Download or listen to the Second Sunday after Pentecost: “Catch-22 Released” (Mark 3:20-35)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes you’re just caught. You know it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When we lived in St. Louis, someone gave us a car, but they kept the license plates. In order for me to get new license plates, I had to get an emissions test for Missouri. But in order to drive to get the emissions test, I had to have license plates. I didn’t think too much about it, but as I drove to the testing center, I was pulled over by a policeman. He said, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” I said, “Yes; I don’t have any license plates. But, I’m going to get the emissions test, and then straight to the DMV to get my license plates.” He was not swayed by my impeccable logic, and he said that I had to have license plates to drive. What am I supposed to do, since I need to drive to the emissions testing center before they will give me license plates? He said (rather testily, I thought) that that was not his problem; I had to have license plates. I was caught. I knew it, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was a Catch-22: I was subject to rules and regulations, but I had no control over them, and they made it impossible for me to do anything but break the law if I wanted to drive the car.
Those scribes and Pharisees come down from Jerusalem because they’ve heard that Jesus is casting out demons, unclean spirits. They say that He is possessed by “Beelzebul,” the lord of the flies. By the prince of demons He casts out demons. But Jesus tells them that doesn’t make any sense. Why would Satan be tearing down his own house? Why would Satan be casting out Satan? Then his house would be divided, and he has come to his end. No, if someone wants to take from Satan what is his, if someone wants to plunder his house, he has to be stronger than Satan, he has to bind Satan; then he can plunder his house. And then Jesus gives a clear and unmistakable warning to the scribes and Pharisees: all sins—all sins—and whatever blasphemies (that is, speaking against) people might speak will be forgiven. But whoever blasphemes—speaks against—the Holy Spirit does not have forgiveness into eternity, because he has eternal sin. And they said He had an unclean spirit, instead of the Holy Spirit. This is where all unbelief ends: in eternal sin that will never be forgiven. It cannot be forgiven, because only faith can receive forgiveness—that is, Jesus. And only the Holy Spirit can give faith. If you reject the work of the Holy Spirit preaching Jesus to you, you reject the only one who can give you faith, and so the only one who can give you the forgiveness of Jesus. While the scribes and Pharisees are at the end of this path that ends in eternal sin and eternal condemnation, every person is born in the state of unbelief, because sin is, at its root, unbelief. We are all conceived and born sinful and under the power of the devil until Christ claims us as His own, and we would be lost forever if not rescued from sin, death, and eternal condemnation (Lutheran Service Book, 268). Not only that, I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him (SC, Creed, 3rd Art.). That is, we are caught. We know it, and we cannot do anything about it. This is the Catch-22 of the Law and sin; the Law says, “You must do this” and sin says “you cannot.” We are bound in the devil’s house, and not only can we not escape, we do not want to. We like it fine where we are. Or else why would we just go on sinning without as much as a second thought? It is like we’re driving a car without license plates; but it’s worse, because the emissions testing center and the DMV are permanently closed. It may not seem like such a big deal, driving without license plates. I mean, it’s not like we’ve killed anyone. But you know that that minor transgression will eventually lead to warrants, fines, and jail time. It can’t get better.
We are caught in a Catch-22, and it cannot be undone. But if it is not undone, we will end with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: eternal sin, and eternally unforgiven. We might be tempted to ask with Isaiah, “Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant released? Thus says Yahweh, ‘The prey shall be taken from the tyrant, and the captives of the mighty shall be released. For I will contend with those who contend against you, and I will save your children…Then all flesh will know that I am Yahweh your Savior’” (Isaiah 49:24-26). We are caught, and cannot do anything about it, so Jesus must. But before He can release the catch of the Law and sin, He must first go under it. So God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under Law, to redeem those under the Law (Galatians 4:4-5). Jesus went all the way down: all the way into our sin, our unbelief, our blasphemy. He went all the way down into death and hell. He was going to bind the strong man, but the surprising thing is that He was bound, to the cross. He was bound, and killed, because that is the logical end of sin. It was as if Jesus had eternal sin, as if Jesus could not be forgiven. He was swallowed by the dragon. But what the dragon could not see, what the Law could not predict, was resurrection. Jesus broke the jaws of the dragon; He crushed the head of the serpent; He busted the doors off the strong man’s house. Now indeed He may plunder his house! And you are that plunder. He joined you to His own death and resurrection so that the Law has nothing to say to you either. It said everything it had to say to Jesus, and it came to its end. It’s not like Jesus gave you new license plates, it’s as if He gave you something completely unimaginable, like wings. So that when sin, death, and the devil come after you in your Catch-22, you can say, “That sin doesn’t belong to me anymore. Jesus took it already.” The catch has been released, and you are no longer bound up in the devil’s house, but you have been brought to the very House of God.
And now you are divided against yourself. The Spirit has been given to your new self, and the Spirit is against your old self. You are divided, and this house cannot stand. You see it all the time, your outer man, your old man, wasting away before your eyes, because its proper end is death. But your inner man, which is in Christ, is being renewed day by day, as the Spirit speaks absolution into your ears, and Christ’s body and blood into your mouth. One day, this old self will be torn down, and you will lie in your grave. But what we cannot see is that Christ has a new self, hidden with Him in heaven. He has a new house, a new body, just waiting for the day when He can reveal it to you. This flesh is so corrupted that the only thing it can do is die. But that house, that body, is eternal. Not with eternal sin, eternally unforgiven, but with eternal life, eternal in the new creation.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/9/12