Pentecost 12A, Proper 17 – September 3, 2017
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28.
In today’s Epistle Paul opened with these two sentences: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (:9). Those are strong words and seem to go against the good news of Jesus Christ by issuing a command to hate. We often say, ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’. Paul specifically says: “Hate what is evil.”
I once heard a Bishop say, “If there weren’t a Devil we would have to invent him to account for all the evil in the world.” In our today’s culture we are reluctant to say something or someone is evil because we are not clear about the existence of the Devil or of spiritual warfare. In Christianity we derive our concept of evil from Scripture. In the Old Testament, evil is seen as the result of forsaking God (Deuteronomy 28:20). In the New Testament Jesus’ teaching is central to what we believe about the Devil and the influence of evil.
Holman’s Bible Dictionary defines evil as: “That which is opposed to God and His purposes or that which, defined from human perspectives, is harmful and non-productive.” Clearly, I think, most of us would be willing to say that Anything Opposed To God and His Purposes Is Evil:
That is as good a description of Satan as there is. Jesus said the Devil’s agenda is to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). Stealing, killing (as in murdering), and destroying for the very sake of destruction are actions that are opposed to God’s will.
What is more difficult to accept, or fathom, from the Holman Dictionary definition of evil is the question,
Are All Actions That Are Harmful and Non-Productive Evil?
There are things we do individually and corporately that clearly are harmful – becoming addicted to substances that destroy our bodies and ruin our lives, loving ‘things’ more than we love people are examples of activities that are harmful. Harmful actions can be repented of and, with God’s grace and guidance, restoration take place. That is good news for all of us who have participated in evilly induced, harmful actions towards ourselves or others. As today’s Psalm states: “Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name; make his deeds known among his peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him, and speak of all his marvelous works (:1 & 2).” I agree, actions that are harmful are evil.
It’s the “non-productive stuff” I’m resisting calling “evil”. If non-productivity is evil, then most of Congressional government has slipped from doing good to doing evil. I’m trying not to be partisan in that statement. There is enough blame to pass around for a government that is so seriously locked in partisan gridlock that issues important to the entire nation are not being addressed. Whether it is Health Care, Immigration, Tax Reform, the National Debt, North Korea, Climate Change, or 1st and 2nd Amendment issues, there is no spirit of cooperation – only, “my side must win”. The American people are being robbed of effective government.
If our family debt load consumed the same 70+ percent of our income that is true nationally, then God’s line in that family’s budget would soon be stricken-through. There would be no room for God’s 10% in that budget. Maybe that is why so many in our society are now trying to get God out of every aspect of public life? They’ve decided we can’t afford God. God is a luxury. Willful debt comes first. That is evil!
On-the-other hand, I personally hope that all my “unproductive” moments are not judged as evil. We are supposed to take one day off each week as a Sabbath to the Lord. It is to be a day of rest, because God rested on the Seventh Day of Creation. God knows we need some “unproductive” hours in order to rest and recharge; to reflect and pray; to worship and praise, and to receive fresh guidance and encouragement for the next week. I had a wonderful vacation last week doing just that. I was refreshed by being in Bryce and Zion Canyons in Utah and seeing the artistry of God’s creative genius.
Unproductive laziness may very well be judged as evil if our time and talent is being stolen away and wasted. For example, if our Sabbath time is spent watching pornography, or playing violent video games, or cheating on our spouse, or shopping for things that are not essential with credit that we have no hope of repaying then I think that becomes evil. It is part of the “killing, stealing, and destroying” agenda of the Devil.
Of this I am certain. Evil is real and it comes from a source apart from God. It is personified in the Devil, but it is also present in the other evil spirits that work to “steal, kill and destroy” our lives so that we actually do something that is evil, or we waste our lives doing nothing that accomplishes any good. However, I am equally certain there is a Good God who is more than able to redeem us from the influence of evil and restore what the locust have eaten out of our lives.
Today’s Lessons Offer Two Illustrations.
