'The Power of God' is my title this morning, as you can see on my outline on the back of the service sheet. And on this Mission Sunday how we need to be reminded that the mission on which we're engaged is God's mission; and also that the power to accomplish the mission is God's power. Not ours. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. But his power is invincible.
So it's no good us charging off on some mission which is not God's mission. Nor is it any good us trying to accomplish God's mission in the wrong way.
But this next section of Luke's Gospel that we get to this morning can help us. It's Luke 11.14-28. Please have that open in front of you. You'll see that this breaks into three sections. They've been given the headings: 'Jesus and Beelzebul'; Return of an Unclean Spirit'; and 'True Blessedness'. In the light of our mission theme today and as you can see from the outline, I'd like us to approach each of the three sections with a question. They are, first, 'Whose side are we on?; secondly, 'What should be our priority?'; and thirdly, 'How can we bring blessing to the world?' And I've also summed up the answer that each of these sections of Luke 11 lead us to on the outline. So let's see how I got there.
First, Whose side are we on? We must be part of the powerful mission of Jesus. (v 14-23)
This comes from that first section, headed in the ESV 'Jesus and Beelzebul'. Let's take a look at that a bit at a time. Verse 14:
Now he [Jesus] was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marvelled. Luke 11.14)
Before we go any further, note the inescapable supernaturalism of this incident. We take our lead from Jesus, and Jesus is clear about the existence and active interference in human life, at times, of demons – evil spirits – fallen angels. There is an unseen spiritual realm, a supernatural realm that is no less real than the world we see. We just don't have the capacity to see it. Jesus did.
So there's no getting round the fact of this profound clash of world views. There is the natural and supernatural world view of the Christian faith. And there is the merely natural world view of those who don't believe in God and do believe that what you see is all there is.
Then, what is striking about this incident is the matter of fact absolute power of Jesus over these demonic forces. When Jesus says 'go' to a demon, it goes. No argument; no point in trying to resist. Jesus has irresistible power over the forces of darkness.
It's quite clear, too, that what is ailing this man who can't speak before he encounters Jesus is not some physical condition. This is a spiritual issue. As soon as the demon departs, the man is able to speak again.
But how did people respond? We've already heard, at the end of verse 14, that "the people marvelled". But the reactions were more complicated than that. Verses 15-16:
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. (v15-16)
Everyone marvelled. But not everyone fell down and worshipped Jesus. That's how it is. There are plenty of people who are impressed by Jesus. They might even marvel at him. But they wouldn't dream of believing what he says or following him. If your witness seems to fall on deaf ears, remember that even Jesus encountered a lot of hostile reaction. In the end it lead him to the cross. Rejection is not necessarily a sign of failed witness to Christ on our part. It might say more about those who are listening to us.
Amongst the reactions that Jesus got were the two described here.
Some wanted more evidence that he was from God, and kept asking him for some sign from heaven – no doubt the more dramatic the better from their point of view. That's an issue that Jesus picks up again in verse 29, where Jesus says:
"This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah." (v29)
For more on that come back in three weeks time.
But others were even more hostile. They didn't deny that Jesus had driven out the demon. Clearly that was so obvious that it was undeniable. Instead, they accused Jesus of acting by the power of Beelzebul – that is, Satan, the prince of darkness – and not by the power of God. In other words, they called good evil. There's a lot of that around now.
How does Jesus respond? Verse 17:
But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, …
No-one has access to a man's mind except that man – and God. So here's another detail we can add to the pile of evidence that the mind of Jesus is the mind of God. Back to verse 17:
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.
It's a proverbial truth that a divided kingdom destroys itself. So Jesus is arguing that if it was the case that he was casting out demons by demonic power, then the forces of darkness would be doomed. There are two ways he could be making this point. What matters, though, is that what Jesus was doing showed that the power of Satan and his dominions is being destroyed.
Then the argument moves on. Verse 19:
And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. .
Jesus says – if it's true that I'm using Satan's power against his own forces, then that cuts both ways. Your attempts at exorcism must be on the same basis. Is that really what you want to be saying? No. So they're talking incoherent nonsense. And they have to face up to the truth about the source of Jesus' power. Verse 20:
But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
The hand of Jesus casting out this demon is, so to speak, the finger of God himself. In Jesus, God is acting, and showing his sovereign power. The King of God's kingdom is standing there in front of them. The kingdom of God has come upon them.
