Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
We are continuing our Lenten journey to Jerusalem, following Jesus to his Passion and death upon the Cross – it was a death for us, to propitiate, to reconcile us, who are sinners, to God. Jesus told us to take up our cross and to follow Him. We participate in that journey to Jerusalem, in His passion, in our way, by daily putting to death sin and rising up in righteousness. It is a journey of dying that leads to new life.
And as we make that journey there is a kind of intensification of the battle between light and darkness, between good and evil. And today, the readings focus on that battle as that is found in our own souls. If we think that our battle is primarily external, with all the injustices in the world outside us, and forget about the battle in our own souls, we can lose ourselves in a self-righteous crusade. And if when we hear these lessons we are thinking about someone else’s sins and not our own soul, we’re not going to benefit from God’s Word today, we won’t know the liberation he promises each one of us – the casting out of demons by the finger of God. The call today is to look at our own souls.
This morning our first two lessons are a kind of balancing out of errors we can make on our spiritual journey.
In the first lesson, from Numbers [22:21-31], we have this strange story of Balaam who is on his way with the Prince of Moab to curse the people of Israel. First Balaam was told by God not to go, then he was allowed by God to go ahead, because God had other plans, that Balaam would in fact bless Israel. But this strange incident on the way was probably meant to make Balaam realize the incredible danger he was in between the Moabite prince’s desire for cursing and God’s desire for blessing. Balaam’s donkey is confronted by an angel of God and tries to avoid the danger by veering off course and finally lying down – Balaam can’t see the angel and keeps striking the donkey to go forward.
I would suggest that it is given to us today, and with these other readings, to be read allegorically as a warning. If you think of Balaam’s donkey as a figure of our body, and Balaam as a kind of slave driver of a proud mind that forgets it is human – it could be seen as a kind of warning to attend to the messages that our bodies can give us, to slow down, to take better care of ourselves, when it gives out. Don’t keep whipping our bodies to go further, faster! but, as St Francis of Assisi would say, love brother ass, love your body as a gift, as we are to show love for all of God’s creatures – listen to its messages, give it its due, have mercy on it! That’s one side of the story.
But the Epistle today [Ephesians 5:1-14] addresses the other side – we are to take care not to follow every inclination of our fallen nature. It is a hard lesson. It speaks about the call to holiness of life, and that means putting off sin and putting on righteousness in our outward behaviours and in our inner thoughts.
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.
As one preacher has said,
“The virtue of the soul is not a matter of free self-expression: it is a matter of humility and obedience. We do not become good by the free expression of our fallen nature, and our natural feelings and inclinations are no sure guides to virtue. More often, they are our temptations. Nor do we become good simply by education. To be informed about the good is not enough. We become good only by doing good, often against our feelings and inclinations, often without very much understanding the sense of it at all. We become good by doing the good, over and over and over, until it becomes the habit, the very pattern of our lives. That is the whole point of religious discipline: we do these things not because they seem agreeable, or sensible, or make us feel good, but we do them in obedience…
“We need the grace of humility to see that our likes and dislikes are not the standard of good and evil. Nor is human calculation any final standard. It is the “finger of God,” it is the Word of God that casts out the devils and liberates the soul. Therefore, Christian life must be life lived in attentive obedience to that word.”
The preacher goes on: “Now, perhaps if you were not just politely listening to a preacher in a pulpit, you would say to me ‘All that is obvious enough, but easier said than done. In the world of practical affairs, moral problems are not simple, not black and white, but a thousand different shades of gray; and how do I know what the Word of God says about this or that particular situation?’
“Well, certainly, I dare not pretend that it is easy. I do not find it so, and I don’t suppose that you do, either. But at the same time, we do know something of what the Word of God demands of us. Let’s start with the little bit that we do know, and let’s not make the complexities of our problems an excuse for doing nothing. Let’s start with the little that we do know, in humility and obedience, and trust God for the rest.” [see the Rev Dr Robert Crouse’s Sermon for Lent 3]
Jesus concludes today’s Gospel saying, Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. We hear the Word of God and we seek to be obedient to it at ever deeper levels in our souls as we gain confidence in His Word. This is our sanctification, and without that sanctification, we will not have our eyes cleared away to see God.
The last part today’s Gospel reading [St Luke 11:14-26] is a warning about what Lent is not – it is not only about casting out vice so that we are no longer hurting ourselves and hurting others. Jesus says that if we only focus on casting out vice, we can end up with a more orderly soul, but one that can get itself in even greater trouble. The well disciplined “orderly” human soul can be an instrument of great destruction, as we know from history and in our own time.
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ [That house is our soul.] And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.
The casting out of vice is not the end of the call of Jesus to the moral life. Vice and virtue are united in this way – both are expressions of desire. The call to put away vice is not a call to stop desiring, but rather to desire the right things, to redirect our lives, our strength, our loves, towards the love of God and our neighbour. We are aided in this transformation by asking for the greatest gift, the Holy Spirit, God’s Love to be poured into our hearts.
Jesus says, in the words just before today’s Gospel reading, If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him…I say to you ask, and it will be given to you… [Luke 11:13,11] Let’s not be mute this morning, but ask Jesus even now for his Holy Spirit! Let’s make that a daily prayer.
This morning we now have opportunity to confess the vices we battle with, and our failings, and to be forgiven by God. But Holy Communion is not only about the assurance of forgiveness, it also about an infilling of our souls with Christ, with virtuous desires, with Love. It is only by that infilling that we can…
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
[and be] a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.