First Sunday in Lent, 2016
Pastor Sarah Stadler
Evil is real.
We, of course, know this to be true because we have seen evil touch our lives—in the form of apathy, in the form of hatred, in the form of violence and abuse, in the form of greed, in the form of systems that cement racism, sexism, poverty. Evil is real. I think we need to be careful when we talk about evil, though. Sometimes, I hear us talk about evil as if it were this force outside of and completely independent of us…or perhaps a force only at work among certain people or certain places. My dear friends in Christ, evil is not something that is lurking outside. Evil is not something that sits on one shoulder whispering in our ears while good sits on the other. Evil is not something we can blame, some entity or persona that makes us do one thing or another. Rather, we are broken, flawed, sinful human beings who are capable of evil ourselves.
Our struggle with evil is real, difficult, raw. We can feel overcome, out of control, resigned. We may feel stuck in evil. And because Jesus was human, perhaps even for him 40 days without food in the wilderness coupled with the temptation of evil was, in a very real sense, a struggle. Jesus was tempted by self-indulgence, power, and prestige, temptations we can certainly understand. Jesus was tempted, but because he was not only human but divine, he did not succumb. And here is what I want you to know. While there is good and evil in the world, for God, there is no struggle. Good and evil are not engaged in an epic battle. Please excuse me for jumping to the end of Lent and proclaiming good news on temptation Sunday. Jesus is tempted. Later in the gospels, Jesus is criticized. Jesus is marginalized. Jesus is betrayed. Jesus is crucified. And Jesus is raised from the dead. Against all odds, despite all the evidence of evil’s power, Jesus is raised from the dead, and the church is born. Jesus is raised from the dead, and dead-end fishermen and tax collectors begin what is now a global community of faith. For God, there is no struggle. Good and evil are not engaged in an epic battle. Good wins. God wins. Love wins. Every time.
I know my words seem ridiculous for our culture includes many stories of the epic battle between good and evil: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, to name just a few, stories that seem to have a Christian ring. However, in the first centuries of the Christian church, our early church fathers and mothers struggled with various theological controversies that provided the basic shape of Christian theology. Among these controversies was one called Manichaeism. Manichaeism was a dualistic religion that began in the third century of the common era that saw reality in terms of an epic struggle between the spiritual world of light—goodness—and the material world of darkness—evil. Some early Christian theologians, like Augustine, converted from Manichaeism to Christianity. The controversy in the church was that some Christians embraced the basic tents of Manichaeism; some Christians still do—as I have just described. But our early church fathers and mothers recognized that Manichaeism with its dualistic perspective of how good and evil are equally powerful is contrary to Christianity. At this time in history when we may feel overwhelmed by evil, the basic message of Christianity—the basic hope that Jesus brings to this world—is that evil doesn’t win. The power of evil and the power of good are not equal; God, good, love will always win.
So, I have hope. I have hope when shootings and deaths and other forms of violence occur, like they did at Independence High School in Glendale on Friday or in cases of domestic violence or sexual assault or terrorism or whenever power is abused and people die as a result. Perhaps you are wondering if my refusal to believe that evil will ever win means that I fail to take seriously the problems in our world. Quite to the contrary. My hope in the power of God’s goodness and God’s love fuels my desire to listen to others, to seek peaceful resolution to all conflict, to patiently respond to others’ anger with love. Without this hope I would simply throw up my hands, walk away, succumb to depression, allow violence, not care about what happened in the world. But good wins; love wins. And because I know that, I trust that any good I do, any love I share is not wasted. God will work in my feeble attempts to do good and share love.
In our broken, broken world, God is at work. Finally, good wins; love wins. It may feel like evil wins, but that, my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, is not the case. And how we know that good wins, that God wins, that love wins is that we are sitting here this morning when we could be many other places doing many other things. How we know that good wins is that, in the midst of greed and selfishness and inequity, we gathered funds for ELCA World Hunger, collected food for the Mount of Olives Food Closet, and served pancakes this morning. How we know that good wins is that, when beloved people die or are ill, those mostly deeply affected are surrounded by a community who pray and send cards and make food and listen to venting and make space for tears. How we know that good wins is that at the times we feel most broken we are suddenly surprised by those who step forward and ask us how we are and walk with us as we discern our next steps. How I know that good wins is that, after 13 years of marriage and then getting divorced—circumstances that we would assume would cause great hardship, I am now more joyful and more at peace than I have ever been in my life.
When we look at the world, we see and hear what is evil, what is going wrong, what is amiss. And we do need to see and hear and understand and work to bring an end to violence and poverty, racism and a vast array of other manifestations of evil. But my dear friends in Christ, there is so much good to be found, so much love to be shared, so much evidence of God at work. And in fact, in our seeing and understanding and working to bring an end to evil, we share in the goodness and love of God.
Jesus was tempted, yes, and the story of his temptation may lead us to believe that we are engaged in an epic battle with good and evil. But along with the Apostle Paul who wrote the following words in his letter to the Romans: I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Even though evil is real, good wins for nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.