Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent: 2014
By Hayden A. Butler
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
The Gospel lessons for the first three Sundays of Lent follow a thematic progression in their depictions of our Lord’s victory over the demonic forces of the world. The First Sunday recounted the temptation in the wilderness. The Second Sunday featured the exorcism of the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Today the Gospel portrays the moment when Christ drives out the mute demon and is subsequently confronted by the Pharisees and the people. Common to all of these accounts is the recurring theme of the deliverance of God’s people.
The positioning of our Lord in the narrative connects this moment of his ministry with the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt. In Exodus, there is a showdown between Moses and Aaron and the sorcerers of Pharaoh’s court. With each wonder that God works through his servants, the sorcerers provide a demonic imitation of it. At one point, though, the magicians are no longer able to replicate the signs of God. Consequently they identify the wonders of Moses and Aaron as having been accomplished through the ‘finger of God.’ In the context of this showdown, the failure of the sorcerer’s to replicate the wonder signifies the superiority of the God of Moses over Egyptian deities. In our Gospel lesson, Christ drives out the demon, fulfills the type established in Exodus, and again demonstrates His power over the Devil and his minions. This is a lesson we have been learning for the past several weeks. The power behind the signs that Christ performs is the same power that worked through Moses and Aaron, for He too works the sign by the ‘finger of God.’ The Pharisees, however, blasphemously charge our Lord with employing demonic powers. In the parallel between the Exodus narrative and the Gospel lesson, these accusers fail to see what even Pharaoh’s sorcerers eventually acknowledged. Christ does not allow this misrepresentation to stand for a moment. He asserts that this sign is not the result of some diabolical civil war. Instead, it is a manifestation of the same war that has been taking place since the time of Moses: that between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the world. God’s deliverance is ever the mark of His incontestable power and victory over Satan. Just as the signs that accompanied Moses and Aaron were a signal that God was delivering His people out of bondage, so too do the repeated victories of Christ over the demonic forces signify that God again is delivering His people.
We understand our Lord’s parable of the strong man in this sense. Christ has shattered the power of the devil and now the Kingdom of God is advancing. The vain attempt to conflate the campaign of the Kingdom with the vain resistance of the devil and his forces is not only absurd but of a most pronounced blasphemy. The standers-by in the lesson, too, are implicated in this failure. They who have just witnessed a sign of Christ’s divine power audaciously request to see yet another sign. It is a form of presumptuousness. The only proper response in this case is to acknowledge the Lord as the one who works the wonders of God. The Gospel Lesson also reveals that there is no compromise position to be held between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world. Ultimately, we must declare our allegiance to one or to the other. To stand with Christ is to stand in the Kingdom of God. This allegiance admits of no double-mindedness. The demand placed on us is one of singular loyalty. This is a war. We must choose a side.
Alongside this imagery of conquest stands the Epistle lesson, which clarifies for us what manner of life is expected of a member of the Kingdom. We are to be as children; we are to be as citizens. As we grow in the love of God as children, we will naturally wish to imitate the Father who loves us. As we attain to our status as citizens we will exercise our identity with the allegiances and behaviors rightly pertaining to it. True belief obliges action. Our actions are seen to be the fruit of our belief. The austerity of Lent gives focus to the quality of this fruit, which also r For some of us, three weeks into the fast we might find that our fruit is growing inconstantly, reflecting the possibility of our divided attention or commitment to keep faith toward the disciplines. Perhaps the fruit that began to grow has ceased through lack of nourishment from prayer and community. Perhaps there is no fruit at all. On the other hand, perhaps the fruit of faith is progressing apace but is being threatened externally by temptations to lose heart or to give up. Whatever the quality of our fruit, there is a core of comfort that runs through the Epistle that reminds us that the source of life that gives rise to all belief and its corresponding action is the grace of God, which cannot be defeated. With this sure hope, St. Paul exhorts all who hear his words to participate and to persevere.
To this end, the Epistle focuses through its various analogies on being aware of the reality of our present time and on acting accordingly. Are we not God’s children? Then let us act like it and love our heavenly Father by following the example of his perfect Son. Are we not the light of God in the world? Then let us not shade that light through sin, lest we fail to illuminate the darkness or worse, fail to stand apart from it. Are we not soldiers of the Kingdom, who swore an oath to fight under the banner of Christ until the end? Then let us put away those slovenly habits of sin and distraction and indulgence, for we have a mission to complete. Let those of us who have been faithful to keep the fast continue in faith—so too let us who have fallen in the fight stand up and move forward. Is not the day of the Lord at hand? Has not the Kingdom been announced and demonstrated in the triumph of Christ over the enemy? Is the light of God Himself shining on us, and are we still abed hitting the snooze button? Then let us rise up, that such light might illuminate our way.
In all of these we see the two-fold nature of our Lenten battle. We do not see the battle of Lent as one of mere purgation. Rather, it is about clearing space that something greater might find its place. In the war against the world, the flesh, and the devil, our part in the struggle cannot be reduced to the mere absence of sin. If, by the grace of God, we clear out the junk from our lives and proverbially sweep the floors of our souls, then we have made ready the room for God to dwell. If we do not allow goodness to enter in, though, then we only have a spiritual vacuum. It is not enough that we simply do not sin—rather, we must also cultivate virtue. The Greek verbiage of the Epistle strongly implies that this is a habitual action rather than a one-time moment. Put another way, we might see the spiritual life as a daily declaration of allegiance to the Kingdom of God, a daily waking to our place in God’s family, and that by means of both we daily renew our vow as imitators of Christ, which in turn makes us both conquerors with Him and co-heirs with Him as fellow faithful children of God. The liturgy trains us toward this movement of soul every week. The Word of God comes to us and in response we confess and repent and receive absolution. In doing so we experience regularly the victory of Christ over the devil and we are made whole again. Such wholeness in turn becomes our new pattern of life. Our Lord does not leave us as an empty space, though, but rather makes us the place in which He is pleased to live.
On this the third Sunday of our Lenten journey, we are faced with the fact that the wilderness stronghold of Satan has been invaded, defeated and despoiled. In light of such a victory, let us welcome our Liberator at the gate when He arrives, that He may dwell with us, and we with Him.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.