June 21, 2020
Christian Collins Winn
14 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” 16 Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. 18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. 22 But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” We thank you oh God that you are a life-giving God; and that it is your will and longing that all people know and taste of your love. Open our hearts and minds now as we consider what it means that your kingdom has come into the world with your Son, Jesus, in whose name we pray, Amen.
Greetings friends! It is a pleasure to be able to be with you today in Spirit. It was truly a blessing to see some of you a couple of weeks ago during our Dilly Bar give away. I was reminded of how thankful I am to be a part of this community and that though we are rightly being careful in face of the pandemic, I will be really excited to see you again face to face.
Over these last few weeks in the Twin Cities, and really around the world, we have been living through some extraordinary times. I am of course referring to the murder of George Floyd and the events which unfolded after that. What makes it extraordinary though, is not the anger and the pain we see expressed in the streets and the protests; nor is it the unrelenting violence visited upon communities of color; nor is it the rage against the systemic injustice and oppression which have made it very difficult for people of color to actually feel safe in our country and even in our own communities.
No, all of this was already there, and has been a reality that our black and brown siblings have had to wrestle with for a very long time. No, what makes this irruption remarkable is the fact that it seems to be moving many, many people to finally recognize what has been the fact of life for many, many people, for far too long: That there really is something called white supremacy and systemic racism; that these things didn’t die with the victories of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s; that they are very much alive and continue to visit violence especially upon communities of color, but also upon every human being, since we have all been racialized in one way or another. And so the very streets of our communities are crying out for change.
Now, today I want to turn to what I think is a natural question which can pop up in times like these. What I mean is that often when people find themselves in situations of great unrest or challenge, the question invariably arises: where is God in all of this? That is the question that I would like us to wrestle with today. And I want to wrestle with this question by taking up one of the central metaphors of the New Testament and of the preaching of Jesus: the kingdom of God.
As you heard last week, our summer series is going to be focused on the theme of the kingdom. We plan to explore this theme because God calls the community of faith to be a people who long and cry out for the kingdom and who live in the light of the coming reign of God. So, we plan to engage the many faceted reality that Jesus spoke about and embodied, in order that we might discern what does it mean for us to be a kingdom people today. My job today is in part to start laying some of the groundwork for these coming weeks, and to do so in connection with the question of how do we discern where God or the kingdom of God is at work in the world.
The text we have chosen for today comes from Luke 11 and is often described as the Beelzebub Controversy, referring to the name used for Satan in this section. It’s a story that shows up in all three of the synoptic gospels. Elaborate name aside, what the passage is about is the question: where is God’s power at work and how will we recognize it? In other words, it deals with the very question that many of us are wrestling with now as we seek to discern the significance and meaning of what is happening in our country, in our streets, and in our own hearts.
The scene begins rather abruptly. In the section just prior to it, Jesus is alone with his inner circle instructing them on matters of prayer. This is where Jesus introduces the well-known “Lord’s Prayer” to his disciples, a prayer that Christians have been praying for thousands of years. In that prayer, the phrase “your kingdom come” is one of the petitions that we are to direct toward God.
That phrase, “kingdom of God,” doesn’t so much refer to a place as to the active reign or working of God. It points to the dynamic and effective presence of God actively engaging the world for its transformation. And in praying the petition “thy kingdom come” we are both longing for God’s final appearance at the end of all things, but very importantly, also asking for God to show up in the here and now. So, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are, among other things, asking for God to act, to engage the world with divine power, to interrupt the world as it is. But what does it mean to ask God to engage the world with divine power? Our scene sharpens this point by raising the question—what exactly does God’s power actually look like?
When we turn to our scene, all of a sudden Jesus is standing in the midst of a crowd. As the text tells us: “Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed.” As the story unfolds, we see that not everyone is sure about what has happened; which is not surprising, since by this point in Luke’s gospel we know that Jesus has begun to face considerable opposition. In our scene there are some among the religious elite who argue that Jesus, rather than being an agent of good, is actually casting out demons by the power of Satan—effectively accusing Jesus of being an agent of evil. Others demand a sign from heaven to prove his legitimacy.
