Works or words - Luke 11:14-36

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 9th November 2003.

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Lord Kenneth Clark was one of the most envied and admired men of his generation. His BBC series, ‘Civilization' was simply epoch making with its single mission of ‘bringing art to the masses.’ In reality he was a very lonely man. Many of his closest friends admitted that they simply didn’t know him. He didn’t seem to have much time for organised religion either. But one day he had a very strange encounter with God. This is how he described what happened: ‘I had a religious experience. It took place in the Church of San Lorenzo but did not seem to be connected with the harmonious beauty of the architecture. I can only say that for a few minutes my whole being was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy, far more intense than anything I had known before. This state of mind lasted for several months, and, wonderful though it was, it posed awkward problems in terms of my action. My life was far from blameless: I would have to reform. My family would think that I was going mad, and perhaps after all, it was a delusion, for I was in every way unworthy of receiving such a flood of grace. Gradually the effect wore off, and I made no effort to retain it. I think I was right; I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course. But that I had ‘felt the finger of God’ I am quite sure, and, although the memory of this experience has faded, it still helps me to understand the joy of the saints."

It is not everyday that a person has such an overwhelming experience of the divine. And yet inspite of that, Kenneth Clark remained unchanged. So what does it take to convince a skeptic, not just intellectually but spiritually so that it results in a total change of direction? If something as powerful as this doesn’t do it, then what will? And you may well be here this morning asking such a question, perhaps for yourself or a friend or family member you have been witnessing to for so long. How can I convince them of the truth of Christianity? Well, Jesus had to face that challenge too in his own day. But what is shocking about Jesus situation is that such scepticism doesn’t come from hard nose agnostics but people who claim to believe in God-religious people, and it is sad to say that religious people can sometimes be the most closed minded people of all.

So lets turn to this fascinating account in Luke 11 to see how Jesus deals with such scepticism and how we might deal with it too.

First of all let’s take a look at the context vv 14- 16 which has to do with a miracle which appears inexplicable. Jesus has just performed an exorcism whereby a demon has been cast out of someone which had held him dumb for perhaps most of his life. With just a word this happens and the man immediately begins to speak. Now that is impressive. Well, at least the crowd thinks so-they are ‘amazed’ - ‘gobsmacked’ as we might say. They had never seen anything like it before and probably wouldn’t see anything like it again. Just how do you explain this? But in addition to the general crowd of onlookers there were two others groups watching Jesus on that day. The first group in v15 is composed of the ‘my- mind- is- made- up-so- don’t-confuse-me-with-the facts’ variety. And they engage in the great ‘put down’. ‘Oh the explanation is easy’ they say, ‘ It’s the devil, he casts out demons by the power of the prince of demons.’ Here the miracle is not so much explained as explained away. And that is exactly how many people dismiss Christianity today so that it doesn’t require any serious thought. Professor Richard Dawkins, the champion of atheism at Oxford dismisses religion as some mental disease- a virus. You don’t argue about it, you just classify it as an illness and then dismiss it.

The second group in v 16 is constituted of the ‘ My -mind -can -never - be- made- up- unless you- fascinate- me.’ type. ‘Let’s see a sign from heaven’ they say. This is not so much the great ‘put down’, but the great ‘put up’ - dazzle us then we might believe- ‘put up or shut up’.

