Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Jesus came to deliver the life of God to mankind, to demonstrate the way of communion with the Father, and to effect—with the sacrifice of His life—the path of repentance for sinful humanity. To do these things He established the community of His Body endowed with gifts of the Holy Spirit so that we who follow that way will not be starting from where the children of Abraham started. Not incidentally, Jesus decisively ended the pretensions of the denizens of Hell. As this morning’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 4:1) relates:
…Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost†. Amen.
The Gospel readings for the first three Sundays of Lent all feature a confrontation between Jesus and spiritual powers opposed to God. The evangelists are clear that opposition to the Son of God is originally demonic. We aren’t given much of a biography of the Satanic powers, but they apparently spend their time working to frustrate the plans of God and, when they can find the time, tormenting humans. However, except for the beginning of Genesis, they don’t appear to play a large role—hardly any role—in the Old Testament. So why was there an explosion of demonic encounters in Palestine during the time of Jesus? Where did they come from?
My theory is that they were there all along and that the advent of the Son of God forced them to manifest their previously secret existence. During the millennium leading up to Jesus, Satan wasn’t sitting on his pointy tail. He’s a planner, the leader of thousands if not millions of active beings acting in conscious opposition to the plans of God. But, how do they know what the plans of God are so they can oppose them? I’m pretty sure they’ve got to listen to humans to find out, the same as their unfallen cousins. Peter indicates in his first epistle that the holy legions, the angels, don’t fully understand the plan of God in His own Son, but it’s something they “desire to look into”. If the heavenly hosts don’t have inside knowledge of God’s plan for us, we can be pretty sure that the devils weren’t told.
But the demons aren’t averse to spying on humans and listening to them. During the Old Testament times, I think Satan had been putting what he and his forces heard together so that he eventually ended up concentrating his attention and power on the people of Israel to corrupt their mission. Eventually he embedded himself in Jerusalem specifically and Judah more broadly because he discovered that God’s redemptive plan would be carried out within the confines of the holy city.
The prophets, inspired by God, informed the children of Israel that they were intended to be a fount of His blessings that would then flow out to benefit the world. Israel was always meant to be a blessing to the whole world. God’s plan started small, intimately and personally with a single man. Abraham was not perfect, but he trusted God and taught his children about Him. The promise began to blossom in the covenant with Jacob, who was renamed Israel. It grew as the people of Israel increased. Moses established the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies as the place of meeting between God and man. Later Solomon constructed the Temple in Jerusalem that served that same function—and he dedicated that Temple to be a place of intercession for all the people of the earth (1 Kings 8).
The Devil knew something of this, though he could only have a vague idea how it was going to be accomplished. But for this reason, he directed the resources of his demonic legions to discovering and, as he understood it, frustrating God’s plan for Israel. I think this diabolic attention contributed to its becoming an unholy place of separation where the Gentiles were specifically disallowed. During the time of Jesus, the Sadducees and the Pharisees together upheld a strict partition against any trace of Gentile contamination. This not only hurt the people of Israel, it acted as a sort of spiritual dam that inhibited the blessings from getting out to the Gentiles. (And I think Paul is addressing this phenomenon in Romans and Galatians when he writes about the effects of the Law on the Jews.)
Of course this concentration of demonic spiritual force on Israel ultimately serves God’s purpose. But how? I’ll explain in five points:
- Satan is immediately alert to the threat of Jesus after God announces that He is well pleased at the theophany by the Jordan River. He tempts Jesus as he tempted our foremother but the Son of God stands and retrieves the authority over creation that had been lost to the Prince of the Air.
- Jesus then shows that both He and his disciples now have dominion over the dark forces. Jesus exercises the power of God against evil in a way that everyone who saw it with an open heart would understand.
- Some speculation: I think Satan suspects that Jesus cannot die a natural death. The Devil rightly worries that the Son of God will become the immortal Emperor of the Earth. To avoid this, he subverts Judas and the leaders of Judah to introduce Jesus to death in a way that would not otherwise have happened. Jesus—fully God, fully man, and wholly innocent of evil—is taken by the trap of death. But the jaws break on the holy bait which ends up freeing mankind, and, ultimately, all of nature, from its icy grip.
- At an equally cosmic level, the death of Jesus allows the harrowing of hell. Jesus enters the stronghold of Satan and frees all those who would not otherwise known the Son of God.
- Lastly, Pentecost unleashes the Spirit of God upon the Earth. The Paraclete becomes the indwelling Spirit of the Body of Christ so that it becomes the earthly dwelling of mercy and blessings that Israel was intended to be. Consequently, the Church spreads over the earth, altering the destiny of mankind forever. All who are baptized in Christ share His redeemed humanity and the victory over demonic forces, spoiling the principalities and powers openly at the same time he blotted out the ordinances against us (Colossians 2:10-15).
So that’s the very good news. Of course, we still have problems. We live between the already of the world re-configured by Jesus Christ, and the not yet of the manifestation of the sons of God in our resurrection bodies. We still have all the tendencies of our fallen flesh. All the lusts intrinsic to our carnal state remain. The wounds of the Fall are still present, though we now have the strongest medicine possible, the Body and Blood of the Son of God, to heal them. The death of this earthly tabernacle is still the penalty for sin and that hasn’t been changed by Jesus’ resurrection. But now we have the hope that just as His body was raised recreated, our body will be also transfigured. The gift of the Holy Spirit cleans and exorcises our hearts which would otherwise be putty in the hands of the Accuser.
But the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. We are partakers of the Holy Spirit, but the vessels in which we hold this treasure is still clay. The fleshly desires that war against the Spirit need to be confronted and subdued. We are called to possess our vessels in sanctification and honor; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God.
The demons have been removed from their position of tyranny over our race, but until the Judgment they can still influence us. We are all subject to temptation.
You may recall the following exchange during the baptismal rite (BCP p. 276):
Question: Dost thou, therefore, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?”
Answer: I renounce them all; and, by God’s help, will endeavor not to follow nor be led by them
Peter warns Christians to: Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). This implies an opportunistic adversary who doesn’t have power against the great mass of humanity but can find people who put themselves in his way.
Paul tells us that: …we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12). Our struggle to bring ourselves into subjection to Christ is not unopposed.
So what do we do?
The end of man is to be united with God. One path to this, advocated by nearly every Church Father who ever wrote, is to discipline the body, purifying it through ascetic acts so that the passions are quieted. This is the discipline of self-denial. In this, we should always be strict with ourselves and lenient towards others.
The current world order, the demonically influenced regime in which we live, is designed to anesthetize us. Our senses are dulled with surfeit. We abound in all manner of things and can gratify all our fleshly desires, but we aren’t mindful of the Giver. Satan wants to keep us apathetic, ignorant, unreflective, focused on what we can get. He wants us to passively receive good things without acknowledgement of any debt.
But this is Lent, a time to establish better behaviors that will assist us going forward. We practice abstinence and fasting to curb the desires of the flesh, to make us alert, responsible, and mindful of the One Who Gives us everything. It is also a time to abandon our usual solitary pursuits and turn to more communal ones so that we can encourage others.
Paul told Timothy that bodily exercise availeth little, but nearly all of us recognize that there are significant benefits to it. When we exercise, we strengthen our bodies. But it is better to practice godliness, to fast and pray rightly, so that we strengthen and sanctify not only ourselves, but our families, our community, and the entire order of creation. Jesus promised that, for those that believe on Him, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water (John 7:38). That is, out of the center of our being, redemptive power will be made available both to us and all around us. Now is the time when we gird up our loins and go to war in the spiritual realm.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost†. Amen.