Now, Jesus brushes away their accusations and demands, pointing out, among other things, that no house or kingdom divided against itself will stand for long. And he counters their demand for a sign by alluding both to what has just happened in front of them, and by an appeal to events recounted in Exodus. As our text says it: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”
What on earth, you might ask, is the “finger of God”? This phrase actually comes from Exodus 8:19, which recounts the confrontation between Moses and Aaron, and Pharaoh and his magicians, where Moses, at the behest of YHWH, has been telling Pharaoh that he must release the people Israel—and a series of plagues are released on Egypt to show how serious God actually is in this regard. Eventually, the Egyptian magicians come to realize that the plagues are indeed the work of God, or “the finger of God.” The phrase “finger of God” then, functions as a short-hand description for YHWH’s disruption of Pharaohs slave-economy on behalf of Israel. In other words, it names YHWH’s struggle to bring Israel to freedom. And as such, it indicates not only that the reign or kingdom of YHWH is more powerful than the kingdoms of this world, but it also points us to what God’s kingdom is all about—life-giving liberation. That the character of God’s reign is to set free the captives.
Jesus, here in Luke, appropriates this phrase as an apt description of the work that he himself is doing, entwining his ministry with the work of the God of the oppressed. In other words, “finger of God” as used here by Jesus—following Exodus 8—is not only meant to tell his hearers that God is present and at work, but also to describe the basic character of God’s (and Jesus’) work—it is a work of liberation, it is a work of freedom, it is a work of restoration.
It’s as if Jesus points to the person whom he has just liberated from a powerful demonic bondage and then turns and says: “this work of liberation, of setting someone free, this is the work of the kingdom of God.” As we read the Gospels themselves, we come to see that this kingdom work is bound up with the person and ministry of Jesus himself.
But I think we need to put a bit more meat on the bones here, since liberation can come in many guises and sometimes it is only understood to refer to liberation from personal sin. And to be clear, to be set free from the power of sin is great and essential, but the vision of the New Testament, and the life and ministry of Jesus imagine something much larger.
What I mean is this: by the end of chapter 11, Jesus has really had it with the religious elite who’ve been attacking and hounding him and he begins denouncing them, calling them blind guides, and issuing a series of criticisms (or woes) against them. The basis of his criticism can really be summed up with the accusation that they do not attend to the “weightier matters of the Law.” Now, Luke names Jesus’ opponents here as the Pharisees and the Lawyers, but in a sense what’s really being named here are folks for whom religious observance or commitment has more to do with power, prestige, and the appearance of piety, than with practicing and pursuing the “weightier matters of the law”—the “justice and love of God.”
I think it’s worth our while to pause here for a moment to think on this. Now, if we survey scripture as a whole, we will often find justice and righteousness mentioned together as key characteristics of God’s reign. One of the most potent examples of this is found in Psalm 89:14: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness goes before you.” From a literary perspective, we should note that this text is arranged in a poetic structure which is sometimes described as a Hebrew parallelism, where the meaning of the first line is further elaborated and reinforced by the second. In this case, righteousness is connected to faithfulness, while justice is connected to steadfast love. Given its contents, perhaps Jesus was even thinking of this verse when he uttered his comments about the “weightier matters of the law.”
Whatever the case may be, the reason that righteousness and justice often appear together in scripture is because they mutually reinforce one another. What I mean is this: In scripture, righteousness is not an abstract quality—rather, it names the quality of a relationship. I am considered righteous if I uphold the bargain of our relationship; in other words, if I keep faith with you, I am righteous; if I don’t betray you, or go behind your back, I am righteous; or in the ancient world, if I uphold an agreement or covenant, I am righteous.
