3rd Sunday in Lent, March 23rd, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Seeing the Finger of God – Exodus 8:16-24, Luke 11:14-29
The flag in Crimea has changed from Ukrainian to Russian. The people of Kiev, the capitol of Ukraine, watch nervously as Russian troops mass on their eastern border, praying that Moscow doesn’t decide to claim more of their territory. Meanwhile, Americans are busily fill out their NCAA tournament brackets, March Madness crowding out almost all the rumblings of a renewed Cold War. And who could blame America for dreading the prospect of once more standing up to Russian aggressions in Eastern Europe? The last time we took up that mantle, we spent four decades facing down the Soviets. We haven’t yet finished the struggle with Islamic Terrorism. Must we also take up a struggle that we thought ended 20+ years ago? We don’t like strife and struggle. We don’t want to think about it. We’d like to ignore it and hope it goes away.
But strife and struggle are inescapable in this fallen world. It all started between husbands and wives, as her desire was for her husband’s responsibilities, and yet he ruled over her, and not like a loving groom should. Strife spread from husband and wife to brothers, one embittered with the other, of all things upset about the topic of right worship, a strange motivation for homicide. And all along the way, the Deceiver, who first spoke through the serpent, sends his minions to torment and disturb the peace, sometimes even managing to take over a person, taking control of their bodies, making them a danger and torment to others.
There is no dealing with sin and evil without a struggle, whether sin and evil are manifest between nations, or in the life of one demon-possessed soul. Dealing with sin and evil requires a struggle, a fight, a conflict. And because we sinner-saints are involved in these struggles, at one moment fighting for God, and the next finding ourselves supporting the enemy, it can be hard to discern where the finger of God is moving. Am I pursuing the Godly thing, or an evil thing? Which side of this conflict is the Godly side? This is always a difficult question, and one which the Pharisees and Scribes twist to try and defame the name of Jesus.
Jesus casts out a demon, but His opponents claim He does it is by Beelzebul – the Lord of the Flies. Beelzebul is one of the Devil’s many names, hearkening back to the swarms of flies that ruined Egypt, but left God’s people in Goshen untouched. From this fourth plague in the story of the Exodus, we can learn the same lessons that Jesus declares. When a person, or a whole nation, is rescued from evil, this is “the finger of God,” a work of God, even if the conflict is frightening. For Satan to be casting out demons would be for him to fight against himself, dividing his house and guaranteeing the fall of his kingdom.
God used Moses to deliver His people Israel from slavery in Egypt, using frightening signs, like the plague of flies, taking the swarms from Beelzebul and using them against the evil pharaoh. In a similar way, Jesus is the stronger man, who has come to tie up Satan and plunder his kingdom, rescuing people like you and me from the devil’s clutches. Pharaoh saw the finger of God in the work of Moses, and the Pharisees saw the finger of God in the work of Jesus. Hardened hearts may still angrily reject Him, but the truth is plain to see. Either we are with Jesus, resting in His victory and serving in His mission of gathering God’s people, or we are against Him.
In geopolitics and world diplomacy there are shades of grey, but not in the struggle between the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness. In, or out. For, or against. There are only two options. A house divided cannot stand, so the question for us is whether we are in the falling kingdom, or the kingdom that endures forever.
Perhaps all of this makes you think about our current considerations. The proposal that I have asked you, through your leaders, to consider, to call Rev. Nicolaus as Assistant Pastor for Outreach, is a big deal, a big decision. We all quite naturally get a little bound up inside, a little uneasy, regardless of what we think of the idea. We have for some months now been talking, and praying, (you have been praying, haven’t you?), trying to discern whether this proposal is the finger of God, or not. The question before each communicant member is this: Is this proposal God’s will for our congregations, or not? A weighty question. Some of us are very much for the idea, some of us are quite set against it, and many of us have conflicting thoughts.
We may be feeling conflicted in our minds, but I want us to be careful not to confuse these differing opinions with the conflict described in our Gospel this morning. This is Satan’s desire. The evil one would be pleased if, as we consider doing something new for the Gospel, Beelzebul could use it to divide and conquer us. If he gets his flies buzzing around in our hearts and minds, and makes us think that those with differing opinions about this proposal are evil, then Satan will have nearly achieved his goal of defeating our efforts to proclaim the Gospel to our neighbors.
I hesitated to bring up this topic. I have had many good conversations, with many of you, serious, considerate, worthwhile discussions of the pros and cons of this proposal. But in a few instances, both from people supporting and from people opposed to this proposal, I think I might have heard anger and frustration expressed concerning “the other side.” Now, I don’t know if you know this, but people are sometimes guarded in the comments they make to me. I think it’s because I’m the pastor, although maybe it also has to do with me being a Marine. Whatever the reason, experience has taught me that when I hear hints of something, often it is quite significant. So these few expressions of “us vs. them” over the question of this call proposal have me concerned. I decided I’d better speak.
