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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent

We have already gone through four weeks of Great Lent, the bigger part of it. Maybe someone feels tired, bodily or mentally weak, this is why the Holy Church today reminds us that the path of Great Lent is a difficult ascent to God, into the Kingdom of Heaven. Like any ascent, the path of fasting is a feat, gradually moving from one level to another. It is impossible to immediately jump to the top of the mountain, but you have to climb its slope, step by step, from stone to stone. Likewise, it is impossible to get rid of our sins at once, but it is necessary, constantly overcoming oneself, to conquer passions one after another, and then, with God’s help, we can ascend to the peak of virtues.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent

Today’s Sunday reading from Gospel of Mark tells us how the Lord healed a boy possessed by an unclean spirit. One day a certain man came to the Lord and shared his great grief. He told Jesus, “Master! I brought to You my son, possessed by an unclean spirit, he often beats on the ground, foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth. I turned to your disciples for help, but they could not heal him.” As soon as Jesus heard that the demon tormented the boy, He was troubled in spirit, that is, he was very upset, for it was regrettable for Him that that boy, due to the lack of faith in his close disciples, was given over to be tormented by demons. Jesus said, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” As soon as the youth was brought in, the unclean spirit “convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.” Jesus asked his father, for how many years that had been happening to him. To which the father replied, “From childhood. The evil spirit has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can help us, have pity on us and help.” The Lord, apparently, asked the question about the duration of the illness not by accident, but wanting to lead the father to faith and prayer, for that man was far from faith, since he had not prayed to the Lord for the salvation of his son for so many years. The merciful Lord sees the father’s little faith also in the fact that the boy’s father said to Him: “If you can help,” thereby expressing distrust in the Divine power of Christ. The Lord found it necessary before healing the son to heal the father from the ailment of unbelief first. He said to the father, “If you can believe, then all things are possible to him who believes.” To which the father cried out with tears, “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief!” – that is, “give me the strength to believe, help me to believe deeper and stronger!”

In response to that tearful request, the Lord commanded: “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” The evil spirit went out with a terrible cry, and the young man fell as if dead. The gathered people began to say that he had died. Then Jesus Christ raised the young man by the hand and gave him healthy to his father.

Saint Gregory Palamas in his sermon on today’s Gospel reading writes, “Being the Master and Keeper of souls, the Lord had a concern for healing through faith. The boy’s father, as soon as he heard that his son’s healing would follow his faith, said with tears: I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief. Do you see the wonderful success of this man? He believed not only in the possibility of healing the boy, but also in the fact that, if the Lord wants, He can overcome his unbelief.”

The boy’s father said wonderful words, or, better to say, prayer – with tears, having believed in the Saviour: “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief.” His tears are the evidence that the prayer addressed to God came from the very heart. Having uttered ‘I believe”, the father was, as it were, afraid of his own words: what is my faith, if I have such a child? But immediately, as it were, he repented of his lack of faith, saying: O Lord, help my unbelief. Here in one phrase there is both repentance and turning to the Lord in faith.

Let us pay attention to the behaviour of the father, who first turned not to the Saviour, but to His disciples. Obviously, in his humility, he considered himself unworthy to go directly to the Teacher, to bother Him, and only when the apostles could not help, he dared to turn to Christ himself.

The Lord asked the father, “How long has the boy had this illness?” Children often suffer because of their parents, and, looking at their children, the parents are tormented by their troubles or illnesses. Obviously, what happened to the boy happened through the fault of his parents. In what way did his parents sin? The Gospel does not tell us about this, but the Lord made it clear: the father did not suffer in vain, he needed that, so that, feeling compassion for the sufferings of his son, he would acquire a wonderful quality of soul, humility, and through humility – faith. The father with all his heart wanted to believe, but his faith was apparently not enough to heal the boy, and he turned to the Lord with hope to strengthen him. And the Lord, due to his humble prayer, gave him faith, and due to that faith his son was immediately healed.

