THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT – Oculi mei
Introit: (Ps. 25) Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me: for I am desolate and in misery. Ps. Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: O my God, in thee have I trusted, let me not be confounded. Glory be … Mine eyes …
Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants: and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased! The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked, and the sceptre of the rulers. He who smote the people in wrath with a continual stroke, he that ruled the nations in anger, is persecuted, and none hindereth. The whole earth is at rest, and is quiet: they break forth into singing. Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us. Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit. They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms; that made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners? (Isaiah 14.4-17)
Gradual: (Ps. 9) Up, Lord, and let not man have the upper hand: let the heathen be judged in thy sight. V. While mine enemies are driven back: they shall fall and perish at thy presence.
Epistle: Brethren: Be ye 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. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient; but rather giving of thanks: for this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ, and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them: for ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light; (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, and righteousness, and truth;) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them; for it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Therefore it is said, Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (Ephesians 5.1-14)
Tract: (Ps. 123) Unto thee lift I up mine eyes, O thou that dwellest in the heavens. V. Behold, even as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters. V. And as the eyes of a maiden look unto the hand of her mistress: even so our eyes wait upon the Lord our God, until he have mercy upon us. V. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: 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. But some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub, the chief of the devils. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because ye say, that I cast out demons through Beelzebub. And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges. But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. 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 from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth. 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 unto 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 than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it. (St Luke 11.14-28)
“Stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies.”
Anciently, this Sunday marked the beginning of an intensive period of preparation for those to be baptized at Easter, called the “scrutinies” (a practice revived in the Roman Catholic Church under the current RCIA programme, and also in parts of the Anglican Communion for adults preparing for Baptism). For the catechumens this was, in essence, the point from which there was no turning back. In the ancient document called The Apostolic Tradition (2nd or 3rd century) we read:
They who are to be set apart for baptism shall be chosen after their lives have been examined: whether they have lived soberly, whether they have honoured the widows, whether they have visited the sick, whether they have been active in well-doing. When their sponsors have testified that they have done these things, then let them hear the Gospel. Then from the time that they are separated from the other catechumens, hands shall be laid upon them daily in exorcism and, as the day of their baptism draws near, the bishop himself shall exorcise each one of them that he may be personally assured of their purity. Then, if there is any of them who is not good or pure, he shall be put aside as not having heard the word in faith; for it is never possible for the alien to be concealed.
Thus the Third Sunday in Lent was called the “Sunday of Renunciation.” In the Early Church, a commitment to Christ was a decision that meant likely separation from family and friends, as well as persecution from the state. Everyone knew that to follow Jesus was going to cost them something, and this was the day when the Church made it clear that they could have no divided loyalties, no uncertain allegiances. It was the day of decision, of final commitment—were they willing to count the cost or not? Each of us has to make this decision at some time in our lives: who will rule in my life? Am I a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom or am I a subject of the prince of this world?
So on the first three Sundays in Lent, the Historic Lectionary of Christendom gives us readings that prominently feature Satan and his demons. On the First Sunday, Jesus was driven into the wilderness, where He fasted for forty days, and then was tempted by Satan. On the Second, we had the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus for help because her daughter was “severely oppressed by a demon.” And now, on this Third Sunday, Jesus is casting out demons, only to be accused of being in league with “Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” All this devil-talk probably makes us a bit uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about Satan. We prefer to dress him up in a red suit with tail and pitchfork, put him in cartoons and movies, and turn him into a caricature. And that is fine with him. He doesn’t mind at all if we make him look silly or harmless or even fascinating, because that way, we will not guard ourselves against him. But the Church simply will not let us do that. In these Lenten readings, She brings the devil front and centre, to remind us that we are in a spiritual warfare. And while that may not be comfortable, it is important. The word “devil” means slanderer. The name “Satan” means accuser or adversary. The “father of lies” is both accuser and slanderer, and his accusations are real and devastating. Indeed, he accuses us of those very sins into which he himself leads us. Satan would have us believe that we can lead unchristian lives and still retain the Christian name. St Paul warns us in today’s Epistle about this very thing: But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient; but rather giving of thanks: For this ye know, that no fornicator, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words. In other words, sweep all these things away, and cast them out of your hearts and lives by the power of God through prayer.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus casts out a demon, only to have the scribes and Pharisees accuse Him of being in cahoots with the devil, casting out demons in the name of “Beelzebub (or Beelzebul), the chief of the devils.” Beelzebub was a Philistine god, formerly worshipped in Ekron (cf. II Kings 1), and the name was later adopted by the Jews for a major demon. It is thought to be derived from the Canaanite god Baal, with the descriptor “zebub,” meaning flies, suggesting a relationship between the Philistine god and ancient cults of flying insects, often seen as a cause of disease (cf. Exodus 8.16-24). Alternatively, the deity’s actual name may have been Baal-zebul, “lord of the (heavenly) dwelling,” with “Baal-zebub” being a derogatory pun, “lord of the flies (and all other unpleasant things associated with them),” used by the Israelites. This title is very descriptive, as we picture Satan and all his demons swarming about us, tempting us to sin. But interestingly, the Greek text of our Gospel (and hence most modern English translations) actually uses the name “Beelzebul.” Thus, David Curry believes that Jesus, Who would have been speaking in Aramaic, employs a clever pun in His parable. Curry says:
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?
