Friday, March 19, 2010

The Stronger Man

contributed by Nelson

Luke 11:14-23 (NLT)

One day Jesus cast out a demon from a man who couldn’t speak, and when the demon was gone, the man began to speak. The crowds were amazed, but some of them said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” Others, trying to test Jesus, demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. He knew their thoughts, so he said, “Any kingdom divided by civil war is doomed. A family splintered by feuding will fall apart. You say I am empowered by Satan. But if Satan is divided and fighting against himself, how can his kingdom survive? And if I am empowered by Satan, what about your own exorcists? They cast out demons, too, so they will condemn you for what you have said. But if I am casting out demons by the power of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you. For when a strong man like Satan is fully armed and guards his palace, his possessions are safe—until someone even stronger attacks and overpowers him, strips him of his weapons, and carries off his belongings. Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me."


I’ll be honest. Anytime a passage about Jesus casting out demons comes up, I get nervous. I don’t know exactly why that is. Perhaps I am sometimes guilty of leaning toward the one ‘extreme’ C.S. Lewis talks about avoiding – the one that doesn’t think demons exist. Maybe I’m so careful to avoid the other extreme (the one that sees a demon behind every bush) that I overcompensate. I suppose we do that all the time. We carry misunderstandings, fears, one-sided judgments and in the interest of staying ‘balanced’ in our perspective, we stray too far the other direction. Life really is about balance; holding tensions that are often unresolved.

And yet the gospels speak of the demonic and Jesus’ power over these ‘strong men’ in very concrete, matter-of-fact terms. Crowds were divided, just like we are. Some were in awe. Some didn’t think Jesus was legit. Others wanted him to prove himself further: 'Do another one!'

What does Jesus do? Knowing all their thoughts, he addresses the naysayers first, pointing out how ridiculous it would be for Satan to cast out Satan. Then he says that if he IS legit, then there is a new administration–a new order–in town. It’s here. Present tense. Get used to it. He uses an analogy of a strong man being beat out by a stronger man. It’s pretty easy to get that. Everyone can tell when opponents are mismatched. There is language of armed guards, physical attack and all-out battle (which, I remind myself, demonic oppression and divine deliverance in fact are: a fight for control, to the death; whether that be physical, spiritual, emotional, physchological, what have you). And finally Jesus demands allegiance. ‘If you’re not with me, you’re against me.’

In other words, if you’re not following me, you’re following someone (or something) else. If you’re not worshipping me, you’re worshipping something else. If you’re not listening to me, you’re listening to someone else. If you’re not receiving me, you’re receiving someone else. If you’re not joining me (in gathering), you’re scattering.

I resist this sharp either/or-ness, and I blame that resistance on grace. I blame it on my biblically-grounded belief in the relentless pursuit of God for his people. How do I balance (there’s that word again) this passage with the ones that talk about us running away and God chasing after us? What about the story of the prodigal? The lost sheep and coin? The cross of Christ himself? We stray all the time ('prone to wander, Lord I feel it...') but we’re told that God’s heart is always to draw us back.

But maybe these two realities are not at odds after all. Perhaps this either/or talk is in fact an expression of God’s pursuit of us. Could it be? Maybe this is one way of Jesus saying, ‘Look. The choice is yours. It always will be. But believe me, you wanna be with me, not against me. The alternative is to be on the losing team. Because–regardless of what you decide–I will overtake the strong man. I AM the stronger man. Choose me now, and you’ll be glad you did. Don’t choose me, and I’ll find ways to stay after you. I won’t stop pursuing or loving you, even if you reject me.’

See, when we hear the words, ‘Anyone who isn't with me opposes me’, we immediately assume that means Jesus is now against us. Wrong:

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners…For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. Romans 5:8, 10 (NLT)

Jesus told us to “love our enemies” (Luke 6:27). He wouldn’t tell us to do something that he didn’t model himself. God’s heart is oriented toward those who are against him. That’s the good news. But heed the warning implicit within that very good news. This passage reminds us that there is an enemy who is fighting hard for our souls. He is not ‘out there’ somewhere, but rather much closer and much more subtle than we think. He is constantly hot on our tails. When it all comes down, we have a daily either/or decision to make. We can choose to fight in the corner of a strong man, or we can choose the stronger man.

In this Lent season, God, help us--help me--choose well.

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