Please listen carefully. Those who think differently than you about this proposal to call an Assistant Pastor for Outreach are not evil. If you are all for this proposal, and cannot understand why any member would be opposed to it, please do not let Satan get you thinking those opposed are unloving and unchristian. In the same way, if you really think this proposal is a bad idea, please do not let Satan get you thinking that those who are for this proposal have ulterior, evil motives. And, if you are divided in your own mind, struggling to come to a conclusion, do not think for a minute that your status with God depends on your arriving at the right conclusion. Your status with God depends on Jesus alone. Let us not become divided, from each other, or from God, over a question that belongs to the realm of Christian freedom.
There are differing opinions concerning this proposal. But there is no “other side.” We are called together as one body, in Christ. There are some things we clearly know we are to be about in our life together. We are called to gather together, confessing our sins and rejoicing to receive God’s forgiveness, new every morning. We know we are to cling tightly to the true teaching of Christ. The doctrine of Christ is our life, so we must never give up the truth of God’s Word for the sake of convenience or worldly peace and popularity. And, we also know that the same God who sent His Son to die on a Roman cross to win salvation for the whole world also desires that all people hear this good news. The “finger of God” in our situation is that we have God’s pure Word of Law and Gospel, and God would work through us to carry His Word to others.
However, whether or not we should call Reverend Nicolaus to expand our outreach, about this we have no clear Word of Scripture. The decision on the proposal is a question that God has left to us. Being of differing opinions about exactly how we will live out our calling as God’s people is not to be confused with the division between the Kingdom of Light and Darkness. Be careful not to let Satan turn you against a brother or sister in Christ, just because they have a different opinion.
I know this is easier said than done. There are important questions before us. There are valid concerns and considerations, for and against this proposal. We poor sinners know from experience that trying to talk our way through difficult questions is not something we are naturally good at. Sadly, such hard questions often bring out frustration and anger, causing us to speak in tones that cause offense, or say things we later regret. We might be tempted to simply avoid such hard questions. But if we never consider difficult questions, Satan has already won, because Christian life is hard, and full of difficult questions. Christian life is full of difficult questions, which the Spirit of God promises to guide us through. Indeed, the Spirit has already given us a big help this morning, in the example of Jesus. As we approach the meeting next Sunday, let’s see what we might learn from the way Jesus handles the very real conflict that He faces in our Gospel.
First, as Jesus confronts conflict, He uses the Word of God. Now, this is of course easy for Jesus to do, since He is God; everything He speaks is the Word of God! But that does not lessen the truth; indeed, it helps us sharpen our focus. As we encounter differing opinions, in others, or within ourselves, before we try to convince anyone of the truth, let’s be sure to first go to the Source of Truth. Let’s search the Scriptures and see what God’s Word has to say about the question. Now, you might say “Hold on, this proposal involves questions of finances and organization and the economic outlook and all kinds of worldly things, not just theology.” But God’s Word reminds us that all things in this world are His. We can interpret and understand everything in our lives through His Word. So, as we proceed, let’s continually search the Scriptures, and turn to God in prayer, asking Him to guide us into all truth, as He has promised to do.
Second, take a breath, remain calm. Jesus is insulted and attacked. His foes want Him dead. But Jesus replies evenly and calmly. (Doing the first thing, considering what God’s Word says, will help us do this second thing.) Jesus’ first words to the Eleven Disciples when He appeared to them after the Resurrection was “Peace to you.” Turmoil and fears and inner doubts have always been a part of Christian life. We shouldn’t be happy about this. After all, God promises to take care of His Church, so the fear that leads to anger is really sinful doubt of God’s promises. Sadly, we know we will not escape sinful doubt in this life.
However, we can take our doubts and confess them to God. As you consider this proposal, keep firmly in mind the Good News: Jesus has reconciled us to the Father, and so we have peace with God, through His forgiving blood. Rest in His peace. Marvel at this Good News, that God is pleased with you, because of Jesus. We want to do the right thing, and we will seek to do the right thing. But we can rest in this: even when we make mistakes, God’s peace is still ours, because Jesus, the One who took all our sins from us, is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity. He will never leave you.
Third, when the time comes, vote your conscience. Every baptized believer has the Holy Spirit. We may struggle to understand, given what our situations look like, but God is working in our midst. We may really struggle to see the finger of God in such a messy thing as a voters’ assembly. But the truth is, God is and will continue working out His will for us, no matter what. So vote your conscience, and, treat your neighbor’s conscience as the holy thing that it is. For we are all children of God, given the great privilege of collectively addressing a very great question. Hear each other out. Remember we are all redeemed by the same Savior. Then vote your conscience. God will take care of the rest, regardless of the result of the vote.
Jesus has disarmed the strong man, entering into the devil’s house by becoming a human being. Jesus entered into this sinful world in order to free every human being from the tyranny of the evil one. Jesus by His cross has taken all of Satan’s power away from him. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But Jesus has fulfilled the law and conquered death, so Satan’s ability to use sin and death against us is a mirage, an illusion, for all those who trust in Jesus. God by His Gospel creates faith among us, and uses us to reach out to yet more people. This is God’s good and gracious will. We are caught up in the finger of God; He is working among us. So, rejoice and be glad,
in Jesus’ Name, Amen.