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An excellent presentation by Pastor Mason Beecroft. Well worth our careful reading and attention.

Last year I was invited to give a lecture in the Wiseman Series at First Presbyterian in Tulsa. Oswald Hoffman was a regular presenter. Well, for whatever reason, they asked me to return this year. Here is what I offered today.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, greetings to you from the people of Grace Lutheran Church. Dr. Miller, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this series again. I must say I was surprised when you asked me to return. I rarely get a second invitation to be a guest preacher. My poor congregation is stuck with me, but you are under no such obligation. Jim, you were either desperate or you really are true friend. I do hope it is the latter. Please know that I deeply appreciate the ministry of First Church and your clear proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ here in Tulsa. As I looked at the selection of speakers for the series this year, I was struck by the diversity of traditions represented. I pray that what I share with you today will both give you insight into some of the emphases and peculiarities of Lutherans in general and Grace Lutheran in particular, and yet resonate with all those who bear the name of Jesus Christ.

At Grace, we are what I would call pre-Vatican II Lutherans, meaning, among many other things, we still follow the historic one-year lectionary, an annual cycle of readings that has been used by Western Christians for over 600 years, even though its development began much earlier. In this series of readings, the third Sunday in Lent (which is this coming Sunday) is known as Oculi Sunday. Oculi, the Latin for “My eyes” comes from Psalm 25, the appointed Introit, the Entrance Psalm of the day: “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn Yourself to me and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.”

Approximately 1,500 years ago, on Oculi Sunday, if you found yourself in Rome, you would witness a large procession winding its way through the city. The procession would be led by catechumens, people who were preparing for Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Before this day these candidates would have gone through instruction in the faith and been subject to a series of exorcisms. A late fifth-century letter from John the Deacon offers some insight into the faith of this community: “There is no doubt that, until born again in Christ, one is held bound by the power of the devil. Indeed, one thus bound should not approach the grace of the saving bath, unless, renouncing the devil as part of the early rudiments of faith, one is extricated from his snares.” So on Oculi Sunday, as they entered into the sanctuary after the procession, they would pray, “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn Yourself to me and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.” The catechumens, along with all the faithful, were confessing that their hope and salvation was in Jesus Christ. They were turning their eyes to the Lord and seeking His mercy for they were desolate and afflicted by sin and death and the power of Satan. So they confessed the faith of the church and renounced Satan and all his works and all his ways. This then marked the beginning of a series of tests for the catechumens called scrutinies to determine their desire to remain faithful to Christ. John the Deacon continues, “For we thoroughly test their hearts concerning faith to determine whether, since the renunciation of the devil, the sacred words of the creed have become fixed in their minds.” The intensity of their preparation heightened in anticipation of entering the waters of Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil, which was the transfer of their citizenship from the realm of Satan, with its sin and death, into the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, where Christ rules with forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.

Now I imagine to our modern ears, this may sound just a tad elaborate, maybe even a bit superstitious. Yet I believe the ancients have something important to teach us. In fact, I believe it is what our Lord Jesus Christ would want us to learn as well, especially as we approach the Third Sunday in Lent. So Jesus instructs us today through the appointed Holy Gospel for Oculi Sunday, St. Luke 11, beginning with verse 14. By the way, Grace members, I am not preaching this on Sunday so please don’t think you can sleep in with a good conscience.

St. Luke 11:14-28: Now [Jesus] 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.

In his Inferno, that tremendous picture of hell, Dante assigns certain souls not to hell itself but to its lobby. They are the souls who never chose God nor the devil, good or bad, who simply let things float along in life and never came to a decision. There in hell’s lobby they go round and round, following a moving flag, now here and now there, but never in any one place, always wandering. These people reel forever in a whirl of sandy dust, constantly bitten by wasps and hornets. They are not allowed to enter the light of heaven nor permitted to descend into hell. Heaven won’t have them, for they never chose heavenly things. Not even hell will receive them. Why not? Think of it! Hell rejects them. Hell will not have these people of no decision because if they came into hell, the damned would have the pleasure of looking down on something lower than themselves. For Dante, these people were so contemptible because they would not decide. These people condemned to the lobby of hell attempted to be neutral in matters of faith. They believed nothing. And the Gospel lesson from St. Luke is clear: there is no riding the fence when it comes to Jesus and God’s Kingdom. You belong either to the realm of Satan or the Kingdom of Christ. Or, to put it a different way, as that great theologian Bob Dylan once sang, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

