God sent Moses to free his children from slavery in Egypt. He promised to do miraculous signs to show Pharaoh that he was God and that there was none like him. The first demonstration was to cast his staff onto the ground before Pharaoh. It immediately turned to a snake. But Pharaoh commanded his own magicians and sorcerers to do the same thing. And with their witchcraft and trickery they did. Moses’ snake, though, swallowed the others. This showed that God’s word overcomes the devil’s lies. This hardened Pharaoh’s heart. So God sent plagues.
First God turned the Nile and all the water in Egypt to blood. Fish died and the country stank. They had to dig new wells to get drinking water. But because Pharaoh’s magicians managed to mimic the same miracle by means of witchcraft, Pharaoh again hardened his heart.
After this God caused frogs to infest and cover the land. Frogs everywhere afflicted Egypt. We might get a comical image in our mind, but it really was an aggravating plague! Twice now, the river from which the Egyptians believed all good things came had brought forth calamity by the true God who gives and preserves life. Pharaoh told his magicians to conjure frogs as well. And lo and behold, they could. But then Pharaoh asked Moses to get rid of them, since, although his sorcerers could mimic the plague of frogs, they could not get rid of them. This showed that the devil can cause trouble, but only the word of God can end it. This time Pharaoh promised to let the people go and worship the Lord. So again, God ended the plague, and yet again, Pharaoh hardened his heart.
The third plague is where our Old Testament lesson begins. God caused lice, or gnats, to swarm everywhere. The very dust that wafted up when Aaron struck the ground with his staff turned to little biting parasites that could not be avoided. They were everywhere! And everyone was afflicted – every man and beast, Egyptian, and Israelite alike. But Pharaoh, wanting to show Moses that this little trick proved nothing, commanded his sorcerers to mimic it. But they couldn’t. Only God could do it. Having been bested by Moses and Aaron, the sorcerers finally concluded, “This is the finger of God.” And so it was! Yet, Pharaoh’s heart grew even harder against the Lord.
Because of this, God commanded Moses to warn Pharaoh that another, even worse, demonstration of the finger of God was about to occur. But this time, the finger of God would make a distinction. God would draw a line in the sand, so to speak. This time the children of Israel would not suffer with the Egyptians. Flies would attack and swarm and spoil everything they could reach. But they would leave God’s people alone. They would be completely spared. This was the finger of God.
Still Pharaoh would not listen. He closed his ears. But God kept speaking. This is why the Bible says that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God did not make Pharaoh disobey, of course. He didn’t make Pharaoh say no in his heart. God didn’t incite rebellion or resistance in Pharaoh any more than God was the cause of Adam’s fall. No. This was Pharaoh’s doing; this was the devil’s trick just like it always was and still is. But God can be said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart in this sense: He knew that the more he commanded Pharaoh the more stubborn Pharaoh would become. He knew it! And yet God did not on that account stop speaking. Just because God knew that Pharaoh would harden his heart did not keep him from saying what needed to be said. For the love of his people and for the sake of their deliverance, he would not keep silent.
There’s a lesson here. Just because we might “know” that someone is going to respond poorly to our confession of what is right or to our defense of pure doctrine, this should not keep us from speaking. We might think that it will only make him or her more turned off by the word of God. Maybe it will. That’s tragic, to be sure. But the line has already been drawn, and not by you. You have no control over the hardness of another’s heart. You do, however, have control over what you listen to and what you say. Jesus tells you to hear his word. Jesus tells you to confess him before men. Besides this, you never know who it might encourage or even persuade when you do speak up and confess God’s word. It’s not up to you. It’s up to the finger of God. It is God who draws the line in the sand.
God told Moses what to speak. Moses, like you, was too scared. So God told Aaron to speak in his place. So it often happens with God. He is kind. He patiently considers our weaknesses. He knows what strengths he has given us and what strengths he has withheld. If you find it difficult to articulate what you know needs to be said, it is at least your duty to hold up the prophet’s hands and stand behind the truth someone else speaks – even if with nothing more than an amen or a nod. Whether it be your pastor or a friend who is bolder than you, be confident enough in the truth to openly agree with him. Wipe the shame off your face when someone is ruining the fake peace of politeness by saying what you know is true. Stand with him. Defend him. And besides all this, even if you can’t give a detailed argument, even if your lack of boldness lies in the fact that you know you’ll bumble what you want to say like Moses, you can still quote Scripture or the Catechism, can’t you?
