Today’s readings confront us with a stark choice — between Jesus and Beelzebub, light and darkness, faithfulness and apostasy. In truth, we confront this choice day-by-day and moment-by-moment. All our blessings, all our relations, and all our challenges are opportunities to grow more like Jesus or more like his enemy.
Our sermon text comes from the Gospel:
“But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you… He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.”
The events of our text occur shortly after a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry. The first half of St. Luke’s Gospel describes Jesus’ birth, childhood, and early ministry in Galilee. Then, in verse 51 of chapter 9, we read:
“And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Our Gospel reading, then, takes place near the beginning of our Lord’s long, slow journey to Jerusalem—a journey which will culminate in his crucifixion on Good Friday. Earlier accounts of miracles explain what Jesus does in detail, while the astonishment of the crowds and the rapid spread of his renown are briefly summed up in a sentence or two. Now, however, St. Luke emphasizes not the miracles themselves but rather the responses of the crowds. He begins reporting division among them, and he highlights individual comments as well as generalized reactions. Jesus’ ministry, we come to see, evokes not just amazement but also animosity and anger.
Let’s turn to the text.
“JESUS was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake; and the people wondered.”
After this single-verse description of an exorcism, the following twenty-two verses are devoted to this miracle’s aftermath—a back-and-forth between Jesus and the crowds, who respond not only in wonder but also ambivalence, resistance, and rejection.
When I was younger and more naive, I assumed that witnessing a miracle would remove all of my doubts about God. The Bible consistently reveals that this is not the case. Those who witnessed miracles confronted the same dilemma we do — whether to follow Jesus or to reject him.
In our story, Jesus’ audience does not reject the reality of the exorcism. Unlike today, not many at the time were so naive as to assume that reality could be reduced to the merely material. There were no skeptics claiming that the man wasn’t really ever possessed in the first place, no “Jesus truthers” suggesting that Jesus and the mute man were conspiring to defraud the gullible. But their acceptance of the miracle’s reality is not followed by acceptance of the miracle worker Jesus. Some even accuse him of being in league with the devil! Jesus responds, famously, by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s “house divided” speech:
“A house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand?”
Satan casting out Satan hardly makes sense. Jesus elaborates the point with a metaphor: the devil is “a strong man armed,” and if the devil has been overcome, then one must conclude that someone “stronger than he” has “come upon him.”
“If I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.”
In the first half of St. Luke’s Gospel, we as readers are anonymous witnesses to Jesus’s acts, left to wonder along with the crowd. But as the narrative shifts from Christ’s actions to the response, the spotlight turns on us. Like the crowds, we too are pushed to make a choice. No longer can we remain neutral. We cannot respect Jesus at a distance while maintaining comfortable and independent lives. We must either follow him on his journey to the cross, or we must reject him.
“He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.”
Like this demon-possessed man, we too are people who have been exorcised. At our baptism, we were transferred from darkness into light. That “strong man armed,” the devil, has been expelled from our lives by one “stronger than he,” Jesus. This was something done to us — not by us. Although the baptismal candidate or his parents and godparents renounce “the devil and all his works,” it is only through baptism that we are given, in the words of the baptismal liturgy, “power and strength to have victory, and to triumph, against the devil, the world, and the flesh.” The unregenerate are enslaved to sin — as helpless as that demon-possessed man.
Jesus goes on to tell a story about an unclean spirit departing from a man, only to return later with “seven other spirits more wicked than himself.” This is quite the scene! Presumably the man Jesus just freed from demonic possession is standing right there amidst the crowd, and I have to think the message came through loud and clear: having a demon cast out of you by Jesus himself does not automatically keep you in a state of grace. And I hope the message for us is equally clear.
Our Gospel text concludes,
“blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.”
The epistle reading elaborates on what it means for us to “keep” the word of God. By grace and through baptism we are equipped to follow our Lord’s path. St. Paul writes,
“Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour… For ye were sometimes darkness, but now ye are light in the Lord.”
St. Paul does not say that the Ephesians were “in darkness” — rather, they were darkness, and now they are light. Darkness and light in this Pauline sense are not, therefore, a result of our location or circumstances but rather proceed from who we are. Whereas the Ephesians once carried about with them the darkness of the sin to which, like the demon-possessed man from the gospel, they were enslaved, now the light of Christ bursts forth from their very being.
And so, precisely because they are light, St. Paul commands them to “walk as children of light” in “the fruit of the Spirit” — “all goodness and righteousness and truth.”
So what does it look like for us to walk as children of light during Lent — especially during this particular, exceedingly strange Lent? I don’t know about you, but I tend to find Lenten disciplines easy and enjoyable for the first week or so — a nice change of pace, a sharpening of mind and spirit. Right about now, though, is when motivation flags. The novelty has worn off. Now it just seems difficult. It would be easy to let things slide. Now is when we need to be shaken — hence the conclusion of our epistle text:
“Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus startles his audience out of their complacency. He never permits a lukewarm neutrality but pushes towards crisis, towards critical moments of decision. Our lives are filled with such decisions — to follow Christ or to neglect him, to grow through ever-deepening conversions or to fall into slumber and slip away in a practical apostasy.
Perhaps we ought to conceive of our current, unusual circumstances as just such a moment. I am not at all suggesting that God allowed, much less foreordained, a coronavirus outbreak to boost your spiritual life — heaven forbid I should be so presumptuous. But I am suggesting that, while we have little control over the things we confront, we do control how we interpret and respond to them.
Many of us will find our lives less busy in the coming days. Most of us will be at least somewhat affected financially — in some cases, perhaps quite seriously. As one author wryly commented yesterday, “[I] honestly hadn’t planned on giving up quite this much for Lent.”
We may also find ourselves more uneasy. And yet, because the light in which we dwell comes from who we are in Christ and not our circumstances, even amidst the dark anxiety of this very moment we have the opportunity to bring forth Christ’s light.
To that end, let me close with a few suggestions:
First, consider how you might help those in need, especially those of this parish, which is a local instantiation of the Body of Christ. Our parish’s St. Stephen’s Fund exists to help those among us in financial need. Consider making a contribution. Others may suffer from loneliness due to the “social distancing” measures encouraged by public health experts. Think about ways that you might safely mitigate the impacts of such isolation for others. This is part of what it looks like for us to “walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God.”
Second, recognize when a prudent desire to stay informed becomes an unhealthy obsession. Consider placing deliberate boundaries around your media consumption.
Third, take this as an opportunity for spiritual formation. Every day and every moment we choose whom we will serve. That’s true of the most mundane periods of our lives, and it is true now. The best way to do this is simply to continue your Lenten rule of life, but if you find yourself at home or alone more often or with less work than usual, consider dedicating more time to prayer and devotional reading. And if you find yourself more anxious than usual, the Book of Common Prayer can help you channel and reshape your anxiety in healthy ways. The prayer on page 45 of the BCP expresses this beautifully:
“O MOST mighty and merciful God… grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life.”
Likewise, the Lenten collects are generally quite appropriate for use in any time of need. Last week’s is especially potent in this moment, and so I would like to finish by reading it:
“ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”