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A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

by Dr. Robert Crouse

St. James’ Church, Halifax

18 March 1979

 

“When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace; but when a stronger than he shall come upon him and overcome him, he taketh away from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils.” 

St. Luke 11.21

A great military leader, who was also President of the United States, once told reporters that his favourite Biblical text was this:  “When a strong man armed keepeth his house, his goods are in peace.”  The text seemed to lend divine authority to the doctrine of military preparedness.  But quoting verses of scripture out of context can be hazardous.  The President had apparently not noticed that the “strong man armed” in this verse refers to the devil; and the verse goes on to say that “when a stronger than he” – that is, Christ – “shall come upon him and overcome him, he taketh away from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils.”  It is not a statement about the value of military power at all, but about the weakness of demonic powers in comparison with the word of God to overcome them and cast them out.

 

No doubt it is a somewhat obscure and difficult text:  what, really, are these demonic powers, and how are they cast out?  Scripture has a great deal to say about devils, and on the first three Sundays in Lent, in particular, we hear a lot about them.  Jesus was first tempted by the devil in the wilderness;  the Canaanite woman’s daughter was grievously vexed with a devil, and in today’s Gospel lesson, “Jesus was casting out a devil, and it was dumb.”

 

Devils seem to have been very much a part of the scenery.  The bystanders in today’s story were in no doubt about the reality of these devils, but only about how Jesus managed to cast them out.  Some of them suspected that he must have some sort of pact with the chief devil, Beelzebul (or, Lucifer), and demanded proof of his credentials – “a sign from heaven.”

 

Our vocabulary in such matters has changed a good deal since ancient times.  We have little to say about devils, and these old stories from the Bible sound very peculiar:  they seem to smack of the weird, or occult, or superstitious.  “Beelzebul” and his crew seem like characters out of rather unpleasant fairy-tales.

 

But this is no matter of fairy tale, and certainly is not a matter of superstition.  Although our vocabulary has changed, the experience of devils is still very much with us.  To be possessed by a devil means to have one’s will fixed upon some finite person or thing as though it were absolute – as though it were God.  Devils are not simply evil:  Lucifer was, after all, the highest and best of creatures – the angel of light:  his fall consisted in his claim to be “as God”, his fixation upon himself as absolute.  It’s not just a mistake, it’s the willing of a fantasy, the willing of a lie.  And he who wills a lie is possessed and consumed and incapacitated by that lie, mentally and physically.  That’s what it means, I think, to be possessed by a devil, and I suppose that’s not an uncommon predicament in any age, although our language for describing it may change.

 

And how are these devils cast out?  Not by Beelzebul, the prince of the devils – not by the ultimate lie.  Satan’s kingdom is a kingdom of lies, “and if Satan be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand?”  Devils are cast out only by the authority of truth, revealing, unmasking the lie;  puncturing the pretence, reproving the unfruitful works of darkness by the light of truth.  “All these things that are reproved are made manifest by the light,”  says St. Paul, “for whatsoever doth make manifest is light.”

 

This casting out is a kind of disillusionment: the casting away of fantasies and illusions, seeing through the lie.  But disillusionment – about oneself and other people and the good things of creation – is not enough.  “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and finding none, he saith, I will return to my house whence I came out; and when he cometh he findeth it swept and garnished; then goeth he and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked then himself, and they enter in and dwell there;  and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”

 

In our age of enlightened secularism, there are many disillusioned souls, for whom nothing is absolute; souls who see that you can’t trust anybody absolutely; souls who see that the goods of this world are limited and transitory.  But this disillusionment adds up to a kind of cynicism, a spiritual emptiness:  the house is “swept and garnished”.  But the sense of the absolute, the thirst for the absolute will not be denied, and the devils return, more viciously than ever, and in very bizarre forms.  I think that the significance of certain demonic religious cults just now:  they come to the disillusioned, the spiritually empty.

 

The Word of God is certainly a disillusioning word:  it penetrates and criticises and unmasks our fantasies and our lies; it puts its finger on our devils.  Sometimes, through very tough experiences, it shatters our illusions. But it does not leave us empty – it reveals to us the Absolute, which is not ourselves, nor any created thing.  And in that disillusioning and revealing world must be our confidence.  “If I by the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the Kingdom of God hath come upon you.” 

 

Certainly the devil is “a strong man armed”;   but “a stronger than he has come.” 

And were the world all devils o’er,

   And watching to devour us,

We lay it not to heart so sore;

   Not they can overpower us.

       And let the prince of ill

      Look grim as e’er he will,

      He harms us not a whit,

      For why? – his doom is writ;

  A word shall quickly slay him.

 Amen. +