Appearance vs. Reality
Ash Wednesday 2013
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
February 13, 2013
Luke 11:17 “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”.
Nothing defeats evil like the force of pure, cool, logic, especially when it comes from a godly source. The scene from our Gospel selection is one of my favorite confrontations of Christ with the Pharisees, as he coolly destroys their feeble argument that he is casting out demons by the power and authority of Satan. One source says this: “Some of the Jewish leaders reacted vehemently to Jesus' healings and exorcisms and they opposed him with malicious slander.”[i] Indeed. The Pharisees and Scribes were so incensed by Jesus’ success and popularity that they now sought to tie his healings and miracles in with the chief of demons, Beelzebub. If it weren’t so malicious and so hateful, it would be laughable in its futility.
Cyril of Alexandria, a 5th century church father explains the force of Jesus' argument. He said:
“Kingdoms are established by the fidelity of subjects and the obedience of those under the royal scepter. Houses are established when those who belong to them in no way whatsoever thwart one another but, on the contrary, agree in will and deed. I suppose it would establish the kingdom too of Beelzebub, had he determined to abstain from everything contrary to himself. How then does Satan cast out Satan? It follows then that devils do not depart from people on their own accord but retire unwillingly. “Satan,” he says, “does not fight with himself.” He does not rebuke his own servants. He does not permit himself to injure his own armorbearers. On the contrary, he helps his kingdom. “It remains for you to understand that I crush Satan by divine power.” [Commentary on Luke, Homily 80] [ii]
In this case, Christ asks a question, as he almost always did in these confrontations with the Pharisees. He asks: “And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges. 20 But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you”[iii]
No doubt Christ is referring to Exodus 8:19 here, where Moses is confronting Pharaoh with his sins, both by keeping the Israelite people slaves and his obstinate refusal to see God’s power.
In that scene, Aaron had just stretched out his rod over the dust of Egypt and it became lice, following Moses’ command from God. Then, the Egyptian magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God: and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.” Christ was calling back to their memory a momentous occasion in the life of Israel and tying it to Himself. Just like Pharaoh, they were seeing the “finger of God” right before their very eyes. Just like Pharaoh, they too were engaging in the very same sin of obstinacy. Of course, at this moment, they were not concerned with the physical captivity of an ancient people. Instead, Christ is confronting them with a new kind of personal captivity, the bondage to sin.
He goes on, telling us about a situation where a “strong man” keeps his palace his good are in peace. When one stronger than he comes, he overcomes the original owner and seizes both his goods and his weapons. Christ here is clearly asserting his power over the realm of the unclean, the demonic, by asserting that He is indeed casting out demons with the “finger of God” and overcoming a “strong man”, in this case Beelzebub. [iv] Seen in this light, the Jews’ assertion that Christ is aligned with Satan is even more ridiculous.
Now, Jesus draws a rather somber picture of the plight of a soul being released and then recaptured by the force of satanic occupation. He describes a spirit coming out of man, for whatever reason. Maybe that soul has successfully resisted sin in some fashion, or had some sort of conversion experience. At any rate, the sprit wanders the earth, looking for a host. In this case, it does not find as hospitable quarters as it had before, so it decides to return. It returns to find that its host has done some housecleaning, for its finds the soul refreshed and refurbished. Now, finding a welcome spot, it takes seven other spirits even more wicked than itself and they enter in and put the soul in a worse state than before. What a dreadful picture!
This brings us to the current season, Lent, and the current year, 2010. Once again, we are on the threshold of the somber, yet beautiful season of Lent. Because of its very nature, Lent focuses, like a laser beam, on our interior selves and how they relate to God. In many ways, Lent is very like the “Finger of God” pointed right at us. God expects something from us during this holy and solemn season. Just like the freshly swept and garnished house in Christ’s parable, we can have a real spiritual “house cleaning” this Lent. We can, through daily meditation, abstinence, and weekly worship, achieve something wonderful and holy this Lent.
Just like the soul in the parable, we have the opportunity and the power to cast off the snares of sin this Lent, the power that holds all of us captive in some way. We can experience the clean, free workings of the Spirit in our souls, unhampered by the cloying power of sin. This is what Lent is all about, as we engage in spiritual housekeeping in preparation for Easter 40 days from now.
Yet, also like the soul in the parable, it is not enough to simply “give something up” for Lent. Please, we are not denigrating the power and beauty of abstinence; it is truly powerful and beneficial for us, as we demonstrate the lack of power things have over us. We do this by foregoing them for the period of Lent. This is a worthy and good exercise in godliness. Yet, by itself, it is not enough and can even be detrimental, as evidenced by the replacement of one spirit by seven in the parable. What we must do when we give something up for Lent is to replace it with something. That something is what our souls long for, namely that the ”Lord Jesus wants to fill our hearts and minds with the power of his life-giving word and healing love.”[v] This is not mere pie-in-the-sky spirituality. Instead, it is the very meat and drink that our souls need if they are to grow into the mature beings that Christ wants them to be. Yes, we must seek to banish evil, selfish thoughts and our deeds from our souls, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, we must meet our Lord in daily prayer and meditation, fed by the life-giving Word of God in our private devotions. Yes, we must meet together to worship and be fed by the life-giving Sacrament of the altar. By doing these actions, we will do our part to have a holy and blessed Lent.
In so doing, God will do His part. He will reward you with the most blessed reward of all, Himself. Unlike the swept, garnished and empty house, which simply invites more of the same to enter, your spiritual house will be full of light. Your spiritual house will be full of joy, albeit quiet Lenten joy. Your spiritual house will have no room for “seven other spirits, more wicked than” than the original. It will be a place where God dwells, a place of holiness and truth.
In a few minutes, we will place ashes on our foreheads. We will do this ancient rite to show that we know who we are, creatures of the earth, will all the frailties and failings of the same. Ashes show that we know that we are sinners, indeed needful of the spiritual housecleaning open to us during the Lenten season. Yet, our ashes show something else too: our willingness to turn from our sins and seek the goodness of God. It is here, in our willingness to cast out the bad and to seek the good that our spiritual regeneration begins. It is here that we begin again to clean our spiritual houses, preparing them to receive the goodness and fullness of God.