The Third Sunday in Lent (sermon)

Lent 3 - Tissot painting

Ephesians 5:1-14       St Luke 11:14-26

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

For three weeks now in Lent we have been going up to Jerusalem with Jesus – and the three Gospels so far have all been about Jesus confronting the devil and his works.

It is a prominent aspect of the message of the Gospels, that the world is in under the power of Satan and that Jesus has come to liberate us, to free us up, to know God, to know what love is and to do it!

In the first Sunday, it was the battle for the mind.  Jesus began his ministry, not with preaching the Good News of the kingdom, but with a face to face confrontation with the one who has bound humanity.  Straight after his baptism, he is driven into the desert to confront Satan.  He overcomes him, not with divine power but with clear thinking – showing us how Satan binds us with lies, with subtle twistings of the truth.  Our overcoming temptation, has to do with knowing the truth and seeing through the lies.  But that is not all.

On the Second Sunday, it was a battle for the will – in this case a daughter had assented to some lie and had become “severely oppressed”, that is, crippled in will from being able to stop the destructive behaviour that resulted from following the lie.  [e.g. an addiction – someone knows what they are doing is wrong, but even still, they can’t stop themselves from the destructive behaviour…(see Romans 7)]  At this point, the daughter could not free herself, but it required the prayer of a beloved faithful mother, seeking Jesus, and his divine power, to break in and overcome the crippled will of her daughter.  Jesus said to her, “O woman, great is your faith: be it done for you even as you desire.”

What more do we learn this morning?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus “was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marvelled.”  The man was held back from speaking, and was then freed up to give praise.

The miracle could not be denied, by the people who saw it.  But the question arose in some minds as to whether Jesus did this miracle, by the power of God or by the power of Beelzebub. Beelzebub is a derogatory word for Satan, meaning, Lord of the flies. (Where do flies congregate?  think of a dung hill, or a mound of garbage, flies congregate around bad smells!)

Jesus responds that freedom from evil always comes from God.

He speaks in a series of three mini-parables, about kingdoms clashing, about palaces being plundered, and then about a house being open to attack.

First, the Kingdom of heaven is coming upon earth – that is what we are taught to pray by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  And as that Kingdom of heaven comes, there is a battle with the kingdom that is here under Satan’s power.  Wherever the Christian faith was and is preached, there has always been a backlash – Jesus was crucified, and Christians were mocked and humiliated and many were martyred – and it still happens today.  It has always has been the situation and always will be until our Lord’s return.  If they hate me, Jesus warns us, they will hate you.  As Christian culture wavers in the West, so will the battle intensify against the Church, it is to be expected.

Second, Jesus speaks about a strong man guarding his palace.  That is Satan who holds sway in an unchristian society.  Christ is the more powerful man, and when he overcomes Satan, by taking away the armour which he trusts in, that is, cutting through all the lies spun by him, then Christ divides the spoil.  He’s saying that all the greatest human talents used formerly to divide and to dissemble and to destroy, are now used to build up human community in love and to glorify God.

Jesus moves from describing kingdoms clashing – heaven and earth – to a palace being overcome, perhaps a reference to particular societies, each bound in its own way – to an individual house being swept and put in order and then invaded.

At this third level, Jesus is speaks of a house as a metaphor for an individual soul.  This is describing the situation after the liberation brought about by Jesus, when an unclean spirit has gone out of a person.

In the Catechism class, I’ve spoken about the insight of the desert Fathers, how they went out of the cities and into the desert, not to try to escape from evil, but to confront it head on, following the example of Jesus who was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  They identified 8 principle thoughts or passions of the soul by which we can be confounded and enslaved.  And it is probable that they had this Gospel in mind from Jesus when they summarized all of the temptations that can fall upon us under 8 categories.  Foremost of these is pride.  And it is the worst sin and the root of all others.

Pride is the unclean spirit that leaves a man or woman, when he or she is converted to God and chooses to follow Jesus and is baptized.  The soul is swept, that is, forgiven and cleansed of sin, and put in order, that is, has begun to walk in truth.  There is a certain peace like never experienced before and new possibilities open up. The soul formerly confused in its purpose and without direction, now has greater potential and possibilities as it is conforming more to the image and likeness of God.

But Jesus is saying to us, don’t be naïve!  That pride can return in the Christian’s life that is now more ordered and beautiful, and lead to even greater destructiveness through many passions – vainglory (for example the convert who becomes very self-righteousness and condemning of others, has forgotten his own sinfulness and pride has returned with vanity), dejection, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust!  Jesus says these seven spirits are more evil than the first, they lead to greater degradation of the soul, a further falling away from God.

The Epistle today from St Paul gives examples of some of those seven unclean spirits… he speaks of sexual immorality (or lust), and covetousness (or greed), which is idolatry.  He speaks about these and the other 5 passions in this and in every Epistle, as does James and John and Jude!

Jesus has crushed Satan’s power through his death on the Cross and Resurrection – so what remains on earth is a mopping up operation.

We are to take care not to remain an empty house after our conversion, after the casting out of pride.  We are to allow ourselves to be infilled with His gracious Spirit, the Spirit of love, which is “the stronger man”.  He will order our unruly passions and perfect them that they might be used only in the service of love.

Be imitators of God, as beloved children, writes, St Paul.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

And as we do this, through a lifetime of turning to Jesus and staying close, we see the appearance of virtues in the soul, the fruit of the Spirit.  These fruit come of themselves, they are not forced.  They grow out of our union with Christ.  Jesus says, I am the vine you are the branches. [St John 15:1-8]  And those branches will bear blossoms, first a pleasing fragrance, and then abundant fruit.

Contrary to the Lord of the flies, who delights in our degradation, St. Paul is saying that a holy life gives off a pleasing fragrance and people can recognize that.  I certainly have met people whose very presence has changed me, whose Christ-like holiness has led me to draw closer to God.  Their lives, were a sweet fragrance; simply to meet them, to be in their presence, was to be changed.  What a subtle but powerful form of evangelism that we can aspire to!

Perhaps the Spirit of God is bringing to our minds this morning some way in which we find ourselves still bound or pestered by a demon.

We have the opportunity soon to confess our sins, and to trust in God’s mercy and in the purifying work of the Spirit.  Then our bodies will be made clean by His Body, and our souls washed through His most precious Blood, that our lives may be, more and more, like Jesus’ life,

a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Amen +

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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2