All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 18 June 2017

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 18 June 2017

Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar

Ps. 42, 43; 1 Samuel 21; Luke 11.14-28

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  

A couple of chapters earlier in the Gospel, Jesus says, something which appears to contradict what we have heard him say this evening.  John has said to him, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”(Lk 49-50). 

Is he being inconsistent?   Or do we need to look more carefully at who and what he is addressing and why?   

Context here is everything. In the situation we find him in tonight’s passage, he is responding to the attacks of opponents. In the earlier one, he speaks to disciples trying to exercise a monopoly over him and his power. They are behaving in a way common among those who serve the great and powerful – whether they be politicians, kings, popes or bishops.  A desire to serve and to protect can become a sense of ownership, of control. It is the temptation of courtiers and those who work in the corridors of power.  

Tonight’s reading takes us into different and, for us, rather strange territory: the realm of demons.  Jesus casts out a devil that was dumb, and when he has cast it out, the dumb man speaks. People are understandably amazed – but some are hostile. They do not deny that he has done this, but suggest that his power is itself demonic. “It is through Beelzebul the prince of devils, that he casts out devils.”  Others demand “a sign from heaven,” as if what they had just seen was not one, or enough of one.  Jesus is accused of being possessed by a leading spirit of the pagan pantheon who wields authority over other evil spirits. They are the forces opposed to the reign of God and Jesus is accused of being their instrument. 

Jesus demonstrates his ability, not only to deliver and to heal, but also to know what is going on in people’s minds. He has a highly tuned sensitivity to what people are thinking; what they are murmuring to each other in corners.  He had done this earlier when accused by the scribes and Pharisees of blasphemy for pronouncing the forgiveness of sins. (Lk 5.21-22).  

Jesus takes on his critics in their own terms. He calls “the prince of demons” Satan.  Satan first appears in Scripture in the book of Job.  His name means “adversary,” much as we would speak of a “devil’s advocate.”  In the New Testament, he is seen as the adversary of Jesus.  In a more general way, any person working against Jesus or inspired by plans and thoughts contrary to his could be a regarded as a Satan figure. Peter was when Jesus said:  “Get behind me, Satan, you are a hindrance to me, for you think not the things of God but of men” (Mk 8.33).  

“Knowing their thoughts,” Jesus responds to his accusers using the image of a kingdom divided; so easily laid waste; a house divided which collapses.  So it is with Satan. If Jesus casts out devils by the power of Beelzebul he is divided against himself and his kingdom collapses.   

Jesus then applies this general principle to the situation of his critics.  He asks them by whom their own sons cast out demons.  If this means that the good people in their own families who do healing work are condemned, then it is they who will be their judges. They will condemn them for their condemnation of a fellow-healer.  Or perhaps he is pointing to charlatans in their midst who go unchecked by them, an early version of those crooked tele-evangelists who prey on the vulnerable for money. Those who tolerate them will themselves come under judgement. Either meaning is possible.  

Jesus clinches the argument with the challenge to his critics that if he casts out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon them.  When a strong man is fully armed and guards his palace, his possessions are secure.  But when one who is stronger breaks in and overpowers him, the defences on which he relied are useless. This, Jesus is saying, is what he is doing to the prince of demons, as he plunders his house, overpowers him and establishes the kingdom of God. If this is so, then Jesus’ critics ought to be very careful about rushing to negative judgements.  

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  

Jesus addresses not just his declared opponents, but also those who sit on the fence:  those who do not commit themselves, who avoid difficult decisions and their consequences, who wait to see how things will turn out before rallying to the winning side.   

But, says Jesus, those who do not take his side lend credence and tacit support to those who reject him.   There is no neutral position.  The opposite of work for the kingdom is not benign neutrality, but activity against the kingdom. In this context, inertia is a hostile force. “For evil to triumph, it is necessary only that the good remain silent.”  

Demons and spirits were thought to be territorial creatures; always in search of a home to settle in. Jesus warns that unless we allow the Spirit of God into our lives after the expulsion of evil spirits, we are in serious danger of falling into a worse situation still. We will be ripe for reoccupation by the former spirit, and even more malevolent ones.  Again, there is no neutral position, no unoccupied dwelling.  

Anyone who has had the cure of souls, or who has tried wrestled against their besetting sins, their personal demons, knows the truth of this. Experience, sometimes bitter experience, teaches us, if we care to learn, that being sorry for our sins – while an essential beginning – is not enough.  

We know that heaviness, that vexation of the soul, of which the psalmist speaks. Something more sustained is required:  What the old evangelical hymn-writer calls “of sin the double cure.”  Repentance is more than sorrow and regret for past sins: it is a turning around of our lives with God’s grace so that our demons do not simply re-establish control over us.  The danger is that we think of grace in vague and nebulous terms rather than concrete ones, and so it slips through our fingers; it lacks reality.  

This is where we need to remember that in the life of the Church, in its sacraments and spiritual practices, we are given “means of grace;” not ideas but things to do. In the practice of regular self-examination, we are given the means to keep our house swept clean. In word and sacrament, in mediation, prayer, in the ministry of pastors, in the companionship of our fellow-Christians, in good works, we are given the means to both defend our house and to furnish it well.  

There is an old story of the man who was warned by a policeman that his house was in danger of being flooded and that he should leave. He refused, saying that God would protect him. The floods came and he retreated to the first floor. When a boat came to rescue him, he sent them away saying, God will protect me.  The waters rose higher still and he took refuge on the roof.  When a helicopter came to lift him to safety, he waved it away, saying that God would save him. After he had drowned, he appeared at the gate of heaven and complained that God had done nothing to save him. God replied, “But I sent you a policeman, then a boat and then a helicopter, and you refused them all.”  

We should not presume that God will take extraordinary measures on our behalf when we have refused the ordinary ones.  

Finally, we have an example of Luke’s positive understanding of women. When all these men have been criticizing Jesus, it is a woman in the crowd who speaks up in his defence: “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed.” Praising a mother for her famous offspring is a tribute to both mother and child.  

Jesus responds: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” This beatitude echoes the blessing uttered by Elizabeth when she exclaimed, “Blessed is she who believed that the word spoken to her would be fulfilled” (Lk 1.45) and Jesus; response to the arrival of his family seeking to speak to him: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 8.23).   

So, if we are to live the Christian life, we must not only repent of our sins but dedicate ourselves to an ongoing and sustained, rather than an occasional, openness to the Spirit and to the word of God and the keeping of it. Then we will discover that it is not just we who keep the word of God but that it is the word of God which keeps us.