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Intelligent, modern people can be embarrassed to talk about supernatural things.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, atheism is actually in decline globally - and it’s a huge majority of people that believe in some form of the supernatural. Still, in our context here, in modern 21st century Scotland, it feels like an odd thing to talk about - let’s just be upfront about that.
But before you think we’ve gone totally weird, it’s worth knowing that even in the UK there’s a surprising level of openness to the supernatural. I have here some stats from a 2015 survey of over 2,000 people in the UK and I want you to help me fill in the numbers. I’ll say a number and you go higher/lower. Ready?
What percentage of people said they believed in the supernatural? 25%? 50%? 75%? 82%!
What percentage of people claimed to have personally experienced a supernatural event? 25%? 50%? 68%!
What percentage of people claimed to have seen or felt a spirit’s presence? 1%? 10%? 20%? 31%
So even here in the UK, there’s a remarkably widespread belief in the supernatural, and an astonishing number of people who claim to have experienced it directly. But even so - it still feels embarrassing to talk about, right?
We’re going to go right ahead and do it anyway, though. Part of why we approach our teaching slots like this Sunday after Sunday, just moving on to the next section of the bible, is because this way we don’t get to set the agenda, to pick our favourite topics - or to dodge difficult ones. This way, the bible sets the agenda for us. And today our passage seems to put the supernatural right at the top of the agenda.
So let’s dive in. We’re reading through Luke’s gospel, his account of the life of Jesus, and we’re up to chapter 11. If you have one of these bibles, you can find chapter 11 on page ______ - look for the big 11. We’re starting our reading at verse 14 - that’s the small 14. Luke chapter 11, verse 14, page _______.
And this morning David’s going to be reading for us.
Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.” As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
All pretty straightforward, right? Ok. So, what is going on here?
If you’ve watched any movies about this sort of thing (though for the record, I don’t recommend that), exorcism is always imagined as a terribly involved process, as a struggle which requires lots of special paraphernalia and incantations and drama. If there’s no spinning around on the ceiling, no candles or pentagrams, really, it’s hardly an exorcism is it! And typically it’s a bit of an extended wrestling match - verbally if not physically. That’s our modern picture - and it seems likely that it was pretty similar back then too based on how people respond to Jesus: his no-nonsense, no-fuss approach to exorcism was obviously extraordinary - and extraordinarily effective too. The crowd is amazed.
So although it’s perhaps a bit of a disappointment for some of you, the passage we’ve read isn’t at all interested in giving us tips on exorcism technique. It really doesn’t show us anything in terms of how Jesus went about this - he’s just busy doing it and then it’s done. That’s all we know. As far as we can tell it seems to have been unremarkable, just effective - hardly the stuff of movies.
The point of this section isn’t to teach us how to do exorcisms - there’s just the bare minimum of words around the exorcism.
So if that’s not the point, what should we be learning? Well Jesus’ exorcism leads to some questions - and in answering those questions, Jesus pulls back the curtain and explains more of what’s going on behind the scenes. That’s where the focus is in the text.
The starting point is a question raised by his evident power: how come he can so easily and reliably succeed in exorcism? That’s what some of the crowd are wondering, watching on. verse 15. Is it, perhaps, that he is in league with evil forces? Wielding the power of this prince of demons? Jesus points out two logical flaws in that line of thinking:
First, it makes no sense for him to be working in league with Satan as he acts decisively to deliver people from Satan. Why would Satan give his power to be used against his own kingdom? Jesus makes the point that any and every divided kingdom will fall… A truth our politicians should probably be paying rather more attention to.
Second, shouldn’t that sort of critique apply equally to their own exorcists? You see, it seems there are other people, Jewish contemporaries of Jesus, delivering from demons too - perhaps we caught a glimpse of them a few weeks back, in Luke 9:49; just possibly the exorcists in view are Jesus’ own disciples - the underlying language leaves that possibility open. Perhaps you’ll remember he specifically gave them that power back in chapter 9 (Luke 9:1). Either way, there are other people out exorcising (not exercising! exorcising!). Shouldn’t they be in the frame too, Jesus says? You know, if I’m doing this unarguably good thing and it requires evil powers … well then just how do you think anyone at all is doing it?
So what’s the alternative? Where is it that Jesus gets his undeniable powers from? v20 is Jesus’ answer: “I drive out demons by the finger of God!” That made me think of the famous Sistine chapel ceiling. But that’s not the resonance that phrase would have had for the original audience. For them, it would more likely connect back to Israel’s very beginning, to captivity in Egypt and a contest of power, to what’s called the Exodus, where God delivered his people from Egypt and brought them out into freedom.