With the first group you can never win because they don’t want to believe. Like Lord Clark the price to be paid is considered too high. They would have to change. You can’t win with the second group because they keep changing the goal posts. It is like the story of the man who went to a psychiatrist convinced that he was dead. The doctor tried to persuade him otherwise going through all the signs of life, but he would none of it. Eventually the psychiatrist managed to get the man to agree that dead men do not bleed, at which point he produced a scalpel and nicked his hand. The man looked with horror at the blood pouring from the wound and exclaimed: ‘Dead men do bleed after all!’ The fact is Jesus has already performed a sign from heaven, will another one make any difference or will that simply be belittled too by demanding bigger and better miracle? Now, Jesus deals with the first group by means of an argument and the second group by means of a warning. And when we are talking with folk about the Christian faith we have to do this too and it will involve conflict. First, Jesus points out that the position of the first group is irrational- v17- 18. ‘Look’ he says in effect, ‘What happens to a kingdom, a country which is divided by civil war?’ Think of Somalia, Kosova. Why, it is ruined. Well, do you think for a moment that Satan is going to be so stupid as to destroy his own dynasty, which is the idea behind the word ‘household’? Of course not. Secondly, Jesus shows that their argument is inconsistent - v19: ‘If I cast out demons by Beelzebub, then by whom do your followers drive them out?’ How can you be so sure that they are not doing the devil’s work? Well, they are sure that is of God, so why not extend the same courtesy to Jesus? Thirdly, Jesus logic is irrefutable- v 20: ‘But if I drive out demons by the finger of God (the very same phrase used by Kenneth Clark) then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’ That is, God’s saving rule is being manifest, the King has come to his people and you don’t question the King like you are doing , you submit to him like these demons are doing. In fact all this is happening because Jesus as a person is irresistible vv 21- 22. He is like a strong man , a liberator who sets people free who are being held captive by Satan and sin. He strips him of his weaponry and distributes the spoils of war. And that leaves us with a stark choice when it comes to Christ. You are either with him or against him- v23. You do either God’s work of gathering or the devil’s work of scattering. There is no neutrality in this spiritual battle in which we are all engaged. You can’t stand on the sidelines as a passive spectator because when you are confronted with the person of Jesus it is make your mind up time. Are you going to follow him and join his liberation army or are you going to stand in his way and engage in Satan’s taunt in calling good evil, which is what these people are doing and that is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

You see, there comes a point when you have to decide. As you come along to a place like this, as you hear sermons about the life of Jesus, as you see the way lives are transformed and the goods which we take for granted which have come about under the impetus of Christianity, our hospitals, hospices, schools, can you honestly go back home today and say to you friends- Christianity is evil. Jesus is satanic? Can you? Of course not. But neither can you ignore him as an irrelevance, not this man who has had such an effect for good on the world. He calls out to you to offer your whole being to him, to ask him to get to grips with those powers in your life which are pulling you down and to experience the soul cleansing freedom he provides so that your tongue can be set loose not to criticise him but to worship him. You see, there comes a time when having examined all the evidence, having spoken to Christians, even having come along to church, that you have to take the plunge. And it is best not to put that off because then you could be placing yourself in some considerable personal danger, into a position which is quite irretrievable vv 24- 26- "When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, `I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first."

The point of that little story is that it is only too possible to enjoy the blessings of Christ’s-his cleansing- without any corresponding commitment to Christ. And this can happen at two levels. The first level is that of an individual as illustrated by demon possession. Here someone is delivered but that is as a far as it goes. There is no real change of direction, no allowing of the Spirit of God to fill their lives, and so a spiritual vacuum exists and is then filled by more evil. You see to come to a place like this and receive the blessings of a Christian meeting or Christian friendship without yourself becoming a committed Christian leaves you open and vulnerable. It can create a false security by thinking that just because you have a church affiliation then you have salvation -you do not. Yes, God might have been singularly kind to you, giving you Christian friends, even a Christian family, but that will not provide immunity when Satan attacks and certainly will not guarantee you eternal life. For that to happen you have to personally commit yourself to him. Will you do that?

But this principle also applies at the level of a nation. You see, behind much of what Jesus is teaching here is the story of the Exodus. You will remember that back in Egypt God’s people were slaves under a tyrannical King as this man was a slave to a demon. Moses was sent by God to liberate his people as Jesus has been sent by God to liberate us. Moses’ authority was confirmed by the miracles he performed, in fact in Exodus 8:19 it is described as ‘the finger of God at work.’ just as Jesus authority is being confirmed here. The Jews were also to divide the spoils of the Egyptians as they came out of the land, as Jesus the great liberator divides the spoils of the Devil. But back there in the OT these people are described as an evil generation who refuse to trust God’s word- Dt 1:34. And God says that if they continue like this he will scatter them in judgement and later gather them in salvation- Dt 30- the very same language Jesus uses in v 23. So the point is this: just as Israel in the past experienced God’s rescue through Moses they are now being given the opportunity to experience his full and final rescue in Jesus. But just as many were disobedient then, they are being disobedient now- testing Jesus as they tested God in the wilderness. Oh yes, they want the blessings of God but are not willing to be obedient to God and so they are opening themselves up to God’s judgement on the nation.