Then Jesus moves on to another image. Verse 21:
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 armour in which he trusted and divides his spoil. (v21-22)
However strong and well-armed a ruler is, he will not be able to withstand the onslaught of a ruler whose forces are overwhelmingly more power than his. And when he's vanquished, he'll lose even the power and wealth that he did have – they will be plundered. And that is just what is happening to Satan. There is a spiritual war on. The power of King Jesus is overwhelmingly stronger than anything Satan can muster. Satan's power is being taking apart, piece by piece.
And that leaves us with a key question. Verse 23:
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.(v23)
The question – for them and us – is a simple one. Whose side are we on? We can't be neutral. So let's make sure we're part of Jesus' mission.
On this Mission Sunday our focus is on world mission. The World Mission booklet in this month's Newsletter has numerous examples of what the Spirit of Jesus is doing around the world. What Jesus says here makes clear that all this mission is taking place in the context of this great unseen spiritual conflict, through which Jesus is rescuing people from all nations from the grip of Satan.
So are we with Jesus or against him? Are we at work on this mission, wherever Jesus has put us? Or are we in danger of opposing the work of Jesus by neglect? As Jesus puts it, are we gatherers or scatterers?
What then is the nature of this mission? That brings us the next of our three sections. So:
Secondly, What should be our priority? We must make introducing people to Jesus our main aim. (v 24-26)
This is the section headed 'Return of an Unclean Spirit', verses 24-26. Let me read that.
"When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first." (24-26)
What should be the nature of mission? Should our focus, for instance, be on the demonic, searching out the influence of Satan and seeking to drive him away? Surely what Jesus is saying here means that the answer to that is 'no'. We do need to be aware of the reality of the powers of evil, and the unseen spiritual warfare. The apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 5.8:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith … (1 Peter 5.8)
And the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6.12:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6.12)
We need to be aware. But there's a great danger that the last state will be worse than the first if we drive evil out of the front door and leave the house empty, neglecting to fill the vacuum. The better approach, then, is to fill people's lives with Jesus and the Holy Spirit – and so drive evil forces out of the back door, because there's no room left for them.
The primary focus of mission needs to be showing people Jesus. We don't lose sight of the powers of darkness – but we keep them in our peripheral vision – on the edges and the margins of our field of view. Our eyes are fixed on Jesus. Our mission is focussed on the good news about him – crucified, risen, reigning and returning. Then as people learn to put their trust in him, they will turn away from evil, and there will be no room for the powers of darkness left in their lives. The rooms of the house will be indwelt not by evil, but by the Holy Spirit.
So what should be our priority in mission? We must make introducing people to Jesus our main aim.
Thirdly, How can we bring blessing to the world? We must make the spread of God's Word our key method. (v 27-28)
On now to this last section, verses 27-28. Here they are:
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him,"Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!" But he said,"Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!"(v27-28)
"As he said these things," this begins. In other words there's a link to the mission and spiritual warfare context that we've been looking at so far. And we'll come back to that in a moment.
It has to be said that this incident, recorded in Scripture for all time, as it is, is an amazing anticipation of and protection against a wrong view of Mary the mother of Jesus.
In some forms of Christian religion – often in Roman Catholicism – the role of Mary is exalted to the point of Mariolatry – a kind of worship of Mary. This is wrong in itself and spiritually devastating in the way that it pushes Jesus into the edges of our vision and replaces him with Mary at the centre.
The woman in the crowd calls out, "Blessed is the womb that bore your, and the breasts at which you nursed!" Which, of course, is another way of saying, "blessed is your mother!" And so she is. Luke has already recorded how Mary was favoured by God, and how when she was carrying Jesus her cousin Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out to Mary, "Blessed are you among women…"
Mary was and is blessed – in a unique and unrepeatable way. And it's right that we should honour her – at the very least as much as we do the likes of the great prophets, and the apostles Peter and Paul. But anything that approaches Mariolatry – an idolatry of Mary – is a travesty that threatens to destroy the gospel and dishonour the Lord and Saviour Jesus.
And the point that Jesus makes here, which is so critically important, is that even Mary's privileged role, blessing that it is, is as nothing to the privilege and blessing of having, hearing, believing and obeying – that is, keeping – the word of God.
Mary, of course, was also a disciple like any other, and so experienced the blessing of hearing and keeping God's word. But the blessing experienced by Mary as the mother of Jesus was both unrepeatable and also limited in scope. In contrast, the blessing experienced by those who hear and keep the word of God is both open to all – in all places and at all times – and also endlessly repeatable.
Mary's blessing as the mother of Jesus was astounding. How great, then, is our privilege as disciples who hear and keep the word of God. The immensity of that blessing should propel us out into the world on God's mission. If we take seriously what Jesus says here then it is clear that the greatest thing we can do – the very heart of mission – is to spread the word of God, the good news of Jesus, to the ends of the earth.