From our Exodus lesson we encounter Moses standing before the bush that was on-fire but not being consumed. Moses was on holy ground, and was being commissioned by God to return to Egypt and lead God’s people out of slavery to the Promised Land. What is not apparent from today’s lesson is the story behind the story – the back story.
Moses had murdered an overseer back in Egypt. He killed another human, and his life as a Prince was destroyed. Evil was at work, and seemingly triumphed. Moses left his life of privilege behind and fled – scared beyond belief. He ended up in the wilderness, and by the grace of God, met a goat herder, married his daughter, and forty years passed.
His life was set. Yet, God had other plans. God brought Moses to a place of holiness and redeemed his life. In his new, redeemed life, Moses was led by God to accomplish an impossible task – the redemption of God’s Covenant people from Egyptian slavery. God’s goodness is not overcome by evil. Evil is overcome through the goodness of God. Likewise, today’s words from St. Paul to “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” A man came to Jesus and called him “good teacher”. Jesus said, “Why do you call me good. No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). So, “clinging to what is good” is to cling to God. That’s what developing a devotional life is about – learning to cling to God.
The second thing Paul said for us today is in verse 17 – “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.” That’s a tough one, isn’t it? It is like Jesus saying, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Luke 6:29). Then, in verse 21, Paul offers this hope that we can be more than we are: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Both the Neo-Nazis and Antifa would benefit from meeting the God behind those words. These commands are not easy.
Yet, If I desire to overcome evil’s influence in my life – and I do, then it drives me even closer to the source of the goodness I need in order to overcome the Devil’s power to “steal, kill and destroy” me, and those whom I love. I’m saying it is a process. Overcoming the evil influences in our lives doesn’t just automatically happen. Maybe it took those forty years for Moses to overcome an out-of-control anger impulse in his life that allowed evil to control his temper? Finally then, he was ready to be commissioned by God.
The second illustration from today’s lessons comes from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 16:22. In the Gospel lesson Jesus was explaining to his disciples in verse 21, that he would be killed and raised again to life. Then, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. This shall never happen to you!”
Peter’s world-view said that killing Jesus would be an evil thing. He didn’t understand, as Jesus did, that this ‘evilly inspired human event’ would be redeemed by God for our good. Until Jesus was killed like a criminal, for crimes he didn’t commit, God would not be able to fully enter into the evil of killing another human. And before Jesus died, he freely took upon himself the sin of the world. Though never having sinned Himself, Jesus was now the possessor of all human sin; therefore, he went to Hell – the birthplace and residence of sin. There, He was welcomed by Satan who must have thought, “I’ve finally won. I beat God. Jesus belongs to me!”
To his chagrin, though, the Devil discovered he couldn’t keep Jesus. Jesus had never himself sinned. Therefore, his human soul belonged –not to the Devil – but exclusively to His Heavenly Father. The sin Jesus was bearing was not his. It was mine and yours. Jesus showed those sins to the Devil and said, “You think this sin and the souls who committed it belong to you; but you are wrong. You get to hold this sin but it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to me. And, every soul that invites me to be its savior, I will come back and redeem that person’s sin from your possession. And, that will happen hundreds of millions of times. Each time I come and redeem a soul from you, it will be like cutting you with razor blades. Redemption is joyful to me, and will be painful to you. I’ve already suffered my pain, yours has only begun.”
Jesus didn’t overcome evil with evil. He did it through the power of God’s goodness. For each of us what Jesus did on the Cross is joy; and it teaches us the power of doing good – even turning that other cheek. To evil, it is the pain we cause by living for the good. When we sin we cause pain to ourselves and others. When we participate in God’s goodness we cause pain to the Devil and his army of fallen angels. Who would you rather hurt, someone you love or the source of evil itself?
This is why we freely give our lives to God by asking Jesus to come into our souls; to forgive us of our sin and to fill us with God’s Holy Spirit. Then, we begin a new life of living in the Spirit. We are turned inside out and become spiritual beings having a human experience. You can begin your journey today, even as you receive Communion.