Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
Our journey in Lent thus far has been about war with the devil. Lent begins with Christ’s victory in His own temptation in the wilderness, and the power of this victory pours out in the second week’s lesson with the healing of the Canaanite woman’s child and the exorcising of the demon afflicting her. This morning, the Gospel lesson begins with Jesus casting out a mute demon and the crowd’s response to this exorcism.
We have to start out by remembering that not all demons are silent when they come face to face with Jesus. At the Synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus drives out a spirit who immediately asks for mercy and immediately calls Him the “Holy One of God.” In facing Legion, the demon afflicting a man near the cliffs of Gadara, the demons submit and ask to be sent out into a local herd of swine, whom they drive over a cliff to drown in the sea. In the seven or so exorcisms that are specifically mentioned in the Gospels, and the many others that are referenced more generally, we get the overall sense that the demons recognize who Jesus is, and while they are reluctant they are always obedient to His word of command.
This brings us to St. Luke’s Gospel this morning. Having exorcised the demon, and finding it to be silent, the crowd fills the silence, and immediately starts to speak, to mutter, to murmur. But this crowd made up of the religious experts of the day and Jesus’ own people all arrive instantly at the completely wrong conclusion, claiming that He was casting out demons through a black magic driven by demonic power. They immediately start in with demands that Jesus prove He is doing good and not evil. They want proof His power is from heaven. We miss it if we don’t look closely here but St. Luke uses the word “seeking” in a sense that these people will always be searching for a proof but never find it–they are unpersuadable. St. Luke doesn’t miss the irony of the situation. Where earlier in the Gospel the demonic enemies of Christ were direct and immediate in identifying Him as the Holy One of God and asking of mercy, this group of Christ’s own people call Him evil and oppose Him. This situates them in a particular place. The very thing they accuse Jesus of being is the thing the demons don’t dare to do. Their scrutiny and endless seeking of a further sign position them in the exact same place where earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel another stood, testing Jesus and asking for signs of His power and origins: of course this was the Devil.
Jesus responds to this scandal by peeling back the veil of the world to show what is really happening there, and also what has always been the case. Heaven and hell are at war. The continuous exorcisms that characterize Jesus’ ministry are a declaration that Satan is losing his grip over the world he has held in reinforced and savagely defended occupation since the Fall. The strongman has met One stronger than him and is about to lose everything. Out of the shattered stronghold of the devil flee away the demons seeking for shelter against the overwhelming onslaught of heaven, finding their only brief refuge in willing human souls. Now, even that small rest is being stripped away through Christ’s unrelenting campaign of exorcism. There is a warning here. No demon can resist being driven out by Christ, but a soul that has been delivered can still be reoccupied unless it is filled with something to replace it. It is not enough to have an absence of evil, but it must be filled with goodness, with the Spirit of God that St. Paul says confirms us as the children of God and fills us with the light of God. This cosmic vision comes to an incisive conclusion as Christ infers that while the unnamed person who had been delivered has been healed, the onlooking crowd has revealed itself to be fitting home for a fleeing devil who gathers others and then returns.
The Gospel then lets us sit for an uncomfortable moment with a burning question in our minds: “how are we to avoid being vulnerable to the repeated intrusions of a restless and brutal fleeing army of devils?” There’s a silence, but then someone else speaks: an unnamed woman in the crowd does just the thing; she prays “Blessed is your mother.” It’s the exactly right thing. For her in the idiom of the day this would have meant something like ‘Your mom must be really proud of you!’ Jesus takes it and immediately brings it forward, extends the sentiment: Yes! “And blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” He sees to the heart of what is in that prayer. St. Luke sees the beauty here because he was so attentive to Mary’s story earlier in the Gospel. The word of the Lord came to Mary and she kept it, and she is blessed for it. Elizabeth hails Mary as the mother of her Lord. Mary, filled with the Spirit, responds by declaring prophetically that all generations will call her blessed, and we see that already proven true in today’s lesson. She who heard the word of God in the Anunciation, who bore the word of God in the Incarnation, who heard and kept the words of Word her Son as she followed Him to His Passion. “Behold,” is ever Mary’s prayer, “the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.”
We need this at this center of the Lenten pilgrimage because it’s not enough to be emptied of sin. We must become like Mary in hearing and accepting and keeping the word. This means we are faced with a decision. Have we experienced some deliverance in our lives? Have we seen Christ work in others? Are we perhaps still holding something back because we do not think we have seen enough to be convinced? Have we remained lukewarm in our loyalties, delivered but not yet decided?
We have to remember what we have received by the Word of the Lord. We have received the new life and cleansing and exorcism of Baptism, we have received the mind of God and strength in the Spirit through Confirmation, we have received the Body and Blood of Christ in Eucharist, we have received the profundity and wisdom of Scripture delivered to us, we have received the great cloud of testimony from saints whose queen is Mary the mother of God, exalted in the humility that will save us today if we will follow after her as she follows after Christ.
We are the children of God the Father in Christ the Son our brother, the home of the Holy Spirit. We lack nothing. We have received all things. The road to the Cross and the glory of Resurrection is before us.
“Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”