This conception of righteousness, though, doesn’t just apply to humans. For God, to be righteous is also about keeping faith; and it certainly means keeping faith with the earth and keeping faith with humanity, but it also refers to God’s intentions to uphold the divine promises made at the very beginning of creation. God’s will from the beginning to the end of scripture, brothers and sisters, is that we should live a flourishing life in relationship with God, and with the whole of creation. Please hear me here: it is God’s own will, decision, longing, and ultimate purpose (a purpose that ultimately will not be thwarted) that there should be a creation that lives in a free and thriving partnership with God; that there should be fellowship between God and humanity and that there should be shalom on the earth. So, the righteousness that marks the kingdom or reign of God refers to the fact that God intends to uphold creation and not allow it to be ultimately distorted.
And yet we know, and so does scripture, that many of us, perhaps in some ways all of us, do not have access to the thriving life that God intends. So, the kingdom is also a kingdom of justice. Justice in the biblical text can have different meanings—but one of the most prominent meanings is the sense that justice prevails when all people have access to God’s will for humanity to live a fruitful life in relationship with one another, with the earth, and with God. In other words, justice refers to social arrangements which affirm the full humanity and flourishing of every person. And as an aside, when the Psalmist speaks of “steadfast love” as the correlate for justice, it brings in even richer connotations—that everyone should have, and in God’s kingdom, will have, access to a flourishing life in relationship to God and the whole inhabited earth is indeed an expression of “steadfast—enduring—love”!
When we take into account these aspects of righteousness and justice, remembering their central role in God’s reign, we are able to see that the kingdom or reign of God refers to God’s good work of setting creation free from that which binds, distorts, dehumanizes, and dispossesses. This good work is the “weightier matters of the Law,” of which Jesus speaks. It is also the “finger of God” which broke into the lives of the Israelites in Egypt and has broken into the world in the life and ministry of Jesus to set at liberty the captives.
But of course, what Jesus teaches is never just about knowledge. It is also about commitment—it is also about calling. As our passage winds down Jesus describes the struggle that he is currently involved with: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder.” We should make no mistake—the work of the kingdom which Jesus embodies includes a confrontation with all of the anti-God powers that shape our world. The powers and principalities, like white supremacy and racism, sexism, militarism, and economic exploitation, to name just a few. And in this confrontation, one has to take sides. The disciple has to discern where Jesus is, and join in the good work of God. As Jesus himself concludes: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
A couple of weeks ago I had the occasion to attend a clergy march to show solidarity with our black and brown brothers and sisters and their struggle for justice and life in the wake of the George Floyd murder. I went down with Jeff and Sara and Mark Patrick, while some of our other staff members were at a larger rally over in St. Paul. There were some 2,000 clergy present for the march.
We met about a quarter of a mile away from 38th and Chicago and the holy ground where Mr. Floyd was murdered and then we marched together in silence—a walk which took us about 8 or more minutes (about the same amount of time that the officer of the Minneapolis Police Department had his knee on George Floyd’s neck).
As we approached the area, we formed a circle to stand in silence, listen, and pray. But off to the side there was a woman; I don’t remember seeing her, but I could hear her voice from the moment we approached Cub Foods. In a loud voice she was crying out “black lives matter; all lives matter; black lives matter; all lives matter.” There were some folks who found her annoying—in fact I remember a couple of fellows trying to find her to see if she would turn down the volume. But before they could find her, she began to wail, with deep, deep pain: “black lives matter; black lives matter.” For the rest of my life I will never forget her lament. For in it, I could hear a cry for justice coming from the depths of her soul; a deep, searching cry for God to act; to make right this world which is so profoundly wrong.
Brothers and sisters, if we want to know where God’s kingdom is at work, then we need to go and find Jesus. And if we want to find Jesus, we need look no further than the cry of this woman and the cry of her community—and then we need to choose, will we walk with Jesus into a new future, or will we be scattered? I pray that the Spirit of the living God will give us the courage to follow into the new future that the finger of God is enacting in our very midst. Amen.
Heavenly Father, giver of all good gifts, give to us again that Spirit whose presence fires our imagination, enlivens our courage, and sends us out into the world to seek justice and to love mercy. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.