The devil wants you to be silent. The devil wants you to act awkward when a brother or sister in Christ breaks the silence with the truth that the world hates. The devil knows that he can suffocate your faith both by closing your ears to God’s word and by closing your mouth to repeating or publicly affirming it. This is how he is behind the hardening of so many hearts. The devil wants you to hear, unrebuked, the lies that he has persuaded the world to believe. And because the world believes the devil’s lies, it is therefore in the world that you can expect to hear these lies repeated. This is what makes the world his kingdom. He rules as a tyrant with cruel deception. He wants you too to repeat his lies or at least ignore their threat and watch as others are carried away. He wants you to express thoughtless opinions that contradict God’s word. He wants you to “like” on Facebook posts that mock the Church or that celebrate sin. He wants you to enjoy and repeat filthy jokes that make a mockery of marriage as much as he wants you to commit adultery, because he wants to break down your defenses and your sensitivity to sin. He wants to blur that line that the finger of God has drawn in the sand. He is powerful! This is how he rules his kingdom. He wants our Epistle lesson this morning to go in one ear and out the other. He wants such words to be silenced. He wants you to drift off during this sermon. He wants you to ignore the words of the liturgy and the prayers our Lord has taught us even as our mouths repeat them.
Although Christ won’t shut up – ever – his lambs are often gagged on account of their bashfulness and fear. Through the pressures of the world, the devil silences God’s children so as to reduce the sound of God’s precious word as much as he can. Such is life in the devil’s kingdom. We need God to forgive our cowardice and rescue us from being robbed of his precious gospel. More than that, we need God to speak to us.
A more-than-symbolic image of this need can be seen in the man whom Jesus encountered in our Gospel lesson. He was mute – on account of the fact that he was probably deaf too. A certain demon had closed this man’s ears to what he needed to hear. In this way he also bound his tongue from speaking what he needed to say. He couldn’t even beg for mercy! He was utterly helpless! – cut off from all human communication and fellowship. But Jesus had compassion. Jesus communicated. Jesus gave the poor man fellowship with himself. He spoke to the man – or really, he spoke to the demon who possessed him. And when God speaks to us, we often hear in his voice, directed at the devil, a rebuke. And that’s what happened here. He spoke to him and commanded him to leave his child alone. Jesus broke into the devil’s kingdom and declared war! “This man is mine! I came to save him. Let my people go!”
The demon obeyed, and the man who could not speak spoke. The crowds marveled. But some said that the demon only obeyed him because he spoke by the authority of Beelzebub, the chief of the demons. The name Beelzebub literally means Lord of the Flies. It was a mocking name for the devil who swarms around dung and other filth. So Christ’s enemies and scoffers claimed that he cast out demons by the power of the devil. Jesus gave a very reasonable defense. It amounts to this:
Why would the devil fight against his own soldiers? That would divide his forces and cause him to fail. It doesn’t make sense. A kingdom that’s divided against itself cannot stand. No, I am clearly not on Satan’s side. Any fool can tell you that! I am quite clearly fighting against Satan by casting out his henchmen demons from the people they are possessing. Besides, if I cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub, why is it that you approve of your own disciples trying to cast them out? How do you suppose they might do it if I do it by the devil? What will you accuse them of? But if I do it by the finger of God, like what happened in Egypt, then the kingdom of God has come upon you — and I am here to rescue those who do not harden their hearts. Do not harden your hearts. My kingdom is at war with the devil’s kingdom just like it was once at war with Pharaoh’s kingdom. I am not at war with you. I wage this war by speaking the truth. But if you do not receive it, you are at war with me. If you are not with me, you are against me. I make distinctions between what is the devil’s and what is mine by plundering the devil and rescuing sinners just like I plundered Pharaoh and rescued your fathers. I do what you cannot mimic. This is what the finger of God does.
And consider. Is this not exactly what the finger of God does? Just as Pharaoh was devastated and destroyed by the plagues that Moses brought, so much more is Satan routed and ruined by Christ who ushers in the kingdom of God. Through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, Jesus says to the devil in our presence week after week, “Let my people go!” The finger of God is the Holy Spirit who has caused all these things to be written for our learning.
When Pharaoh’s sorcerers could not mimic what Moses did, they rightly identified his power as being the finger of God. But when the Pharisees could not mimic Jesus as he cast out demons, they wrongly accused him of working for the Lord of the Flies. The devil is a much greater enemy than Pharaoh. His heart is harder and his hatred of God is greater. While the sorcerers could admit when they were beat, the devil never will. His pride won’t let him. His head is crushed, yes. But even now, and until the final judgment, he will continue to roam around as a ravaging lion seeking someone to devour, or as Jesus puts it, seeking a swept-out heart to make his home. He ravages by lying. He devours by closing our ears to the truth and removing God’s words from upon our lips. But just as God alone could end the plagues of gnats and flies, so it is God alone who can silence the buzzing of the devil’s lies. In this sense they were right. He is the Lord. And even the flies are subject to him. And he will soon also end the plague of Satan upon this earth.