In the Gospel, Jesus had just healed a mute man, casting out a demon that had control of his tongue. Jesus opened the man’s mouth and the crowd was both amazed and skeptical. They knew something supernatural had taken place, but the source of the miracle was debatable. Some attributed the miracle to Satanic power. They didn’t think this earthy, fleshy, commoner from Nazareth could be from God, which meant He must be from Satan. It was the only other explanation. Others demanded a great sign from heaven. If Jesus was truly from God, then He should be able to do something to prove it. You can imagine what type of miracle these people might require. Perhaps they would have been convinced if Jesus brought lightning from heaven or performed some other great trick? Probably not. Maybe they would have been convinced if Jesus healed a paralytic or gave sight to the blind? Nope. Maybe they would have believed if Jesus rose from the dead? No, not even Jesus’ resurrection was sufficient. The sad reality was their hearts were hard so no miracle would convince them. The evidence before their eyes that Jesus was from God was more than sufficient. They only made excuses, raised objections, and contrived alternatives. So Jesus presses them, knowing their opposition.

Jesus points out that division in a Kingdom or a household results in destruction. The Kingdom of Satan is ruled by sin, disease, destruction, chaos and death. Jesus has just worked against these enemies in the healing of the mute man. The mute man’s condition was the by-product of Satan’s work. Why then would Satan want to reverse his own work? He would be destroying his own efforts. He would be working against himself. It is ridiculous to think that Satan would undo his handiwork. And it is foolish to think that Jesus’ efforts in defeating Satan could be attributed to Satan himself.

However, if Jesus does this work by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived. Jesus’ reference to the “finger of God” comes from the Exodus narrative when God was at work overcoming Pharaoh and his magicians. When the plague of gnats fell on the land, the magicians responded, “This is the finger of God!” These pagan magicians acknowledged God was at work in their midst. Ironically, the crowd around Jesus is not able to recognize the source of His power. Jesus informs them it was by the power of the Holy Spirit, the finger of God, that He exorcised these demons. This means the Kingdom of God has arrived in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, God was at work in their midst, destroying the work of Satan. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is carrying out God’s campaign to defeat Satan and his kingdom of sin, destruction, chaos, and death. Earthy, fleshy, human Jesus, is God’s Son and is battling Satan. And Jesus will be able to overcome him because He is the stronger man. Jesus is more powerful. Jesus will strip away his armor and power and render him weak and defenseless. Jesus will be the victor. He will defeat Satan and destroy his kingdom. This is Jesus’ claim.

Jesus confronts the crowd with this claim. He is God’s Son, the anointed one. There is no other. So they are either with Jesus or against Jesus. In other words, they either belong to the Kingdom of God with Jesus or they belong to the Kingdom of Satan. There are no other options. They either gather with Jesus or they are a source of scattering and division. They either believe Jesus’ ministry is conducted by God’s power or Satan’s power. Jesus forces the members of the crowd to align themselves with one or the other. There is no riding the fence when it comes to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. For those who would attempt it, they are the most contemptible and sickening of all people. Neutrality simply is not possible when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth.

The catechumens and faithful who joined in the procession on Oculi Sunday in Rome believed this to be true. Before the grace of Christ, “they were dead in their trespasses and sins, in which they formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” They belonged to the darkness, the kingdom of sin and death and chaos and destruction, ruled by Satan. Thus, they needed the “finger of God” to inscribe faith on their hearts. They needed to pass through the redemptive waters of Holy Baptism. They needed to belong to Jesus Christ, because to be separate from Him was to be joined to the realm of Satan. So they renounced Satan and all his works and all his ways. They submitted to exorcisms. And they prayed, “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn Yourself to me and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.” They received instruction and were formed in the apostolic faith, the faith delivered once for all to the saints. As they prepared for Holy Baptism, they knew there was no neutrality when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth.

In our day, our soft, bored, confused, and misguided day, there are many who would prefer not to think of Jesus and Christian faith in such clear, distinct, biblical categories. As Easter approaches, we will hear all sorts of opinions on the so-called real Jesus. The History Channel, Time, and Newsweek will offer all the predictable conspiracy theories and fanciful academic speculations. People who imagine themselves enlightened and progressive will attempt to soften or dismiss the scandalous, other-worldly claims of Jesus and His Gospel. And the evolved modern monkey giggles with embarrassment at the name of Satan or the thought of exorcisms. Such realities are relegated to the primitive, pre-modern world, which is deemed incompatible with our advanced age. These are not problems for Jesus, however. Besides we are not as advanced as we would like to suppose. Sin, death, the demonic, chaos, destruction, and hatred remain with us. Read the paper. Check the data. The last century was the most savage in human history. Ideologies born from of the progressive, modern mind resulted in 190 million corpses.

