"If I cast out devils by the finger of God, no doubt the
Kingdom of God hath come upon you." (Luke 11.20)
The Church's lessons for the Lenten season are concerned chiefly with
the fundamental elements of moral living: the casting out of sin, and the
acquisition of virtue. That is most obvious, of course, in the Epistle
readings, such as today's lesson from Ephesians; but it is also the basic
meaning of the Gospel lections, of today's story, for instance, about the
casting out of devils. That story tells us that the casting out of sin
is not enough: the empty soul the house swept and garnished the disillusioned
soul, unless it be filled with virtue, is vulnerable to still more grievous
sin, so that "the last state of that man is worse than the first."
The casting out of sin, and the acquisition of virtue is the point of
all the traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
The purpose is our liberation: that we should, be delivered from servitude
to sin, into the spiritual freedom of the children of God. "By the finger
of God" our devils are cast out, and God's Kingdom comes upon us.
The idea of liberation is very popular nowadays, and finds expression
in all sorts of liberation movements, even including what is called "liberation
theology." In such movements generally, the idea is-that our freedom as
individuals, our freedom to be ourselves, is painfully and unjustly restricted
by traditions and social and institutional forms, both secular and ecclesiastical.
The idea is that if we could only be freed from all those forms of external
oppression, then we could really express our true selves, and fulfil our
potential as human beings. Then life would surely be worth living.
Such ideas and attitudes have in recent years penetrated very deeply
into the whole fabric of our society, and have profoundly affected our
family life, our educational theory, our Church life, our political institutions,
and soon, for better or worse. I think that many people now are beginning
to wonder how genuine this liberation is. At any rate, the Christian religion,
especially the message of this Lenten season, calls us to look more deeply
at the problem of oppression and liberation. Just what is the nature of
our servitude, and what is our way to freedom?
In Christian language, our servitude is sin, and our liberty is the
life of virtue, finally the life of heaven. We are promised deliverance
"from the bondage of corruption, into the glorious liberty of the children
of God." (Romans 8.21) And these are not fundamentally matters of oppression
and deliverance by powers outside of ourselves. Sin and virtue are not
fundamentally matters of environment or luck, or external forms, though
of course they are expressed externally. Fundamentally, they are matters
of the soul.
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.
So Christian living is all about the casting out of sin, and the acquisition
of virtue. Today's Gospel tells us that it is the "finger of God," the
Word of God, that casts out our sins, and next Sunday's Gospel tells us
that it is the same Word of God, the "bread of heaven," (John 6.41) which
fills our empty souls with virtue. Sin is not what we happen to find disagreeable,
or inconvenient, or disgusting. Sin is what the Word of God forbids. Virtue
is not what we happen to find pleasant, or nice, or pretty. Virtue is what
the Word of God demands. Our liberation lies in our humble obedience to
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.
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.
In the Church's Lenten message, humility and obedience are the keys
to liberation, and that message focuses in the humble obedience of Christ
our Saviour, "that we should follow the example of his great humility."
In the ancient garden of man's innocence and folly, the serpent tempted
man and woman, saying, "Ye shall be as gods, knowing Good and Evil." (Genesis
3.5) In vain ambition, forsaking God's command, we ate of that forbidden
tree, asserting the pride that we can do everything on our own. Our Lenten
journey is the road between that ancient tree of disobedience, and the
tree of Christ's obedience, on Calvary. That is the price of liberation.