(Deut. 6:1-9, 20-25, Psalm 25, Eph. 5:1-14, Luke 11:14-28)
When I was learning Hebrew at the Baltimore Hebrew College (now the Baltimore Hebrew University), and learning it the way that Jewish people are taught it (Sephardic Hebrew in fact), I found that a verse from the Book of Isaiah is used in basic instruction as an important tool because of how it rhymes.
(I will stick to the Jewish tradition of using Adonai whenever the original contains the Name, YHVH.)
Ki Adonai Shoph’tenu
“For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he is our Salvation.” Isaiah 33:22
This is the essence of what Jesus said in today’s Gospel. We need him as our only Salvation; so we must acknowledge him to be our Judge, our Lawgiver and our King. In the word for our Salvation, do you see his name? Yeshienu, the plural possessive of Yeshua-or Jesus. He is our Judge, he is our Lawgiver, He is our King, and therefore, he is our Salvation. We gather with him, our only Salvation, or we scatter, lost forever.
The collect today speaks of God as “the defence against our enemies”. What is meant by the use of the word enemies? Classically, Christians have known there are three enemies: The world, the flesh and the devil.
The image we are given in the Gospel reading, that of the strong man being overcome by One even stronger than he, was vividly portrayed for us in the news several years ago. If I may take the liberty of casting Saddam Hussein in the role of the devil; this is a man who had ruled over his conquered subjects, and who sat secure on his stockpile of wealth, who was overcome by superior strength.
So too, the devil has dominated the world, and subjected mankind to his will since the Fall. But, when Christ came into the world, He overcame the strong man and spoiled his goods. However, we have yet to see our complete liberation, which will be at Christ’s second coming. At that time even death itself will be destroyed. What we are told is that we who belong to Christ have been set free from the domination of Satan, but that for now our freedom must be completed by enduring a battle. This battle is a defensive fight against the world, the flesh and the devil.
There is also an offensive fight, one in which the Church attacks, and Satan is forced to be on the defensive. That is another subject, the subject of mission, of evangelism.
To answer one obvious and confusing question, what is the world; that is in the sense in which it is an enemy? St. John tells us to love not the world, nor to love the things in it: Those things are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (I John 2:15f). The world, in this sense, is defined in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, which we hear often. Speaking of Christ, it says : “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.” That verse tells of a great tragedy, namely the Fall of man into sin and death, the state from which Christ redeems us. Because man is the head of this created order, his fall is the Fall of the whole world. And the definition of “the world” as an enemy, a force that opposes us as Christians trying to live a holy life, is found in these words: “the world knew Him not.” The world does not know Christ.
To attack us, the world makes use of our flesh, assaulting us with desires of the flesh, and of the eyes, and with that deadly sin of pride, whereby we place ourselves upon the throne of God. Imagining ourselves upon His throne, in our conceits, we demand and expect a life to which we are not entitled; we think it an injustice when life is not kind to us. We forget that if justice were served, we would be in hell; that what evils befall us are less than we deserve. We forget to be thankful, and instead complain against God. We refuse, indeed despise, the cross.
This is what the world, acting as our enemy, does to us through our senses and through our conceits. It is to this that St. Paul speaks in the Epistle reading. And he does so with direct words about the dangers that surround us, as well as those that come from within our own hearts. Yet all the while he does so with words that give us hope. That hope is because of the fact that we ourselves, though once a part of the very darkness of sin and death itself, are now part of the light of life, being, as we are, in Christ.
And, we are given practical help in the Old Testament commandment from Deuteronomy, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This commandment contains the most revered statement in Jewish liturgy, the Sh’mai:
Sh’mai Israel, Adonai Elehenu, Adonai echod.
