THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
The Pre-Lenten ‘Gesima Sundays’ wisely draw our attention to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love), in doing so, the church in her wisdom prepares her children for spiritual battle: warring against the world, the flesh and the devil. For though our Lenten devotion of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving draws us deeper towards the grace and mercy of Christ, we also become more and more vulnerable to the schemes of the Devil, and quite often experience a greater susceptibility to sin. The appointed Gospels for the first three weeks of Lent make this clear. Each Gospel is about the great conflict between Jesus the Son of God and the powers of darkness, namely Satan and his evil cohorts! It is not by chance that Satan, the devil himself and his minions, are the central antagonists in each of these Gospel lessons.
On the first Sunday, Jesus confronts the Devil in the Judaean wilderness. Satan, with his insidious plans, tempts Jesus (of course he waits until the 40th day: the very apex of Christ’s hunger and thirst… That wicked serpent!), “If you’re hungry, turn these stones to bread: feed yourself!” And, “Prove to me who you are, throw yourself off the top of this tower, didn’t your Father say his angels will protect you?” And finally, “Do you desire the worship of the nations? Then simply bow down and worship me, and I’ll give you the praise and glory of men!” But Jesus stands his ground never giving an inch. Jesus Christ, the second Adam, overcomes the very Tempter himself.
Last Sunday, Jesus cast out a demon from a young girl, the daughter of a Canaanite woman. In faith, the woman called out to Jesus to heal her daughter, “O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil” and in turn Jesus exerted his divine power, and from a distance, bound and cast the demon far from the girl, healing her, making her whole again.
And today, our Gospel reading from St. Luke records Jesus exorcising a rather nasty demon from a deaf-mute man. Yet, some of the bystanders wrongly see the power of Satan at work in Jesus’ miracle. Suffering from an acute case of spiritual farsightedness, they cannot see God at work in and through Jesus! Amazed they say, “He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils.” Others in the crowd tempt him, demanding he perform some sign from heaven to prove his authority is truly of God: now where have we seen that tactic before!
But Jesus rebukes them, “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you!” They didn’t have the spiritual vision graced to Peter enabling him to recognize Jesus for who he really was. Jesus asked the Apostle, “But who do you say that I am? And Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” And yet, within minutes, Christ rebukes him, “get behind me Satan. You [Peter] are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” Now, of course Jesus wasn’t saying that Peter is Satan. But, Peter’s rebuking of Jesus for openly talking about his forthcoming crucifixion and death, attempting to impede what Christ came to earth to accomplish is exactly what Satan lives to do. In that moment, Peter is an accomplice to evil, the devil’s tool, put in play to upend Jesus’ divine mission. Three Sundays and three confrontations with the Devil and his demonic hosts.
In the words of the reformer Martin Luther, we “dwell in a fallen world, where the prince is an evil spirit and has the hearts of men in his power, doing what he will.” We would be well served this morning to heed St Peter’s warning to, “Be sober-minded; [to] be watchful. [For our] adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour…” The Enemy is cunning. He is deceitful. He is wicked. Has he has purposed himself to destroy us. We, who at our baptism were released from the bondage of sin, renounced the Devil and his works. We, who vowed to keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of our lives. Yes, the Devil, our Enemy, desires to devour the children of God. Thus by this ancient Collect appointed for this 3rd Sunday of Lent we pray for God to “stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies!” Enemy number one: the Devil himself.
Now, today’s Collect would have been prayed in the 3rd and 4th centuries by candidates preparing for Easter vigil baptism; those coming into the Christian community commonly called catechumens. At the beginning of Lent, the baptismal Candidates would be brought before the Bishop to be examined prior to their enrollment. If given a good report from neighbors, and with no objections from others, the Bishop would personally write their name in a book listing all those approved to begin preparing for baptism over the 40 days of lent. Having been approved and their names written in the Bishop’s book, they would then be ‘exorcised’, their souls being “swept clean” if you will, cleansed of any influence of the devil, freeing their hearts and minds, to begin preparing for the indwelling grace of God given in Holy Baptism.
And so, having been exorcised of Satan’s hold, the first several weeks of a catechumens Lenten preparation were seen as entering into conflict with Satan, like Christ in the desert who confronted the tempter and overcame. The conflict culminating at Easter Eve baptisms where the baptized would renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, and by faith pledge their allegiance to Christ, entering into His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins: born again into the household of God.
We can see how the epistles and Gospels appointed for these first three weeks of Lent would have kept these baptismal candidates on their toes: sober, watchful, anticipating and engaging in 40 days of battle with the Devil. And I submit that our Lenten journey is no less perilous: the battle no less real. Lent is a battle. It is an intensified battle to defeat sin and cultivate virtue. The casting out of sin, and the acquisition of virtue… This is what we strive for through our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The spiritual battle rages. And especially during lent. We find ourselves struggling with old sins, with new sins, with unforeseen temptations… the thought-life so easily gravitating towards what it should not. Perhaps the words of St. Paul are hitting very close to home these days, “the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom 7:190-21). As CS Lewis said, “the main thing we learn from any serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues is that we fail.”
