The Third Sunday in Lent


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We beseech thee, almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants…
Ephesians 5:1-14
Luke 11:14-28

Last Sunday’s themes of fornication and devils are taken up again today but are given broader treatment: the Collect is more upbeat, speaking of our “Hearty desire” to do good and calling on God to stretch forth his right hand of majesty to defend us which we will surely need in view of Paul’s list of our wrongs which expands from sexual sin to covetousness, idolatry and loose talk; and Luke’s reference to a an evil spirit is the starting point for a deeper discussion.

To counter bad behaviour and become worthy of God’s kingdom we are, says Paul, to behave like children, to imitate Christ and to give thanks. We are, after all, the children who have come out of darkness and who live in the Spirit; and we have, in Baptism (cf Easter Day, Anthem Romans 6:9) risen from the dead whereby Christ gives us light. In Luke’s Gospel the people are not sure whether they can tell the difference between darkness and light. Some think that Jesus casts out devils with the power of the chief devil, Beelzebub, but Jesus reasonably replies that a house divided against itself cannot stand and, turning the argument back on his accusers, compares their claim to cast out devils on God’s behalf with his own claim to do the same. In a typically Lucan turn, the discussion is then seen from a different angle. It does not matter how strong you think you are on your own, as an exorcist or a rich man, you are nothing without God. Then the two sets of ideas are fused in a way that is anti intuitive both symbolically and theologically. For us the idea that something that harms us can be fought off by having its own weapons turned against it is familiar in the field of vaccination and even in moral theology there is an argument that to know the evil is necessary to combat it; but for Jesus there is no spiritual vaccination and in his explanation there is a serious warning, particularly for those who think themselves holy. When we reject the devil and try to live a holy life, the cleaner we are (and, even more so, the cleaner we think we are), the more prone we are to re-invasion. Far from being immune from wickedness, those who feel themselves safest are most vulnerable. As the rich man’s downfall is great when his defences are overpowered by a richer man, so the fall of a holy person is greater than that of a sinner. Luke then becomes touchingly physical by putting an earthy blessing into the mouth of a woman to which Jesus replies by exhorting us to hear the Word of God and keep it.

Paul’s customary catalogue of misdeeds is enlivened by his antagonism to foolish and vain talk (cf James 3:1-12) which brings the discussion to an altogether more significant level than his discussion of other vices. Nobody supposes, says Tom Wright (Simply Christian) that God minds very much if we call out his name in a moment of anger, frustration or surprise but, referring to the house of the devils, it is those who put themselves on conversational terms with God that are most likely to fall into vain talk which consists not so much of bald blasphemy but in anthropomorphising God, making ‘him’ seem, paraphrasing Wright again, like us. Wright says, referring to the image of light and dark, that if we are alone in a house at night and are plunged into gloom by a power cut, we grope for matches and use them to find a candle which we light to find a torch but we don’t go out in the morning with a torch to see if the sun has risen. The question arises in this context, referring to our discussion for last week, whether Paul’s notion of God’s wrath is just such a piece of foolish, anthropomorphic talk.

Just as the tongue can be used for or against Good (cf James 3:1-12) so it can be used deliberately for or against our neighbour. This is a danger to which the holiest of us must be alive. Sweetness of speech and temper is so rare that we remark upon it because malice and cynicism are so ubiquitous that they are part of the common currency of our social lives. Paul also counsels against gossip which frequently leads to our hurting others by accident which may not be such a bad reflection on our part but which may do as much damage as the deliberate slur.

We children require the mighty arm of God to defend us from all kinds of wickedness, not all of which is spectacular. There is a sense in the Collect and the Gospel that we not only need to be defended against ourselves but also our enemy, characterised as the devil, which raises the question of how we can prepare ourselves. As with speech and immoral acts, our enemy is insidious; there is, after all, no such thing as a discovered con man! We should be careful of paranoia because God’s creation is good but that does not mean that we should not be vigilant. The corollary of careful talk is careful listening. Sometimes evil is traumatically manifested but most often it proceeds by degrees; it might be a word, or it might just be an inflection. We know from the Nazis that pettiness turned to contempt, then to discrimination, de-humanisation and, finally, slaughter; in a way quite opposite from that which was meant by our own war-time propagandists, careless talk costs lives.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Is the Anglican Communion a “house divided against itself”?
  2. Why is Luke such a good storyteller?
  3. Trace the steps to the gas chambers
  4. Why are holy people most in danger?
  5. Design a short course on carefulness of speech.

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