What the Saviour had providentially planned was fulfilled – for his sins, his lack of faith, the father was punished by the illness of his son; he endured that test without grumbling, with humility, which means that the punishment benefited him. And then he gained his son’s health and faith. In Church Slavonic, the word for “punishment”, nakazanie, also means “teaching”, that is, the son’s illness taught his father humility. We see that the father gained faith, which means that the providential punishment with illness was not necessary anymore, for the father learned everything that he needed.

Sometimes, wanting to help our neighbours in their misfortunes, we wonder what to do, what to resort to? We need to resort to prayer, to cry out to God so that He strengthens our faith, which, according to the word of the Gospel, can move mountains. If we want God to hear our prayer, we must try to pray with patience, attention and deepest humility. After all, if our prayer request is not fulfilled, it is not because the Lord does not want to fulfil it. Our prayer is fruitless due to our insufficient faith or humility, and when we have faith and humility in a sufficient degree, precisely the one that the Lord expects of us, then our prayer will be fulfilled. This is what today’s Gospel reading teaches us.

And not only that. When, after the healing the boy, the disciples asked the Lord: “Why could we not heal him?” – the Lord said: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting”. The Lord teaches us that every demonic temptation is driven out by prayer and fasting, that is, by abstinence. But how can a person pray for his own benefit while being under the influence of an evil spirit, being possessed by it? Such a terrible evil demon, which is mentioned in the Gospel, enters especially into the young people. This is the demon of unruliness, which casts them into the fire – the disorderly and insane passions of fornication, – then plunges them into water – gluttony and drinking. This deaf and dumb demon dwells in the people of this kind, because they do not want to talk and hear about divine subjects –repentance and humility. When a person possessed by devilish suggestion cannot heal himself, a sound and believing person must help him, doing for his sake what a sick person would do if he had a free mind. For this, it is necessary to expel from one’s soul the demons of fornication, anger, hatred, arrogance, that is, to conquer one’s passions, to cleanse yourself internally through prayer and fasting, to become inactive for evil, to acquire a free mind, remembering the saying: “Physician, heal yourself” (Luke 4:23) – and asking for the Lord’s help in healing. Then we will have the faith capable of confidently asking the Lord for the healing of our neighbours, possessed by the action of evil spirits.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world in order to destroy the works of the devil, to free us from the work of the enemy, that is, from his power. After the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross, evil spirits no longer invade our lives so brazenly. We know that the devil was defeated by Christ, but not destroyed, not expelled from the world, and therefore we cannot consider ourselves completely protected from his influence. The enemy of the human race sometimes, due to our carelessness, sneaks in secretly and influences our mind and soul with his secret suggestions. Together with sensual passions and lusts, he settles in our hearts and takes root in them.

Each of us is sometimes tempted by demons: we are tempted by the demons of doubt, despondency, despair, overeating, drunkenness, fornication, anger, greed … Demons want to destroy our soul, like that youth whom they threw first into fire, then into water. Often, instead of fighting these demons, we give in to them and we consider the evil thoughts and inclinations that they instil into us our own. Therefore, each of us needs liberation from these forces of the enemy. How can we expel them? Only by prayer and fasting, repentance and abstinence from sin. Man on his own, by his own force, is not able to overcome sin. Only with the help of the Lord will we be able to get rid of demons, when we will use all our will, all our strength not to sin, and turn to God, crying out from the bottom of our hearts with tears: “Lord! Help, deliver me from this sin! “

Let us take for example the sin of irritability. This demon to one degree or another possesses each of us. How can you achieve healing? We must constantly ask God to help us be patient, humbling ourselves, to help us see something good in that person who annoys us with something, and that those traits of his character that are unpleasant to us would not be so noticeable to us. We must ask the Lord to send patience when we resist irritation, to help us not succumb to demonic cunning and provocation, because in anger the demon wants to take possession of our soul. If we constantly resist irritation and anger with prayer and humility, then this demon will certainly go away from us.