“Hear O’ Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
Sh’mai is a very important word in Hebrew. It means two things when translated into English. Depending upon how it is used, it translates as “hear” or as “obey.” The first thing to obey is the great commandment itself. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
This is practical, very practical. Consider this simple fact. None of us here will be sinless, that is free of the full dangers and lures of concupiscence, until we are made perfect either after death or at Christ’s coming- whichever come first. We remain in need of God’s grace in every effort in life. We will not achieve sinless perfection in this life. But, we can, nonetheless, practice obedience. And obedience, though it includes saying “no" to worldly desires, that is that it has its "no" (because of God’s commandments that use the phrase “thou shalt not”), has, as well, it’s “yes”. Obedience says both “no” and “yes”. No, to the world, no to the flesh, no to the devil. But, all of these “nos” amount to a far greater and single “yes” to God. And that “yes” is a yes to many things. To charity with its demands and inconveniences, to prayer, to fasting and repentance, and also to the taking up of the cross. The yes to the taking up of the cross is the no to the world, the flesh and the devil. It is the great yes of love to God.
Jesus did not carry the cross only upon one Friday. He carried it every day, living always to do the Father’s will rather than His own. We say no to the world and yes to God when we give our time to Him, when we give our strength to Him, instead of wasting it upon many pleasure and cares. The world will drain all of our strength, if we give ourselves to every fruitless activity that comes along; or if we destroy our bodies-which are God’s- through drugs, alcohol or immorality, or even through seemingly innocent things. Some people are inordinate about, for example, shopping (we have heard the phrase “shop till you drop”). Our strength must be yielded to God in love, not wasted and spent foolishly.
What does it mean to love God with all thy mind? In the Grocery stores, I cannot cease to be amazed at how much paper and ink are wasted by tabloids that report news, or perhaps create fiction, or perhaps a combination of the two, about the private lives of celebrities. Who cares about some movies star’s weight problems, or a soap star’s broken marriage? And, who wants to read about their their affairs? If we love God, we must give Him our time, our strength, and our minds. If Christians are wasting time on this trash, it is a sin. In addition to wasting time, it wastes the mind. Remember the slogan of the United Negro College Fund: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
We owe God the love of giving Him our minds. When some people use the word “theology” as if it were a dirty word, it tells me that they are afraid to love God with their minds, and in fact that they despise those who try to so love Him. Remember a collect from Advent. Love God and give your mind to Him as you “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the scriptures.
And, the Lesson from Deuteronomy (at Morning Prayer) commands us to teach our children, to inform their minds in the truth of God’s word. Those who want their children to decide it all for themselves, to come to their own conclusions about religion, sin by neglecting the religious education of children entrusted to their care by God. The scriptures do not give parents the right to neglect the spiritual formation and education of their children. The modern idea that the children should figure it all our for themselves is not an enlightened idea. Failure to teach them the true Faith is a sin. They must be taught God’s word and raised in the Church; for having had them baptized, Christian parents have brought them out of Satan’s bondage into Christ’s kingdom; they do not belong to their parents, nor to themselves. They are God’s children, and parents are entrusted (as stewards) with their care and their godly upbringing. Furthermore, it is not enough that they are taught in just any church; but that what they are taught is the truth of God’s word.
We must, with God’s grace by His Holy Spirit, withstand these three enemies: The world, the flesh and the devil, because we belong, body, soul and strength, to God.
The word that fits here is the word “asceticism.” This is a Lenten theme too. Now, if we want to be good modern people, we must react negatively to this word. We must conjure up images of sleeping on desert sands, fasting until we look like skeletons, perhaps of sleeping like Hindus upon a bed of nails. The negative reaction must include a bigoted rejection of the whole monastic life.
But, as followers of the Catholic Tradition, especially the English Catholic Tradition, the word “asceticism” must be understood in a practical way. We say “no” to those things that inhibit prayer and the growth of the virtues, not simply to obvious and gross sin. For example, we should not fit the normal American pattern of watching six hours of T.V. a day every day. I hope that our “yes” to God’s call upon our time for prayer, upon our mind in learning His word, and to serving Him in whatever good works He prepares for us to walk in, simply does not leave us with enough time for inordinate and intemperate, though seemingly innocent, misuse of time.
This practical saying of “yes” to God, and taking up the cross of Christ, dying to our desires, withstanding the world, the flesh and the devil, is true Christian asceticism. It is also to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and strength. It is to clutter our lives with the presence of the Holy Spirit so fully that the evil one can have no place in us to call home. These are practical ways to live as people who gather with Christ, and who are not scattered.
Let us learn it in Lent. Let us live it always.