The audio of this sermon is available here for December 14, 2014:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of [their] own heart? -Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The line between good and evil does not lie between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between the West and the rest, between Left and Right, between rich and poor. That fateful line runs down the middle of each of us, every human society, every individual. This is not to say that all humans, and all societies, are equally good or bad; far from it. Merely that we are all infected and that all easy attempts to see the problem in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are fatally flawed. -N. T. Wright
Today marks the third Sunday of Advent, and our theme has been that we’re on a journey from darkness to light. We’re saying that when we have the light and life of Christ in us, we bear witness to the light of God that came into the world. And as we approach the day when we finally celebrate God’s full advent on Christmas, God’s full coming, as John the Baptist said we are striving to make straight the way for the Lord, to testify to the one who is come to take away the sins of the world. We do this in hopes that our light will grow and shine in this community, and in this city and beyond.
But we have to understand the darkness in order to reflect light. Two weeks ago, Patrick talked about that — about what sin is, and why things have gone array in this world. He mentioned that God hates sin because of what it does to us! Because of its effects and the harm it does to others. And so there’s something about our nature and this world, that is dark, that is evil. And then last week TJ stressed that this darkness and evil is actually waging war against us. So there is a spiritual struggle that is real, and that manifests itself in our lives — individually, collectively, culturally, and politically! And when we’re unaware of it, or when we deny it, we’re far more susceptible to be overcome by it.
Some of you who were on the Alpha Retreat with me last month heard me talk about resisting evil, and that’s basically what today’s passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 is all about, beginning in v. 4-8:
4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
vv. 21b-22: “Hold on to what is good, and reject every kind of evil.”
vv. 16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
These were the practices we were left with last week — worship and prayer serve to arm and guard us against the assaults and opposition of sin, death and destruction. And why do we do this? To be sanctified, made holy:
v. 23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.”
We do all of this — we arm ourselves — so that we might be transformed and begin to look more and more like Jesus.
It was also mentioned last week that we must be diligent in the study of Scripture to understand and discern how and in what ways darkness sneaks up on us, so that we might resist it. This is part of what Paul means in verses 19-21 when he says “Don’t quench the Spirit . . . but test everything.”
And that’s where we’re going this morning. I want to look a little more at some of the ways evil tends to manifest itself — in society, yes, as Patrick talked about two weeks ago, but more specifically for today, how it gets a foothold in communities like the church, and then see what we can do to resist it.
Talking about resisting evil is viewed with condescension and suspicion in our culture. If we talk about it at all, we tend to reserve the word evil for the really overtly atrocious stuff, like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, ISIS, and so on — and rightly so, but this conveniently this distances us from evil, and as a result can tend to make us blind to not only our indirect responsibility for evil but to the evil that resides in our own hearts.
I’m part of a theology reading group with a few other folks in the church right now, and we’ve just recently finished reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine was probably the most important early Church theologian for the Western church since the time he lived in the 4th Century, and he defined evil as simply the absence of God, or absence of good. In other words, evil is the absence of the abundant life that Jesus promises. That may sound like a pretty tame definition at first, but it rightly emphasizes that good and evil are not equal, opposite forces. Evil only has the power that we give to it. It’s like a parasite. It doesn’t stand by itself. It has to attach to something.
And our theme is very helpful illustration of this. Like good and evil, light and darkness don’t work the same way. If we turned out the lights in this room, and it got really dark, we wouldn’t say, that we turned on the darkness. If we turn on a little bit of light, it can illuminate a big area. In other words, the light is stronger. And God’s light shines everywhere, but I can still cast a shadow by turning my back on the light — by blocking it. And this darkness that we create is the breeding ground for evil.
The gospel reading for this morning speaks to this reality of darkness and light, from John chapter 1, beginning in vv. 4-5:
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
And then on to vv. 10-11:
“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
There are two things going on here. We have to recognize the light, and understand the light. But this also requires recognizing and understanding the darkness. And I would say this is the hardest thing to do. A lot of people can see some semblance of the light in their life, but because they don’t fully recognize and understand the darkness, they can’t receive the light — they can’t experience it!
Again, the word of warning in the sermon last week was that life is a battle, and ignorance about or complacency toward the forces of evil and darkness isn’t going to suffice. The word of warning this week is that, once we’ve acknowledged the presence evil in the world as a real and powerful force — we’re neither denying nor obsessing over it — then we have to learn how to begin to recognize it and understand how it gets a foothold in our communities, so we can then do something about it.
As you all probably know, there was a great shift in history that became especially apparent in Europe during the 18th Century. Authority had already begun to move from being derived from the Church and traditional institutions to being located more and more in the mind of the individual. So you had the rise of what some would just call free thinking. Of course this is generally a good thing, bringing about industrial, medical and technological advances just to mention a few. But modernity also has a dark side!
This dark side was that a kind of arrogance developed in which we thought that, simply through education, technological advancement, or political reform, we could free ourselves from the hindrances of yesterday and basically establish peace on earth. Maybe no society believed this more than Europe in the 20th Century, and Germany in particular, and we know the rest of that story turned out. It led to the bloodiest century in human history. The two world wars alone left 80 million dead.
How could this happen? How could a civilization that seemed so enlightened, so cultured, and so developed, turn to such unspeakable darkness? This is one of the most tragic and ironic periods in all of history. I think part of the answer lies in what I’ve already been talking about: the subtlety and sophistication of evil.
The problem for the Nazis, and for any corrupt political group, wasn’t a lack of education, but a lack of awareness and conviction about the darkness and evil in their own hearts. When groups circle the wagons, close in on itself, this prevents any outside light, God’s light, from coming in, and then it starts to see itself as the one, true, good, righteous group, and to see all other groups and people, or especially one other group of people – in this case, the Jews – as the enemy, as evil, and as the problem. By locating evil outside of themselves, they, and we, become blind to the evil within. It’s an extreme example, but in can happens in individual and families lives, or the church too.