So Jesus is clear: You are either with Him or you are against Him. You either belong to Christ or Satan. Now few people today would have the nerve to assign Jesus’ work to Satan, like the people in that crowd on that day, but many would deny that He is God’s unique Son, the only name in heaven by which men may be saved. This amounts to a rejection of Jesus. This amounts to scattering. After all, Jesus simply cannot be reduced to a good spiritual teacher or dismissed as an ancient prophet. Jesus cannot be considered a moralist or a philosopher. Jesus cannot merely be an important Jew of the first-century who was tragically killed and then transformed by his followers to be the Son of God. Such dismissals of Jesus amount to a denial of Him and His bodily resurrection, the core of Christian faith. Would we really suppose it was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that led St. Stephen to be stoned for the faith? Did St. Paul give up a good career, and lose his head to the sword, because Jesus offered pithy spiritual bromides and cute stories? Was St. Peter crucified upside-down because Jesus was wise and happened to be his buddy? Would men, women and children have faced down the Roman Empire, submitting to poverty, hardship, torture and death, because Jesus taught a better system of morality? No, it was their belief, their thorough conviction, that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, incarnate, crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended to heaven, overcoming Satan, sin, death and the grave, that enlivened their Christian faith and should enliven ours today. There simply is no riding the fence when it comes to Jesus.

So, like those catechumens in Rome, we are called this Lent to again consider Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” The right answer, of course, is the one revealed to Simon Peter by the Father in heaven. We are blessed and the “finger of God” is at work when we open our mouth and confess, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” We confess not only who Jesus is, but also what He has done for our salvation. We do not want to make Peter’s mistake, rejecting the cross and thus speaking for Satan. Jesus, the Son of God, entered into the midst of the fallen creation to destroy sin, death, and the power of Satan. Jesus came forgiving sins, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. His ministry bore witness to His power over the forces of death and darkness. He was doing the work of the Father by the finger of God. Jesus came suffering rejection and beatings and undergoing trials. Jesus came wearing a crown of thorns. Jesus came bearing a cross and being nailed to it. Jesus died the death of a common criminal. He descended to the grave. Jesus underwent all of this shame and humiliation to defeat Satan, sin and death once for all. His ministry demonstrated that He had the power to accomplish this end. His death on the cross trampled down death, it was the undoing of Satan. Jesus rose from the dead as the victor, the stronger man. Jesus stripped away Satan’s armor and power, rendering him a defeated foe. This is Jesus’ witness to Himself. This is the apostolic witness to Jesus. This is the Christian faith. We know no other Jesus than God’s Son, fully man and fully God, who came to redeem humanity from our sin, our death, and our captivity to Satan. When we publicly confess this faith in the ancient words of the creeds, like those Christians in Rome, then we are aligned with Jesus. We know no neutrality. It is not an option. There is no riding the fence when it comes to Jesus.

By grace and through faith we are aligned with Jesus, so we pray this Lent, “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn Yourself to me and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.” We meditate on God’s Word to hear Jesus speak to our life and condition and pray for His mercy. Thankfully, Jesus is not mute. He is not silent. The risen and living Christ speaks the power of His word and salvation in our midst. Jesus speaks honestly about our sin and death. Jesus knows the desolation and affliction in our souls. His word of Law reveals the ways we fail in our love God and neighbor. We have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We have attempted be neutral when it comes to Jesus and matters of faith. His word reveals our fence-riding. We have denied Him in the ways we have succumbed to the temptations of our flesh. We have denied Him in our pursuit of the empty promises of our materialistic, consumptive world. This Lent is our season of penitence, our time to examine our hearts according to the Word of Jesus Christ. If we are honest, only just a little honest, then we must admit we are well-wadded with sin.

Hear the word of Christ, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Jesus is faithful and just. When we make confession, His word brings us forgiveness for our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Jesus speaks clearly about His death and resurrection that made such forgiveness and cleansing possible for sinners. Jesus wants to leave no doubt in our ears about what we hear when He speaks to us. He wants us to hear the good news of our salvation with clarity. He wants us to keep His word of salvation in our hearts. So He speaks it over and over. Now I am going to get real Lutheran… Jesus spoke His word of salvation in the holy, cleansing waters of Baptism. He speaks His word of salvation in Holy Absolution. He speaks His word of salvation through the preaching ministry of His Church. He speaks His word of salvation in the Holy Scripture. He speaks His word of salvation in the Holy Sacrament. Over and over, Jesus speaks to our redemption by His blood. Over and over, Jesus tells us how much He loves us and how He gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Jesus wants you to know that your alignment with Him through faith provides forgiveness, cleansing, life, salvation, and eternal blessedness. Luther writes in his Large Catechism, “He has delivered us poor, lost people from hell’s jaws, has won us, has made us free, and has brought us again into the Father’s favor and grace.” This is most certainly true. Forgiveness, life and salvation is Jesus’ word to you. May the “finger of God” etch Jesus’ redeeming word on your heart this Lent and in eternity. ?INJ?

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