Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
This Lent we are going up to Jerusalem with Jesus – to the Cross on Calvary and beyond. And in this journey, we are confronted by battles with demons. This is what is being reflected in our readings for the past two Sundays and this morning.
To speak about demons and their attacks may sound strange to modern ears.
But I hope as we reflect on these Gospel stories, we can see how true they are to our experience, how these stories very much relate to our own lives.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is casting out a devil from a man who could not speak, and when the devil was gone out of him, the mute man spoke, and the crowds marvelled.
But there were two interpretations of this miracle in the crowd. Some marvelled at the miracle, seeing it as divine intervention. But others were skeptical, Jesus must have done this by Beelzebub, another name for Satan. And Jesus responds that Satan does not both enslave and liberate souls – it is Satan who always enslaves but it is God who is more powerful and who always frees up souls.
When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe, (we can think of how someone bound by his or her own ideas, lies spun by the devil, seems unable to change – there is a kind of stability, the person may feel safe that nothing will change his or her way of thinking on some matter.) but when one stronger than he (that is, God, who is stronger than any individual and stronger than Satan) attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted (God breaks through the armour of the devil’s lies with the truth), and divides his spoil (God “conquers” us, in a sense, by love, that we can be fruitful in our lives – the mute man spoke – it is the devil that binds, it is the Lord who heals and liberates).
I hope that we have all seen this in some way in our own lives, and in the lives of loved ones – the experience of being bound in some way and then released from the grip of false ways of thinking and living. And when this liberation is experienced, when we experience God’s healing power, we cannot help but open our mouths in praise and thanksgiving.
In this morning’s Epistle – St Paul lists some of the ways that we can be bound – he’s talking to the members of the church in Ephesus – sexual immorality, and all impurity, or covetousness – and he says – for at one time you were in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. People didn’t become devout Christians in that day without a real experience of deliverance from evil, and it is the same today. We come to see our need of help and cry out and are delivered. I know deliverance from great evil in my life…and I know it was not by my own power that I was delivered from it – but God’s power – God came to me, before I could even ask for help myself. Like the mother in last Sunday’s Gospel who came to Jesus on behalf of her daughter, I’m sure there were others praying for me. And that deliverance continues in our lives.
As Christians, baptized and believing in God, we are not “possessed” by devils in the same way as is shown dramatically in the movies, or that are seen in some of the Gospel stories, or that are seen even today when the Gospel is preached in lands where the Gospel has never been preached before.
But be sure that we can still be pestered and held back in our spiritual life by the works of the devil. As baptized believers we can all still benefit from the prayers and the counsel of those around us to point out our blind spots and to pray for us for deliverance from evil. But also, our own wills can be engaged in our struggle for holiness of life – we are not mute spiritually, but ourselves can pray to Jesus for the grace to be sanctified, to continue to grow in holiness.
Do you see how the healing of the man who was mute, is meant as a kind of outward illustration of this universal spiritual truth that we all know? Today we give thanks and praise to God who has and is freeing us from all the deceptions of the devil, freeing us up to love more authentically, to use our gifts for their true ends – to give glory to God.
In the Gospel, we are given a warning by Jesus about how the devil will try to continue to work after we have been freed from a lie, from an unclean spirit.
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. (the house is the soul of a person) And when the unclean spirit comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. (Our souls and bodies, when delivered from some form of oppression, are capable of so much more – good or evil.) 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.
Perhaps what Jesus is describing is the fact that for many of us it was one particular kind of binding that brought us low and made us realize our need for help from above, for grace. It may have been what brought us back to the church.
But when we experience that liberty from whatever it was that oppressed us, we should not lose our vigilance.
The soul must not only be swept and set in order but must be in-filled with God’s Spirit, or we will simply become susceptible to some other manipulations of the devil, an even greater binding.
Do you see how it is not enough for us to focus all our attention on the overcoming of one kind of binding – as if the Christian faith is just about kicking a drug habit, or just about being moderate in drink, or is just about sexual purity, or is just about not being greedy, or just about no longer being angry all the time or being a proud vain person – it is about being liberated from all of these things.
It is as the students have been reflecting on in their study of the virtues and in our Prayer and Praise services – the virtues are all tied together – our wholeness depends on being vigilant in all those things that blind us from the vision of God and that cripple us from loving more authentically.
Holiness of life depends upon following the whole of God’s Word, not just a part. Jesus has come to liberate our souls from every form of enslavement, from every lie that, if followed, diminishes our full humanity. We pray, Thy will be done in earth, that is, in our very souls and bodies, as it is in heaven.
At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
St. Paul says in the Epistle this morning that a holy life gives off a pleasing fragrance and people can recognize that.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
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! But even if we are not outstanding saints, we nonetheless experience something of that fragrance of holiness in the Church in our fellowship with other believers – we are moved and encouraged in our contact with one another to a deeper following of the Lord. This is especially important if in other areas of our lives we have little contact with Christians.
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 devil.
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 to be washed through His most precious Blood, that our lives, like Jesus’, may be more and more,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
WE beseech you, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of your humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of your Majesty, to be our defence against [not just one, but] all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.