Monday, October 19, 2009

"On Serpents and Scorpions" - Sermon for the Feast of St. Luke

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

Today’s Gospel reading is set within the context of the appointment and sending of the Seventy Apostles which, because one strand of tradition within the Church records that the Apostle and Evangelist Luke - whose feastday we celebrate today - was one of the Seventy. That tradition also records that he was the companion of Cleopas when the two of them encountered the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, as we hear in the fifth of eleven Resurrection Gospel passages which are read in a cycle during Orthros on Sunday mornings. These Resurrection accounts are read since each Sunday is what the Church calls a “Little Pascha” and the service of Orthros is that service which contains by far the majority of the hymns and readings which explain the meaning of the particular day’s celebration.

The Seventy were sent out to every city and place just as we all are in order to do the work of Christ, to “heal the sick that are there and tell them, ‘the kingdom of God is near you.’” And this they did. We hear today that the Seventy returned rejoicing, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Now we might find such rejoicing strange, since we today don’t usually see demons everywhere acting as openly as they are described in the scriptures or the lives of the saints. But all that means is that they’ve gotten a lot more subtle, and they work quietly to manipulate us into sin and separation from God and from each other, playing upon the sick and diseased human nature we have inherited as the result of Adam’s sin. Instead of outright possession, they whisper suggestions into our ears, catering to the particular weaknesses of each individual.

But we do have a defense against them. Christ gives all of us the same promise he gave to the Seventy: “I have given you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy.”

Now it’s interesting that St. Theophylact of Ochrid, in his commentary on this passage, says that Christ is denoting two different ranks or types of demons when He says ‘serpents’ and ‘scorpions.’ He writes, “Those demons which strike openly and visibly are called serpents. For example, the demons of ... murder are serpents which incite a man to sin openly.” Or, to use another example well-suited to a college town, the demon of drunkenness is a serpent which incites men and women to sin openly. But a scorpion is a demon which would incite a person to a series of events which would lead up to one’s sinning openly. “For its sting is not visible,” St. Theophylact writes, “But instead in secret it urges a man to groom and pamper his flesh in order to cast him into a great fall.” Encouraging one’s despondency over something, or instead overly encouraging one’s mirth in something, such that one goes beyond the number of drinks that is proper use in moderation, well, that is the work of the scorpion. And if one listens enough to the scorpion, one finds him or herself face to face with the demon of drunkenness... and that demon makes a very bad back-seat driver. And the same principle applies in the case of other sins. Moreover, it is important to note that the scorpions’ attacks come through things which are not necessarily sinful in and of themselves, but are only so when taken to excess or for the wrong reasons.

So how do we fight these demons’ whispers, how do we take advantage of that power and authority Christ has said that He has given us? We’ve said that the demons prey upon our sick and diseased human nature. Well, how does a person fight a sickness and infection... swine flu, say, since that has been in the news so much of late? He or she fights it with good nutrition and medicine. The application of these things keeps the body sound and hale and drives out the disease.

For us as Orthodox Christians, the services and the sacraments of the Church are our food and medicine. To be healthy enough to combat the disease of the demons, the serpents and scorpions, we need to participate in them all the more often, as they are offered to us in the life of the parish. After all, how healthy would a person be who ate a meal only once a week? How much good would the medicine prescribed by the physician do if a person used it only sparingly? The hymns and readings for each day provide us with the spiritual nutrients and vitamins we need to keep us fit, and these are present in far more abundance in those services outside the regular Sunday liturgy... in Orthros, in Vespers, in Compline. Our participation in them strengthens us in communion one with another, so that we can help each other fight the battles with the demons. Let us then all fortify ourselves with this food, that we may all as human persons, body and soul, be saved and deified. Amen.