Do any of you watch the British show Downton Abbey? Well, you can watch the fifth season online even though it doesn’t air in the US until 2015, so Whitney and I have been enjoying that. If you don’t watch the show, Downtown Abbey is about an aristocratic family living in the English countryside during and after WWI. This was a time of immense cultural, technological and political upheaval, and change is a major theme throughout the series. There’s a character named Tom who is a Irish, blue collar worker, but he marries into the Grantham family — he marries the daughter of Lord Grantham, who is the head of the household.
Needless to say, they don’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything — especially politics. There’s a great deal of animosity and tension between them, especially at the dinner table. Tom’s a socialist, and he thinks his people have been victimized by British Elites for many years. Lord Grantham thinks the ruling class knows best and is most suited to govern the country. So both individuals see themselves morally superior and innocent of their groups alleged crimes.
But since Tom marries their daughter, he has to move into their estate, their mansion, and get to know them on a personal level, rather than just judging them on the basis of their social privilege and traditional, aristocratic politics. And they have to learn to do the same thing with him. The show isn’t over yet, but eventually, tragedy brings them together, and they realize that they’ve both grossly misjudged each other, and both parties grow to have deep affection for one another even though they disagree fervently about the best way to govern the country. They stop demonizing each other, and they learn to listen. The “Us vs. Them” mentality, is all but dissolved. There’s a moment when this becomes especially clear. Tom meets a woman with a similar background to his. She learns his story and asks him, “Tom, I’m surprised you associate with these types of people.” Tom replies, “Yeah, well I guess I don’t believe in types anymore.”
One of the reasons I like Downtown Abbey, is because I see part of myself in both of these characters, but especially Tom — even though my background is very different from his. That’s what makes it such a good story. We see ourselves in the characters, much like we do in Scripture. Tom’s a young, idealistic guy, passionate, critical of people who seem complacent, ignorant or who oppose his ideas, but he was harboring cynicism and judgment in his heart. And then there’s Lord Grantham, who’s an upstanding gentleman and leader in the community, a kind man, but he’s a bit stubborn and very resistant to change. Now I know I’m not free of these things, and neither is Tom yet in the story, but Tom’s circumstances of having live with people who are so different, change him for the better, and it leads to reconciliation with the Grantham family, as they too are changed by him! And I’ve prayed that God would do the same for me, and I’ve seen it happen — slowly and painfully! — but it’s happening.
I want to call your attention to the quote in your bulletin:
“Denial, usually in some form of rationalization, is the primary device that humans use to deal with their wrongness. It was the first thing out of the mouths of Adam and Eve after they sinned, and it continues up to the latest edition of the newspaper. The prophetic witness from God through the church must throw itself against this massive weight of group and individual denial, often institutionalized and subtly built into our customary ways of speaking and interacting.” – Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart
Evil doesn’t approach on its own. It wears these masks — of self-righteousness and moral superiority, or playing the victim, and claiming innocence. Both blind us to the darkness in our hearts. And again, once we know how evil an darkness tends to show itself and confront us, we’re far more likely to be able to resist it.
The good news is that, while education can only take us so far, God’s grace actually does give us the power to resist the power of sin, evil and darkness. In Colossians 1:12-13, Paul says God has qualified to share in the inheritance of the Kingdom of Light, and has rescued us from the dominion of darkness. The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Light, is breaking into our midst with Jesus’ advent! And we can live in this Kingdom. And We prayed that passage in Ephesians 6 about putting on the armor of God. So to close, I want to mention two things we can do as a church to arm ourselves.
Because the truth is, although there’s a lot of talk in church about transformation and changed lives, it’s still pretty rare. Because even when we get the right vision and intentions, we nevertheless very often still lack the right means — the right structure and plan to carry out this right vision and intention.
So first, to establish this right means, we need a close group of preferably two, no more than four other people around us — Jesus had three — with whom we can feel safe, but also with whom we can be brutally honest and expect the very difficult question of “How are you really doing?” Which is why we have Compass Groups. We’re going to be talking about Compass Groups more in the spring, and giving you more tools in that area for growth, but this is what they’re designed to do — to provide a place where judgment is suspended, honesty is embraced, truth and spiritual maturity is enabled. People who’s gone through 12-step programs know this better than most. The first thing they learn is to stop trusting in themselves, and to acknowledge their own guilt and powerlessness to enact change apart from God.
Secondly, just like Tom, the blue-collar socialist from Downton Abbey, and Lord Grantham, the aristocrat, we need to spend time with and get to know people who are different from us. If we surround ourselves with those who agree with us, who think the way do, talk the way do, share our same culture, customs and convictions, we’re very unlikely to see our own blind spots and to see into the corners where darkness and prejudice lurks.
Because remember, darkness just lets us persist in our own ways of how we want to see things. But the light can chase that out of us. This advent season is about preparation, self-arming, so that we can expose the darkness, and receive the Light of Christ. So let’s the way for Christ by opening ourselves up to the Light. Please pray with me:
God, we pray that you’d enable us to truly recognize and understand both the darkness and the light, so that we might live in the day, in sober judgment. Convict us of our prejudices. Reveal to us our blind spots. Set us from the lies that our sinful nature tells us about our self-righteousness, innocence, victimhood, or moral superiority. Help us to see others on the same footing as ourselves, and to learn from them. Shine your light Lord, in, on and through Saint Peter’s Church this Advent Season. It’s in Christ’s name that we pray these things. Amen.