When Jews thought about a supernatural smackdown, mano-a-mano, there were few more famous examples than when Moses and Aaron, empowered by God, took on Pharaoh’s magicians. You know, ten plagues and all that. And when Pharaoh’s magicians knew they were beaten, they came to Pharaoh, tail between their legs, and said “this is the finger of God” - Exodus chapter 8 (Exodus 8:19) if you want to read through later. Jesus is pointing his critics to the only other real alternative source for his power: God himself.
If even the pagan magicians of their ancient enemy, Egypt, could identify the power of God at work, how come these well-taught serious Jewish folk in the crowd surrounding Jesus couldn’t see it? How could they possibly doubt it? This is God’s power at work!
But Jesus doesn’t stop there, he goes on to draw a conclusion from this truth. “if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” That is, the kingdom of God has arrived. It’s broken in. It’s overtaken them.
The crowds shouldn’t be worrying about where Jesus’ power comes from, but marvelling at what it signifies: In Jesus, God is returning to reclaim what is rightfully his. The battle has begun - and God’s kingdom is beginning to overrun Satan’s.
Jesus picks up this conflict picture in the parable he goes on to tell next: the strong man, fully armed, guarding his house, possessions safe. Verse 21. That sounds like a positive picture, like the way things should be. But actually the strong man is an impostor - it’s Satan who is being pictured there, strong, well armed, guarding what he thinks belongs to him.
And his possessions seem secure - until someone stronger attacks him and overpowers him. Jesus is picturing himself there as the victorious conqueror, stronger still. When he talks about taking away armour and dividing plunder in verse 22, those are just typical acts of a victorious conqueror, the way they would show their complete victory over the enemy.
We might initially think this picture refers specifically to demon possession since that’s where the conversation started - but I think Jesus is talking about something much bigger: he’s talking about the kingdom of God coming. Glance back and notice how many times he’s mentioned kingdoms in this passage - kingdoms divided against themselves; Satan’s kingdom; and then, where he finishes verse 20: speaking about the kingdom of God.
What’s he picturing for us here? Satan’s kingdom won’t fall because it’s divided. Alas the kingdom of evil is far from being terminally divided. It will fall because it comes up against another king, someone stronger, someone who can overpower him. Although Satan’s kingdom is established, although he has a measure of strength and a range of weapons at his disposal, and although he thinks his place is secure, when Jesus comes, with all the power of God, Satan, the impostor, is utterly defeated. And Jesus, the true king, is utterly victorious. No contest.
And yes, that plays out in the domain of demon possession. Jesus, the stronger one, can exorcise demons at will, overpowering Satan, taking ground back from Satan’s kingdom. But this also plays out more generally. You see there’s a sense in which this world has been surrendered to Satan - in John’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly calls Satan “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) - Satan doesn’t just hold sway where someone is possessed by one of his minions - he has broader control than that.
Luke, the author we’re reading from, will later report the risen Jesus telling one of his first followers what his mission is: “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” (Acts 26:18). The implication is Satan’s rule is much more widespread - not dependent on demon possession. And doesn’t that make sense of our everyday experience? We see the effects of Satan’s rule played out in countless evil acts round the world day by day - not just acts of the demon-possessed.
When we humans turn away from God’s right rule over us, and claim that leaves us finally free to do whatever we want, the truth is it’s a total illusion. The bible tells us we’re not taking back control - we’ve just blindly surrendered to another’s control. Think about the story of the Garden of Eden: when Adam and Eve turn their back on God’s rule, believe the serpent’s lies, and eat the forbidden fruit, do they find themselves finally free? Liberated to rule themselves? No, they’ve just allowed the serpent to rule over them instead of God - and they will reap the reward, a world filled with the evil he desires.
This is the point Jesus goes on to make next. After this picture of conflict and victory, he warns “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Here Jesus isn’t just thinking of demon possession; he’s thinking of this epic conflict between God and Satan, the one which began there in the garden, the one which is playing out still in our world. And what he’s telling us here about this epic conflict is there’s no Switzerland.
There’s no neutral place to stand, no demilitarised zone, no impassive observer, no free, unaligned state. Every single person in the whole world is either for Jesus, or against him. The clock is ticking, Jesus has come with the power of God to begin the next phase of the battle, and the conflict is unfolding around us. Whether we like it or not, we are either working for and with Jesus as he overthrows the kingdom of the enemy and brings in the kingdom of God - or we’re against him.