But before he does, or really, while he does, he separates us from the sons of disobedience by drawing a clear line between them and the children of promise. That is, he sanctifies us, he sets us apart. He does this with the same finger of God, the Holy Spirit. Just as he rescued the poor man who could not speak, so he rescues us from the dumbness of unbelief. He teaches you! Just as this man had a demon, so also we were born under the power and influence of the devil – into Satan’s kingdom, in dire need of being rescued. Just as he had mercy on this man by rebuking the demon who possessed him, so he has mercy on us by rebuking the devil who would presume to claim us. He teaches you to join in this rebuke by claiming your Baptism.
“Christ … loved us and [gave] Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” You can imagine what every excuse, every offering we made to justify ourselves, every sacrifice we attempted to turn God’s anger away and buy peace – you can imagine what these all smelled like, seeing that they were prompted by Beelzebub, the Lord of flies, refuse, death, and dung. We know what an offense such self-righteousness is to God. Every sighing of our hearts was nothing but filth and stench in his nostrils. But the Son of God joined this filth, but remained clean. He lived in our stench and remained pure. He loved us and offered his own life, his own obedience and purity and love for poor sinners to God as a sweet smell that turned God’s heart forever toward us in our helplessness and sin. Through faith in Christ, all our sighs and groanings appeal to what he has offered in innocence to reconcile us to God. And so they smell good. God hears our cries for mercy for Jesus’ sake and is moved always to save us.
In Holy Baptism, God invaded the kingdom of Satan to rescue you from a strong enemy – stronger than Pharaoh or any earthly oppressor – stronger than whatever it is you worry about instead of praying. Here in your Baptism, he gave you a new birth by the finger of God, the Holy Spirit. As he led the children of Israel through the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh’s armies, so he leads you through water by his word and drowns all your sin and all Satan’s claims on you. He cleanses us from all our sin by giving us an answer of a good conscience toward God – so that all we have might be received, for Jesus’ sake, as “a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
Jesus depicts the devil as a strong man who guards his goods. He’s jealous of you. He is depicted as strong, because he is stronger than you. He guards what is his. His claim on you is found in the fact that you by nature are a slave to sin who ignores God. His weapons by which he guards you as his own are his lies by which he aims to harden your hearts. He lies when he promises satisfaction in doing what God forbids. He lies when he promises that you must earn God’s approval by fulfilling what he commands. This is what Jesus came to do for you. He is the stronger man. And he comes with the finger of God to distinguish you from all self-serving, deluded sinners and from the devil. He spoils the devil’s kingdom by living the perfect life in your place and dying as your Substitute under God’s wrath. And so he teaches you to mimic him and be distinct from a world that is perishing, to flee fornication, to flee every form of evil that would tempt us to be enslaved again to the passions of the heathen. He disarms the devil and binds him on the other side of the line by teaching you the truth – that he has earned your salvation and even now gives you full forgiveness for all your sins. This is the finger of God!
Just as Pharaoh’s sorcerers could mimic some of Moses’ signs, so as you separate yourself from unbelievers, as you pursue godliness, so the devil will mimic God — as St. Paul tells us: he “transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). But as St. Paul also warns elsewhere, “but even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be damned” (Galatians 1:8). The devil will mimic the virtue and goodness that you desire to see in yourself. He will tell you that this is the gospel – to become what God requires you to be. He disguises himself behind messages of peace and harmony and acceptance that the world embraces. He seeks to separate you from God’s word so that he might find a house swept clean. But he seeks to enslave you to your own good works and to your own passions, which are ultimately the same. And they can’t save you. His is a false gospel. That is why to rescue you even now from the devil, Jesus does what the devil cannot mimic. With the finger of God, he puts his words in your mouth to confess your sins and to confess your Savior. With the finger of God, he writes his word on your heart and writes your name on his hand. He teaches you that your blessing is not found in what you offer God — even Mary’s wasn’t who offered much more than we can! But rather it is found in what God offers you. That is why he says, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and guard it!” You guard it like a soldier guarding his goods. You guard it like a virgin guarding her chastity. We guard that word that we hear. We guard it with as much zeal as the devil guarded us before our stronger Man broke in and plundered him. When we do so, when we cherish God’s word and find our forgiveness and life in it, when we listen to it, when we speak it, we become true imitators of God – in a way that the devil can’t mimic. We mimic what he cannot reproduce so that even Satan must throw his hands down, and say, “This is the finger of God!” and leave us alone. We lay hold of God’s divine approval and constant mercy in Christ. And we are blessed forever. Amen.