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The Third Sunday in Lent

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church Windsor NS, AD 2002

“Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it”


We are defined by the company we keep, it seems.  In these days of Lent, we seem to be much in the company of demons and devils.  Christ is tempted by the devil in the wilderness; the daughter of the Canaanite women is “grievously vexed with a devil”, and, if that were not enough, a host of demons and even Beelzebul, the Prince of the demons, Satan himself, comes into our midst.  Demons a-plenty, one for each of us, it seems, and even more, demons especially for our own age, the sevenfold demons of disillusionment and despair, for “the last state of that man is worse than the first.”


It is not the sort of company we might wish to keep.  “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness”, St. Paul tells us (Eph 5.11).  Christ does not wish it for us either.  He seeks our blessedness and our blessedness is found in him.  No doubt, we go into the desert, but not to become the desert, barren and empty.  We go into the Lenten wilderness to see more clearly and less confusedly the demons of sin within us which keep us from God and the truth of our selves.  The demons are just the forms of that willed separation of our selves from God.  But we do not go into the wilderness to become those demons, to be defined or possessed by them.


It belongs to our blessedness to know the forms of the rejection of blessedness, to know what it means to deny the absolute goodness of God.  There is a moral imperative to our being “followers of God” (Eph.5.1).  God has to teach us what is wrong with us in order to make us right again.  Christ is our teacher who teaches us on the way of the cross.  The whole life of Christ is the way of the cross, but how much more so when he has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk. 9.51)?  Today’s Gospel presents us with what it means, first, to hear the Word of God and not keep it, and second, to hear the Word of God and keep it.  The difference is between the miserable company of demons and the blessed company of Christ in the fellowship of the faithful.


Christ comes strewing blessings on his way.  Here is the blessing of a miracle, a double act of healing.  But how will we receive it?  Will we hear this word and keep it as a blessing upon us?  Or will we only hear and see the act but reject the one who does the act?  Christ casts out a demon and makes him who was dumb to speak.  “And the people wondered.”  There could be no doubting of the deed.  It was done, but what was the cause of its being done?


Jesus who casts out demons is accused of casting them out by a demon himself, and indeed, by no ordinary demon, but by Beelzebul, the Prince of the demons, literally, “the lord of the dwelling”, who takes over a soul and so possesses it.  Here is the extraordinary thing.  Christ is deemed demonic for casting out a demon!  Thus, the absolute goodness of God which flows from the healing touch and teaching words of Christ is declared not-good, and an act of blessedness is attributed to the very principle of the rejection of all blessedness. 


And there were others for whom this act of healing did not suffice to convince them of the truth of God in Jesus Christ.  They seek from him what is, in fact, before their very eyes, a sign from heaven.  But if they would not see it, then they cannot see it.  With the word of the dumb man now made to speak still ringing in their ears, they deny the Word of God which made him to hear and speak.  Such contradictions are a wonder to behold. 


But the greater wonder appears in our Lord’s response.  He would show them what their accusation really means.  He, knowing their hearts, exposes their hearts.  How does he reply?  By means of a careful explanation.  He plays upon the name of Beelzebul, with its suggested cognates of kingdom and house, to show the folly of their accusation and the consequences of their rejection.  A kingdom, Beel, “divided against itself is brought to desolation.”  A house, Zebul or Zebulon, “divided against itself falleth.”  If Satan who is Beelzebul, the Lord of the house of rebellion, is divided against himself, how can he stand?


How can he stand, let alone, how can he cast out demons?  He stands but only as upon that which he denies.  He is a standing contradiction.  Satan is the spirit of contradiction and rebellion, the spirit of the refusal to acknowledge the truth and goodness of God, the refusal to honour his own derivation.  He defines himself in antagonism towards the known truth of God.  But the fact of his denial of God cannot negate the fact of his creation.  He simply exists in the contradiction of depending upon the God whom he denies.  Such is utter futility.  Such is the devil.


In any event, he who is the cause of the denial of God’s goodness cannot be the cause of the casting out of demons.  What, then, is the cause of the casting out of the demons from the dumb man and of his being made to speak?  “The finger of God.”  By it you know that the kingdom of God is come upon you.  “The right hand of the Lord hath the preeminence”, sings the Psalmist.  “Stretch forth thy right hand”, pleads the Collect.  But “the finger of God” shall suffice, says Jesus.  That finger is stronger than any strong man armed. 


It is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the indwelling Spirit of the love of the Father and the Son.  Where that Spirit dwells, there can be no place for demons.  And so Jesus is not content to leave things at this pass.  There is more at stake in this business of Lent than simply cleansing the soul.  There is more involved than just chasing out the demons of the soul’s disorder and disarray.  What’s the point of that if our souls only remain barren and desolate, if our souls only become vacuum land, as it were, totally devoid of purpose?  There is no point at all surely, if we simply become a desert within.  For then we are in danger of a greater possession, a sevenfold possession, having despaired altogether, it seems, of the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. 


Christ knows the greater dangers of our disillusionment, how our sense of the seeming endlessness of one thing after another leads us to deny that there is anything absolute, that there is any purpose or any purpose that can be known.  To the contrary, he would make that purpose known even in the midst of the experience of desolation and despair.  The point of the finger grace of God is not to leave us empty and desolate, but open to being filled by the grace of God.  It would place us in the company of Christ, hearing the Word of God and keeping it.  He who cast out the demons of sin would fill us with his grace.  He is the absolute goodness of God, the antidote to despair.  All purpose is to be found in him.


Suddenly the point begins to come home.  Out of that same crowd now comes another voice, the voice of a woman who recognises something of the blessedness of Jesus, both in his act of healing and his words of teaching.  She takes delight in the blessedness which he simply is, but in the form of honouring his being incarnate from his mother, the means of his being with us.  “Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which gave thee suck”, she says (Lk. 11.27).  Our Lord replies as if to say, yes, blessed indeed, yet, “rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it” (Lk.11.28).  He affirms what she has acknowledged but extends it further by way of application.  She blesses Christ and Christ blesses us.  She would have all blessedness rest in him; he would share it with us.  No benefit that he was born for us unless he be born in us.  He would have that blessedness in her and in us.  But only if we hear his word and keep it. 


It means the way of the cross.  No blessedness for us in him apart from the cross.  The cross is his pulpit.  There we may hear his word.  I pray that we may keep it.  But what company shall we keep at the cross?  Shall we be in the company of the soldiers and those who mocked him?  “If thou be the Son of God, save thyself”.  Shall we persist in denying him, like Peter, and find ourselves in the wretched company of the betrayers?  Or shall we be in the company of the Centurion who acknowledges him even in his death, “truly, this was the Son of God.”  Shall we be in the company of those who attend to his words of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”?


At the cross we see the meaning of all desolation.  He who is our blessedness “was made sin for us.”  He has identified himself with the desolation of our sins and makes that desolation visible to us.  “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”  The Son offers up the experience of total desolation - our complete despair - into the eternal fellowship of the Trinity.  He makes the desolation of sin the occasion of his greatest blessedness towards us.  He would fill the void of our souls with the fullness of his love, if only we would “hear the word of God and keep it.”  Such is the burning love of the crucified for us.  There is no blessedness except through “that most burning love for the crucified” in us (Bonaventure).  It means to be in the company of those who look with penitential adoration upon the crucified. 


“Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it”