CLICK HERE for a worship video for June 9

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 9, 2024

Mark 3:20-35

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

I would like you to imagine that you have been taken, captured by hostile forces. I would like you to imagine that you are being held against your will by someone or something more powerful than you. It isn’t a pleasant thing to imagine, I know, but now imagine that a rescuer has come. Imagine that your captors, strong though they may be, have been overpowered by someone even stronger, who now has them bound up. Maybe you want to imagine them in handcuffs. Maybe you want to imagine them duct-taped to a chair, or hog-tied with plastic zip ties. The point is, they cannot hold you anymore. They are bound and you are free.

I’ve just described to you in, in broad strokes, the basic plot of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of movies. I’ve just described to you the basic plot of thousands, perhaps millions, of TV show episodes. I’ve just described to you countless actual news stories involving police rescuing people from the hands of criminals, or border patrol agents rescuing people from human trafficking operations.

I’ve also described to you a short, but very powerful parable of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve described to you the plot of a parable in which we are invited to find ourselves. It is a parable which describes the situation we ourselves are in.

Jesus had been casting out demons. He had also been saying things like, “I am the Lord of the sabbath,” as we heard last Sunday. He had been asserting his authority as the Son of God. As we hear today, he had also been attracting quite a crowd.

But not everyone was impressed. At this point his own family thought he was out of his mind. Even worse, the scribes accused him of being in league with the devil. “He has Beelzebul,” they said, “and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Beelzebul is the name that was given to the prince of demons. It is loosely related to the pagan god Baal, and can be literally translated as “the lord of the flies.” It is used in the New Testament as another name for Satan. This is who the scribes thought Jesus was working for.

Jesus first responds to this accusation by pointing out the glaring flaw in their logic. Why would someone who was working for demons cast out demons? Wouldn’t someone working for Beelzebul want to help the demons in wreaking havoc? Such a divided house would surely fall, Jesus points out, and the devil is smarter than that. Satan hasn’t turned against himself, Jesus explains. You’ve got it all wrong.

And then Jesus goes on to tell them what is really happening. Jesus tells this short but powerful parable: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

There it is. There’s the plot of Jesus’ mission and ministry. There’s what is arguably the plot of the whole Bible, which is about how God has come into the world to rescue what is his own. This is what Jesus is really up to. Jesus isn’t working for Beelzebul. Jesus has come to tie him up! Satan is the strong man who has been holding people captive, and Jesus is the stronger man who has come to plunder his house. Jesus has come to recover all that stolen property, returning it to God, the rightful owner. Jesus has come to cast out demons, tie up the strong man, and set the hostages free.

The devil has become an almost cartoonish, mythological figure in our post-enlightenment minds, about as real as dragons or unicorns. But the Biblical understanding of Satan, or the devil, or Beelzebul, is that it is a spiritual force at work in our lives to deceive us, to accuse us, to tempt us, to lure us away from God. As we heard in our first reading for today from Genesis, the devil is that slinky serpent who slithers into our hearts and minds saying, “Did God really say that? Surely he didn’t mean it. Don’t you think you know better? Go on, take a bite.” Satan is that force in our lives which plants seeds of doubt in us, saying, “If you really are a child of God, why do you suffer? Why is life so hard for you? Where’s the evidence of this loving God of yours? Where’s the proof?” Satan is a deceiver. He is a thief who is always trying to steal our faith, our hope, our joy – and yes, he is indeed strong.

You can see this strong man at work in both the subtle struggles and the profound sorrows of daily life. You can see him at work in self-centered behaviors and attitudes. You can see him at work when people turn to various false gods for comfort and end up being devoured by those false gods. We hear all the time about people wrestling with demons of depression or addiction. We usually think we’re talking euphemistically, but are we really? It is this strong man’s handiwork when human relationships turn sour and bitter and angry. His fingerprints are found whenever lives are shaped by the lies of the evil one instead of by God’s Word and God’s will. This strong man is a hustler who lures people into despair and holds them hostage to their sin.

The devil is strong indeed. We see how he is holding the world hostage. The evidence is all around us. We can see how much he has stolen from us, how much he has stolen from God. We live in this parable. We confess our place in this parable every Sunday when we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.

The devil is strong indeed, but, thanks be to God, our Lord Jesus is stronger. And it is his God-given mission and purpose to come and tie up the strong man so that he can plunder his house. Jesus has come to reclaim stolen souls and return them to God. He has come to rescue us. He has come to bind up those demonic forces holding us captive and set us free. As Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.” This is how he sets us free, by forgiving our sin. This is how he restores us to God, by bringing us forgiveness and new life.

Jesus continues by saying, “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” This verse causes a lot of spiritual heartburn for people. Many have been terrified by it, worrying that they may have committed this eternal sin that cannot be forgiven.

Let me address this just briefly by saying what this verse is NOT about. It is not about having questions about God. Nicodemus had questions, and he was welcomed by Jesus. This is not about having doubts about God from time to time. Thomas had doubts, and Jesus came to him in love and mercy. This isn’t even about denying Christ in a moment of weakness, which Peter did three times, and yet was restored through the forgiveness of the risen Jesus.

To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to so harden your heart against Christ’s work that you consider it demonic. If you consider grace and mercy and forgiveness and salvation as coming from the devil, then you can’t receive it – and God doesn’t have anything else to give you! If someone insists on holding to the idea that Jesus is evil and they want nothing to do with his kingdom, God will honor that. In other words, this is a hard sin to commit. You need to be really determined to commit it. If you’re worried that you have committed it, then it is a sure sign that you most certainly haven’t.

It would be just like the devil to use this verse to distract you from the beautiful promise Jesus begins with, where he announces that the Holy Spirit will bring forgiveness for sins and for whatever blasphemies people utter. It would be just like the deceiver to use this verse to distract you from the good news of this parable, which is that Jesus has come to rescue and redeem us from sin. He has come to set us free from our bondage and bring us home to God. And so we don’t need to live in fear anymore.

As Martin Luther once wrote in a sermon on this parable:

Why should you fear? Why should you be afraid? Do you not know that the prince of this world has been judged? He is no lord, no prince anymore. You have a different, a stronger Lord, Christ, who has overcome and bound him.

Therefore let the prince and god of this world look sour, bare his teeth, make a great noise, threaten, and act in an unmannerly way; he can do no more than a bad dog on a chain, which may bark, run here and there, and tear at the chain. But because it is tied and you avoid it, it cannot bite you.

The plot of this parable is the plot of our lives. Even now through his Word Christ breaks into our lives to tie up the strong man so that we can be free to live a new and renewed life with God. Even now Christ kicks in the door to get to us – to get to you! – his beloved. As he comes to us in Word and Sacrament, we are being redeemed, reclaimed, returned to our rightful owner. Even now our rescuer comes to us, so that our demons would be bound, and we would be free.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church