Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lent 3 Midweek Sermon -- Psalm 136:1-16 (LSB Lent 3H)

March 30, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.”

The “finger of God” is at work in the readings for tonight. It is used to aid and deliver people. The “God of heaven” acts to confound and thwart those who oppose His order and will. So it was for the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt. The Lord desired them to be free. That is why He appointed Moses, giving him the task to say to Pharaoh: “Let My people go!” His divine will was to have the descendants of Abraham possess the land promised to their forefather, the land of Canaan.

But when Pharaoh refuses, when he will not release his enslaving grasp over the Hebrew people, the Lord takes up the cause. The “finger of God” acts: Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron “Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.”’ And they did so. Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt.” A message is sent: “Let My people go,” or worse will happen to you. There is no messing around here; the “God of heaven” is serious about His demand.

The truth of the situation was understood by the wise men of Pharaoh’s court. It became obvious to them what was happening: “The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’” They could not do what the Lord accomplished through Aaron’s staff. They recognized the greater power, even when Pharaoh did not: “But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.”

Pharaoh’s refusal led to the “or else” of the Lord’s demand: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Rise up early in the morning and present yourself to Pharaoh, as he goes out to the water, and say to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let My people go, that they may serve Me. Or else, if you will not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and your servants and your people, and into your houses. And the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they stand. But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth.’”’” The plagues continued, until Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew people, leading to the great Red Sea Crossing. Divine action was done, the “finger of God” at work for His people.

Centuries later, the “finger of God” was not exercised through Aaron’s staff, but literally was on a Man’s hand. This is what you heard: “Now [Jesus] was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled.” Witnessing Jesus’ act, many were amazed at what they had seen. There was recognition of divine power happening in their midst. But just like in Pharaoh’s court, there were some who did not believe, whose hearts were hardened: “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.” They would not believe in Jesus’ identity despite His casting out of the demon for the mute man’s benefit.

So Jesus responds to the critique from the hard-hearted people: “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. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Look at the signs and see! How can Satan work against himself? How can the prince of demons be invoked to cast out other demons? Jesus’ words are spoken to turn the people away from their ignorance, from their lack of belief.

But Jesus’ words include an “or else” similar to what was spoken against Pharaoh. He gives the people a warning: “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 armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” That is a statement of judgment. Jesus’ words and deeds show Him to be the Stronger One, the Lord come to His people to bring deliverance. But those who will not receive Him have no part of Him. His closing statement shows that: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

The Word of God testifies to what He has done. It gives the record of the actions performed by the “finger of God.” It also presents great promises to those who hear and believe. When that happens, then there isn’t the hard-hearted scoffing found in Pharaoh or those who mocked Jesus. Instead, there is praise that flows from the heart through the mouth. You speak the refrain of the Psalm: “His steadfast love endures forever!” The believing soul confesses what the Lord has done for it, repeating the record of accomplishments. That is what the Psalmist did in his song of praise and thanksgiving: “to Him who alone does great wonders . . . to Him who by understanding made the heavens . . . to Him who made the great lights . . . to Him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt . . . to Him who divided the Red Sea in two . . . to Him who led His people through the wilderness. . . .” Each phrase repeats what the Lord has done, declaring it to be how “His steadfast love endures forever!”

So you are given the Word of God to hear. You listen to what has been done by the Lord in the past for you, as well as what He promises to do in the present and future. The “finger of God” is active for you now. It inscribes His Name upon your hearts and head. It creates faith in your souls. It cast out the deathly and demonic from you. It writes the credit of righteousness in your spiritual ledger, while canceling out the debts of your sins. It delivers forgiveness, life, and salvation to you. It points to the Promised Land that awaits you.

But like Pharaoh and the scoffers around Jesus, there are those who will not believe. Let them be just as Jesus declared: “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” Let the “finger of God” point to them with His statement of judgment, the great “or else” that is found in the Lord’s Word. As for you, hear the record of what has been done for you. Satan cannot be turned against himself, but he must yield to the Stronger One, the Lord. That Stronger One, Jesus Christ has acted on your behalf, taking away the Deceiver’s armor of lies, hatred, and death by speaking truth, loving sacrificially, and overcoming the grave. Blessed are you when you hear the Word of God and keep it—believing it, cherishing it, treasuring it, obeying it, trusting it. The Kingdom of God has come to you and you are part of it. So you will take part in the refrain of praise to the Lord: “His steadfast love endures forever!” Thanks be to God, that steadfast love shown to me, as the “finger of God” acted for my benefit!

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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