Now when you think about it, is that not the same with us as a country? For over a 1,000 years Christianity has been in this land. We enjoy its fruits in our democracy, our freedoms, our education and welfare. But as a nation while still wanting to draw on Christian capital we do not want to have Christianity in our lives. God’s laws are ridiculed, his church is marginalised, license is promoted as liberty and so we now have a spiritual vacuum which is being filled with evil and no one knows what to do about it. Just think of that terrible stabbing of that poor 14 year old boy last week. It could have been my child or yours. What has caused the shock? It is that this has happened in a nice school not an inner city one. But when you say goodbye to God, when as a nation we start living as if this life is the be all and end all with no external values but only what we make up, which boils down to might is right and what I can get away with, then of course this is the sort of thing that begins to happen. What’s to stop it? Internal restraint has been thrown away so you are only left with the external restraint of the law. You see you can’t have the second commandment-love your neighbour as yourself without the first commandment-love God with all you being, because we become god. I tell you the demons have been through the waterless places as our nation was cleaned up by the evangelical revivals in the 18th century and the work of the Gospel in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but as that has now been rejected, a void has been left and the demonic is coming back into our land with a vengeance and we are seeing just the beginning of it.

So is there no hope? Well, yes there is. The question is not what are we looking for- miracle, but what is it that God is looking for? And we are told what it is in vv 27-28 As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you." He replied, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.". The woman is saying in effect ‘I wish I had a son like you in my family.’ But close proximity to Christ is no substitute to obeying the words of Christ. Which is really the point of the next section and the sign of Jonah vv 29-32.

You see, these people’s situation and ours is inexcusable. Looking for miraculous signs is not a mark of faith but unbelief -it is a wicked generation that is out for these. The only sign that will be given is the sign of Jonah. What is that? Well, Jonah was a prophet who was sent by God to the pagan city of Nineveh, capital of Israel’s dreaded enemies the Assyrians. We are told it was a massive city of 120,000 and as a result of preaching one sermon, Jonah had an effect on that city which was greater than any other prophet that has ever lived before or since- they all repented, every single one of them! I would be delighted if half of Hull -also 120,000- repented after hearing one of my sermons! The irony is that these pagan gentiles , idolaters, listened to the word of God and acted upon it, while so called religious Jews do not. The same goes for the Queen of Sheba. Here is pagan Queen who travelled all the way from the Yemen to Jerusalem just to hear Solomon’s preaching and you know what? -she believed. Here is someone greater than Solomon - the King of kings, wisdom incarnate and all he gets is a call for more miracles to prove himself-how more wicked and unbelieving can you get? That is why Jesus says that it is these pagans on the day of judgement who will act as witnesses against unbelieving Israel. If they repented as a result of the preaching of mere men, what excuse does Israel have for not repenting when they hear the teaching of the Son of God himself? None whatsoever. And the same can be said of us. How much are we responding to the advantages we have to hear the Gospel? Sometimes people say to me ‘What about those who have not heard, what will God do with them.’ To be honest that is not my main worry. My anxiety is what will God do with people who have the opportunity to hear and do nothing about it. Folk who come through those doors at our special services and walk out of them in exactly the same state in which they came. They are the ones I worry about. You know we have so many blessings as a country. We have Bible versions galore, gospel workers, Sunday schools, evangelism courses- and yet what is the take up like? Not that much. And then folk wonder why the country is going to the dogs and there is little respect for people and property. Pagan Nineveh heard a message of judgement and received mercy, here Jerusalem hears a message of mercy and is in danger of receiving judgement.

And so we come to the challenge, namely that we make sure that our souls do not become impenetrable. vv 33- 36 "No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead he puts it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.’

Let me put it like this: the problem is not with the light source. There is nothing wrong with Jesus or his message. It is not that the gospel somehow needs changing to bring it up to date making it more acceptable. A message telling us the unflattering news that we cannot save ourselves is never going to be popular. That is why when the church is tempted to change its message and standards to accommodate the world -as we are seeing over the gay issue -it will ultimately lead to its decline for then we are giving a wicked generation what it wants and so becoming wicked ourselves. No, the problem lies with us and what we do with God’s revelation. We can either recognise it and allow its goodness to enter into us and change us, or we feast our eyes on other things which in our sordid world passes for entertainment and cleverness and we become corrupted- darkened.

How do you convince a sceptic? I guess it depends upon how much the sceptic wants to be convinced. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, the point of having an open mind is like having an open mouth, the purpose is to close it on something solid. Well, the Christian faith is as solid as you can possibly get. But even more than an open mind ,we need to have open hearts-open to the dazzling personal truth of Jesus Christ which alone can change and give us hope for the future.

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