Yes, our battle is against the world, the flesh and the devil, but our principal enemy is the devil. He is the primary foe who is reinforced by two powerful allies: the world and the flesh. Don’t you find that he works through both of these? The enticements of the world: “worship me and I will give you the glory of the nations!” And he works weakness of the flesh: “If you’re hungry, turn these stones to bread…” he’s saying “go ahead, satisfy your desire, eat.” He knows our vulnerabilities, he knows the flesh is weak.
Satan, ‘the prince of the air’, diffuses his power most often through the moral atmosphere. His enticements and temptations seizing on the weakness of the flesh, our unholy desires producing sin manifested in wrong choices and shameful actions: the sins of the body. And this is why in this morning's epistle St Paul exhorts us not to participate in the sins of the flesh, to not even discuss them, “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting… Be not partakers with them. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of the light.”
Keep in mind, desire in itself is not sin, but even good desires which emanate from within the heart and the will all too often produce unfruitful works of darkness, the very works St. Paul warns against. In baptism, original sin, guilt, and culpability are destroyed: but an innate weakness still remains. There is an imbalance in us, a desire to do good but a base nature that is still in process; being perfected. St Augustine calls this disharmony concupiscence: or, an irrational propensity towards unholy desires which manifest in sin. Because of concupiscence we reason wrongly and our wills chase after less desirable things. This is our struggle.
The Christian desires the good life and yet sins in the very pursuit of it! Our nature, though being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, has lost its ability to see clearly. And this is why carnal desires so easily overthrow reason, because concupiscence has caused the mind to lose its ability to see true happiness. Evil institutes itself into the imaginative mind, where our concupiscent soul takes pleasure in the evil thought, and in our weakness, the flesh succumbs to the thing. And the Devil takes every advantage of our vulnerability. With St Paul we cry out, “unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death!”
What we need is reformation. We are constantly in need of a personal reforming of the soul, reordering- by grace- what concupiscence has disordered. You see, to be cleansed of sin at baptism simply isn’t enough. A soul swept-clean by the power of Christ must not remain empty but filled with goodness, righteousness, and holiness. This is what today’s Gospel teaches us: even where Satan has been once cast out, if the soul remain empty, he will return again “taking with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself.”
A soul swept clean must not remain empty. Lent is a special time to strip away the peripherals from our lives, remove all the clutter. We remove during lent but will also put back! The soul must not remain empty but filled with virtue. It must cultivate holy desires that produce fruit becoming of the Children of the light. Virtue comes from rightly ordered love’s, where we behold and love Christ, the Supreme Good, and in doing so learn how to rightly love all the other lesser goods, created by God, which he has so freely and generously given. Loving Christ teaches us how to rightly love everything. Sin springs forth from the empty soul that neglects to love God, the Supreme Good. This is the heart of evil: the heart that prefers the lesser over the Supreme.
The soul filled with Christ is that which produces virtue, fruit in keeping with the Children of light: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Learning to love God above all else is a continual work of grace: for we cannot reorder our own souls. With St. Augustine we pray, “Lord give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!” In other words, God if you want me to love, then give me by grace the will to love what is lovely! We cannot of our own strength reorder what concupiscence disorders, neither can we defend ourselves from Satan. What we desperately need is God’s Grace to do God’s will; to “walk as children of the light”; we need the grace of God obtained through prayer.
How often the Book of Common Prayer leads us to pray for God to give us grace! With humility and that same desperate faith of the Canaanite woman we too must cry out for almighty God to “look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies!” Praying with desires as hearty as the Canaanite woman, with a humility as profound and genuine as hers… how can our Lord not answer the sincere prayers of our hearts? Have we not heard this promise ring from the words of the Psalmist? “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart and will save such as be of an humble spirit. Great are the troubles of the righteous; but the Lord delivereth him out of all.”
From God’s right of hand of Majesty comes both power and sympathy. Sympathy because Jesus took upon himself all the weaknesses of our flesh and was tempted in every conceivable way and is now seated on the right hand of the Majesty on high: Jesus understands your frailty and empathizes with your struggles. Be comforted today. From the glorified right hand of the Majesty on high flows waves of compassion and unending mercy: His property is always to have mercy.
Power, because Christ was raised from the grave, he is the ascended and exalted savior who overcame the temptation of the flesh and defeated Satan for us, slaying that evil Goliath through his sacrificial death, destroying Satan who had the power of death. The Lord of all, has dominion over all, he is our strong tower, our defense against the evil one. Be confident in this. Beloved, may grace reorder our souls, may our souls be filled with virtue, and may God protect us from the Evil one. Let us pray,
WE beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.