Jesus shows how utterly foolish their premise is. “A house divided cannot stand. If Satan be divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?” The point is clear: Jesus cannot be working for or with the devil if He is so clearly working against the devil. Then He goes into the parable on the strong man. There is a reason the Scriptures refer to the devil as “the prince of this world.” He and his minions are far stronger than any of us. Thus St Paul warns us that we are battling, not against ordinary flesh and blood, but against the spiritual rulers and powers of this present darkness (Eph 6.12). However, this strong man is no match for the stronger Man, who breaks in and overcomes him. When the Lord God of Israel, in the flesh and person of Jesus Christ, breaks in, the Baal of the Zebul—the lord of the manor—is bound, overcome, and put down by One much mightier than he. Satan and all his demons are no match for the Lord of Life. No matter how bleak and fly-infested and rotten things may seem to be, the Lord of Life is in charge. The stronger Man—God in the flesh—has already entered and has overcome. The lord of the flies/death has been crushed by the Lord of Life, rendered impotent by the Omnipotent. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Death has been swallowed up in victory!” (I Cor 15.54-55).
“But,” He says, “if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.” The expression, “the finger of God,” is significant. That phrase is used only five times in the Bible, four of which are in the Old Testament. In Exodus 8.16-24, Pharaoh’s magicians recognise the plagues of gnats and flies as “the finger of God” raised in judgement against them. Exodus 31.18 and Deuteronomy 9.10 speak of the finger of God writing the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets. In Psalm 8.2, the entire creation is said to be “the work of [God’s] fingers.” And now here, Jesus says that He casts out demons by the finger of God. That is, His casting out of demons is a fulfilment of the Law, a plague upon the kingdom of the enslaver, and a new creation. In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus clearly identifies this “finger of God” as the Holy Spirit. Thus in the great Pentecost Hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus, we sing: “Tu septiformis munere, Digitus paternae dexterae,” “O Finger of the hand divine, the seven-fold gifts of grace are thine” (Hymn #852). Our Lord’s mention of “seven other spirits more wicked than himself” finds a parallel in these Seven Gifts of the Spirit (Isa 11.2), or “the seven Spirits of God” (Rev 1.4, 3.1, 4.5, 5.6), as St Bruno (founder of the Carthusian Order) says:
… But who are these seven spirits? Why also are they seven? Why are they more wicked than himself? Because seven are the gifts of the Holy Ghost, by means of which every soul is converted to faith in Christ, and defended against the contrary evils. Therefore the unclean spirit takes unto him those seven wickeder, contrary, spirits, with which he defends the house against the virtues, namely: opposing the spirit of stupidity to the spirit of wisdom; the spirit of revolt and unreason to the spirit of understanding; the spirit of rashness to the spirit of counsel; the spirit of inconstancy and fear to the spirit of fortitude; the spirit of ignorance to the spirit of knowledge; the spirit of impiety to the spirit of piety; the spirit of contempt and hate to the spirit of the fear of the Lord.
Then Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Now that is pretty cut-and-dry. Either you are with Jesus, or you are against Jesus. Put another way, either we are with Jesus or we are with the devil. There is no neutral ground here. Those are the only two sides. There is a reason why this particular Gospel has been appointed for century upon century, smack-dab in the middle of this season of repentance. We know we all sin. And sin puts us at enmity with God. We know the Ten Commandments. We know what God clearly says about things such as idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, murder, covetousness, lying, and slander. And yet, we still do these things, oftentimes quite willingly and unapologetically. We may not want to admit it, but there are plenty of times when we are against Christ. No one forces us, against our will or under threat of death; we are not innocent, unwilling victims. We have defiantly stood against God!