Another example. If a person prays little and rarely goes to church, then he is possessed by the demon of laziness and lack of faith. How can one defeat this demon? Only one way: when Sunday has come – to direct all the strength of the soul to go to the church. If demons hinder us, arranging obstacles, we need to constantly force ourselves, resolutely resist the demons and cry out with tears: “Lord, help my unbelief, help me overcome this” – only then the demons will leave us. But if there is no feat and no resistance to demons, then the person will die remaining possessed, and the demons will pull him to the underworld.

In order for fasting to be salvific for us and drive out from our hearts the spirit of despondency, neglect, love of money and idle talk, the Lord commands that our soul ascend to God in prayer. “Prayer,” writes venerable John Climacus, “is the sojourn and union of man with God; in action, it is the affirmation of peace, reconciliation with God, propitiation for sins, the bridge for crossing temptations, the wall that protects from sorrows, the crushing of the battles, the work of angels, the food for the soul, the enlightenment of the mind. ” The Lord commands us to pray constantly with all our soul, not mechanically, with just the tongue and lips, for the Lord said about such a prayer: “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me” (Matt. 15:8). How can the Lord hear our prayer if, while praying, we do not think about Him, we talk with Him as if turning away from Him. Let the prayer of our heart and mind, strengthening our faith, be fervent and unceasing. Whether we walk, eat, work, or rest, let us do everything with prayer, in the fear of God, for His glory, calling on His holy name. With a pure mind and a humble heart, let us pray to the Almighty God, Lover of humankind, that he deliver us from all demonic possession, from the fire of passions of fornication, from excessive drinking, from everything that defiles hearts and souls. This is especially true of today’s youth, often subject to demonic temptations.

And if our faith weakens, we should not despair, but, turning to God, let us cry: I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief! In the work of our salvation the Lord has arranged so that He will always help us in the struggle with the sin that overpowers us. The temptation allowed by God is never stronger than the will and strength of a person; it is exactly such that we can overcome. We should try not to be led by our passions, which are excited by demons, but to learn to overcome them with patience and humility. But it often happens that during a temptation a person seemingly asks: “Lord, help, I can no longer fight,” and at the same time he strives after sin – this is craftiness, that the Lord condemns and that must be overcome.

Today we honour the memory of venerable John Climacus, who teaches gradual ascension from sin to virtue. In the history of the church, we see many examples of saints who were not bookish people, who spent their lives in solitude, saving their souls by fasting, prayer and godly deeds. By this, they cleansed their hearts from the filth of sin and became capable of receiving the light of truth: “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says the Lord, “for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5, 8). Without this simplicity and purity of heart, being learned in the doctrines of faith is useless and fruitless. The Lord sees the purity of our heart, “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16: 7). If our heart is filled with unclean and crafty thoughts, then God turns away from it. The Lord loves the pure in heart and the poor in spirit, promising the Kingdom of Heaven as a reward to them. Saint Gregory Palamas writes, “The Lord calls beggars those who live in need and squalor, but not all people of this kind. He calls blessed precisely those people who are poor in spirit, that is, those who, out of inner and heartfelt humility and good will, have thus disposed of everything external, that they spend their lives in poverty.”

At the end of today’s Gospel reading we heard how the Lord taught His disciples and told them that “the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matt. 17:22-23). But the disciples did not understand these words and were afraid to ask Him. Why are these words included in the story of the healing of the youth? By this, I think, Evangelist Mark reminds us how dangerous and difficult is the spiritual path, full of suffering and struggle, the path on which one must overcome oneself in order to do not what one wants, but what God commands; this is the path that requires courage and fortitude. This is why the Lord so wisely concludes this Gospel passage with the words about the suffering on the cross.

Let us ask the Lord that on our way of the cross – the way of purification and salvation, peace, prayer and contrition for sins dwell in our hearts. And maybe, brothers and sisters, our merciful Heavenly Father will give us humility, faith and love, which will grow in our patience and lead us to salvation, for the Lord said: “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22).