’ victory look like? Well, to the world, it sure looked like defeat. The Word of God had come in the flesh only to be hung on a cross until dead. The Jews hurled their darts at him and wagged their tongues, the Romans mocked Him and beat Him, and they all begged from Him a proof: “If you are the Word of God, come down from the cross.” All heretics throughout the centuries beg Him the same question. Yet it is in this moment of greatest shame and weakness that His victory is won, it is in this moment that the King delivers His people and reveals Himself as the Stronger Man. For He remained silent and kept His peace, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, but now from this Cross, He makes the final thrust through Beelzebub’s heart, and He lands the last blow on Satan’s head.
Through this Word, through Jesus all the world is reclaimed, it is exorcized of every last one of its demons. This is why our pastors perform exorcisms at Baptism: “depart you unclean spirit and make room for the Holy Spirit,” that is, “depart Beelzebub, this is no longer your home, for this place is reserved for the Word of God.” And not just Beelzebub—but even all the gods which our ancestors once worshiped are exorcized and have no power over us. In fact, the people of old usually deeply feared their gods and paid them tribute not because they felt any love for them, but rather because they were afflicted by them. We know especially from the Greek religion that the gods would do what they pleased, coming down from Olympus not to “have mercy” on their people or out of some unconditional love, but to make their champions fight and die for their sport; they would rape maidens whenever it pleased them, and they lorded over the people in utter tyranny. But by the finger of God, by His Word made flesh and the holy lance of His Cross, the true sacrifice is rendered; Baal’s wings are clipped and he must crawl on his belly, and Elijah slaughters his prophets in the brook of Kishon. Zeus finally is shackled for his crimes, Hades is turned inside out and emptied of his spoils, and Odin is crucified by the greater Cross of Christ. My brothers, my sisters, there is no more fear of the dark, of the demons, of gods, of superstition—for it all fades away like a bad dream before the Cross of Jesus. By your Baptism into Jesus, into the Word of God made flesh, His finger stirs the waters and joins Himself to them, and by Him your eyes are reopened, your ears unstopped, your tongue loosed, and He dons His armor upon you, and brings you across the sea to the new shores of His Kingdom, to be His knight, and to dwell with Him forever. For with the Cross, His dominion extends from heaven to earth, from sea to shining sea, and it is all so because of this simple Word joined to water.
So wear this whole armor of God given to you in your Baptism. You’re going to need it; you must fight on while on these shores, for the demons are in their final death throes; they are desperate, lunging and clawing at any chance to get at you. But remember, the Stronger Man has clothed you in perfect steel, He has refined a sword for you in the fires of His death on the Cross. He arms you with His very self, with the Word of God, and by His Cross you will conquer all. So do not return to the old house, brothers and sisters, do not neglect God’s gifts and His precious aid, do not put your house in order only to invite Beelzebub back in: but order all things by the Word of God, and order your life around coming with your brethren to hear it with your ears and receive it in your mouths. For if you trust in God’s Word, if you cling to Jesus in the face of all doubt and fear, if you come to Him where He is found, you will not be let down. He has promised it, and His decree is always effective: Yes, “blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” He has delivered you, and in due time, His Kingdom will come again beyond all doubt, and you will see with your eyes that new day.
Take heart, my friends. In Jesus’ ☩ Name; Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus; Amen.