Satan is powerful, as we see throughout the Scriptures. He is constantly leading people astray, and wreaking havoc wherever he can. But Satan’s real power is to lie. And as human beings in this world, we believe him when he tells us that our sins really aren’t that bad. “Go ahead and hold that grudge,” he says, “it’s not like you killed anyone.” “Go ahead and indulge that lustful image, it’s not like you’re committing adultery.” “Go ahead and believe in whatever god you want; if God is love, then love is god, and love can mean whatever you choose it to mean; and ultimately, all roads lead to heaven, anyway.” “Go ahead and skip church; you do enough good things already, and you’re not nearly as bad as your neighbour; what do you really need church for anyway?” etc., etc. Ever since the Garden of Eden, Satan has been lying to us, enticing us to question the Word of God, twisting the words of Scripture, tempting us to put ourselves in the place of God. “Did God really say…?” And we bite … every single time. As descendants of Adam and Eve, we share in the pride of our first parents, and are subject to the power of the devil, and as to just how self-centred we are, even from the youngest age, any parent can testify. Satan, as our Lord describes in our text today, is strong—far stronger than you or I—and has come fully armed, and made the human heart his palace. And he keeps or safeguards (note that word ‘safeguard,’ because it comes up again shortly) his house and all its goods securely under his lordship. But now One who is infinitely stronger than Satan has come in the most unexpected of ways, disarmed him, stripped him of his armour, and robbed him of all his ill-gotten gains—utterly defeating him.
Jesus came to do battle with the devil. God became a man to do for mankind what no human being could ever do for himself. The Son of God laid aside His crown, and came down to this valley of darkness, death and despair in order to save us from its thrall by His perfect obedience and perfect love. He resisted the devil’s temptations and drove him away with the Word of God. He invaded Satan’s kingdom, casting out devils and healing those possessed by evil spirits. He went to the cross of Calvary, suffered and died like a common criminal, taking upon Himself the sin of the whole world. As He hung upon that cross, it looked as if He had been utterly defeated by the strong man. But that apparent defeat turned out to be the greatest and most unexpected victory of all time. Christ’s passion appeared as death. But it was ultimately the death of death, and in the place of death He bestows a life worth living. Our Lord battled against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. And He won. And so, we too can have victory. In Him the pleasures of the flesh are seen as nothing but a pretense and a sham, giving no lasting satisfaction, but leaving one unsatisfied, empty, and just that much closer to a bitter death. When those baptismal waters washed over us, Christ was uniting us to Himself, setting us free from the lies of the devil, and setting up His Kingdom within the now cleaned-out house that is our heart. When Christ makes Himself at home in our hearts, the unclean spirit cannot come back with seven more spirits more wicked than himself, because the Stronger Man from whom the seven-fold Spirit of holiness proceeds prevents them. We continue to fight against the unholy trinity of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, but we now fight as those who have already triumphed in Christ. We no longer belong to the kingdom of darkness, as St Paul says. Because of Christ, we are now light in the Lord. By His Holy Spirit, He empowers us to live a life that is different from that of the world around us, with different priorities, different values, and different goals. We are free to live as lights in the darkness.
One cannot walk in the Light while at the same time willingly dallying in the darkness. Either we are walking with Christ, or we are walking away from Him. Christians can fall away from the Faith even after having faithfully confessed it. If you live to please your sinful nature you will drive faith from your heart. So how can we be certain whether we are in the kingdom of God or in the kingdom of the devil? Well, Jesus answers that. A woman exclaims, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.” Yes, most assuredly, Our Lady was truly blessed beyond measure. But Jesus says that she is blessed because she heard the Word of God and kept it, and likewise any and all who hear His Word and keep it (this is that same word ‘safeguard’ used earlier) shall be blessed even as His blessed Mother. St Bruno again writes: “This is as if He said: Blessed indeed is My Mother, and blessed the womb that bore Me. But not for this is she blessed: because she is My Mother. Neither is the womb blessed because it bore Me. But both are blessed because she heard the Word of God, and hearing it, believed; and believing, she safeguarded it. For had she not done this, she would neither be blessed, nor My Mother.” God’s Word has the power to convict even the hardest heart and bring the proud and boastful to their knees in humility and repentance. God’s Word has the power to remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36.26). People with no hope are given hope through the power of God’s Word. “Blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” Of course, we don’t “try” to hear and keep the Word of God in some misguided attempt to earn God’s grace and favour. If we were able to keep all the commands and Word of God (or even any of them) on our own, then Our Lord’s Incarnation and Passion would have been unnecessary. To keep God’s Word is not just to hold on to it sentimentally; it is to know it—to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it—so as to be able to wield it against all the slanders and lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Word of God is the sword of our spiritual armour (Eph 6.17).
In the ancient garden of Paradise, the serpent tempted man and woman, saying, “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3.5). In vain ambition, and against God’s command, we ate of that forbidden tree, asserting the pride that we do not need God, but 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. Certainly the devil is “a strong man armed;” but “a stronger than he has come.” The “Seed of the Woman” crushed the Serpent’s head upon the cross, and has become our champion, setting us free from bondage to sin, death, and the devil, to walk as children of the Light, and to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit.
“Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.”
Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee, grant thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil: and with pure hearts and minds to follow thee the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer Over the People: O Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household in continual godliness: that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the Lord bless us and keep us.