I think that’s what Jesus is showing us with the story he finishes with about the exorcised spirit who returns with seven more: his point is the house can’t be empty. Someone’s going to make themselves at home. It’s an illusion to think people can be independent; we’re not made like that. We all belong to someone - the only question is who.
It might not seem like every person in the world around us has taken sides in this conflict. It might look like there are lots of neutral people caught up in the conflict but they’re just minding their own business, trying to get on with life; decent, ordinary people. But that’s part of the cunning of God’s enemy, Satan: there’s often not much to see on the outside, on the surface.
What really matters though, what truly makes someone a servant of the light or a servant of darkness is what’s going on in here - in the heart. That is where the kingdom of Satan, the kingdom of darkness, holds its terrain. And the only deliverance, the only means of escape, is to have someone else, someone stronger, come and take it instead. Whoever is not with me is against me.
And Jesus gives us another level of detail on what it means to be for him or against him here - “whoever does not gather with me scatters”. Again, this pulls us away from simply thinking about demons and possession. Jesus is thinking bigger.
If you’re familiar with the story of the bible, think about the exile as a paradigm for scattering, and the return as a gathering. Jesus here is talking about the greatest exile and return of all: the scattering of all people away from God’s presence as a consequence of turning away from God, ignoring his ways, and then God through Jesus regathering them back into his presence again.
Think of Adam and Eve, scattered from the garden where they had been together with God from their beginning; think of the people scattered at the Tower of Babel when they sought to exalt themselves rather than God; think of the Israelites scattered in Exile in response to their disobedience to God.
Well finally there is a time for gathering again. Jesus is bringing those who have turned away from God back. He’s overrunning Satan’s kingdom, overpowering the strong man, taking back what is rightfully his. And as he sets out the only two options, with him or against him, he equates those options with gathering and scattering.
You might feel we go on about mission - about trying to share Jesus with others - too much as a church. But here it is again: Jesus says what it means to be “with him” is to gather. Being with Jesus is being active in his mission. You can’t be with him and not engaged in gathering. If you’re not gathering with him, you’re scattering. His words, not mine.
Well, first I have to ask you: which side are you on? Because there really are only two sides. No passive option. No middle ground. If one thing’s clear from this passage, it’s that.
Jesus is victorious, and will be victorious. The bible points us to the cross as the centrepoint of his victory, where the battle was ultimately won against Satan: “having disarmed the powers and authorities [that’s referring to supernatural powers], he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Jesus triumphs over Satan and his evil forces. How? By giving up his life for us, in our place, on the cross - by taking the punishment that should rightfully have been ours.
How is that a triumph? We were captive to Satan on account of the wrong things we do, the ways we turn away from God. Our sin is what made us the subjects of his kingdom, under his rule. But Jesus takes that sin, and nails it to the cross, so we can be finished with it forever, freed from Satan’s rule.
So which side are you on? Have you accepted Jesus’ offer of forgiveness?
Remember the thrust of this passage: have you bowed your knee to him as king?
You see, it’s a package deal. You can’t enjoy his forgiveness and grace without also taking him as your king - otherwise you’re still in the other kingdom, with the other king. You still belong to him.
So which side are you on? No middle ground.
And second, if Jesus has set you free from sin and drawn you into his Kingdom, how could you not want to join him in working to share that same freedom with others? To see more people delivered from Satan’s kingdom and gathered in to Jesus’ kingdom to enjoy his wonderful grace? Join his mission; if you have no idea how, why not come and join us at 5pm - as a part of each evening gathering we talk about what it could look like for ordinary people like us to join Jesus’ great mission, to join the victor.
And I guess part of the point this passage makes is that being with Jesus is gathering with Jesus - like it or not. Jesus says “whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
So which side are you on? No middle ground.
If Satan makes me do a bad thing, am I really responsible? Yes cf. Judas’ responsibility even though Satan gas entered in. Recommend Paradoxology (bring?)
Are there still demons today? This passage depicts demons displaced by exorcism, not destroyed; they just go somewhere else. This is analogous to Satan being thrown down from heaven rather than being destroyed. There will, however, be a final destruction for evil spiritual forces cf Rev
Is Satan still active today? Yes, still prince though his kingdom is under attack. I’d anticipate possession still a reality today - passage depicts exorcised demons displaced not destroyed (yet). Direct action from Satan decreases after Jesus, though: entering into Judas, wanting to sift Peter, filling Ananias’ heart so he seeks to deceive God; no further directly identified action from Satan after this point; unique time of spiritual conflict around Jesus’ life?