Two Responses to Evil

Sermon delivered on Trinity 4C, June 23, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 19.1-15a; Psalms 42.1-43.6; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In today’s OT and gospel lessons, we see some of the various effects evil can have on us when we are confronted by it and it is worth our time to see what these stories have to say to help us when we are likewise confronted by evil. We can all relate to Elijah in today’s OT lesson because we all know what it’s like to fail in our work, to be depressed, to feel isolated, to be afraid, and to suffer the exhaustion that often accompanies these other emotions. Elijah has had a literal mountaintop-to-valley experience. This story comes on the heels of his dramatic defeat of Baal and the slaughter of Baal’s prophets. And as we saw three weeks ago, it was none other than Ahab’s wife Jezebel who introduced Baal worship into Israel’s religious life and practices so as to arouse the Lord’s jealous anger for his people and now she promises to kill Elijah.

You also recall that when we looked at that particular story and the God of shock and awe contained in it, we noted that while spectacular at the moment, shock and awe demonstrations don’t tend to stick with us very well so that we are prone to forget them. We see this illustrated plainly in today’s lesson. Of all the people who should have remembered God’s power to save and deliver, it was Elijah. God had demonstrated a dramatic display of fiery power to vindicate both God’s name and his prophet, and had allowed Elijah to slaughter hundreds of Baal’s prophets. Given all this, we have to wonder what made Elijah so afraid of Jezebel’s threat to take his life. After all, if God is capable of vindicating his name in such dramatic fashion, why couldn’t he protect his prophet from wicked old Jezebel?

But apparently the shock and awe experience had not been enough to assure Elijah of God’s power to protect him from Jezebel’s threat. Perhaps Elijah thought that God’s shock and awe power would not necessarily protect him as God’s prophet because he later complained to God that other prophets had been killed. Whatever the reason, the prophet fled for his life because as we saw last week, he knew that Jezebel had a track record of violence and wasn’t afraid to use her husband’s powers to get what she wanted. We understand this kind of evil, even if most of us have thankfully not experienced it firsthand. We understand it because we know the human heart and we know there are those who have a track record for breathing out threats of violence and delivering on them, just like Jezebel did. And if that weren’t bad enough, we also know that often the bad guys get away with murder—literally, and that makes us even more afraid of human evil because we see that it often goes unchecked or unpunished.

We also see in Elijah’s response to God’s question about what he is doing on Horeb the terrible effect Jezebel’s threats had on him and we can relate to this as well. Elijah complains to God that he has worked very hard as God’s prophet and laments how little he has to show for it. He rails against the prevailing culture, telling God that God’s prophets have been killed and there are no loyal Israelites left in the land, a curious complaint given the support he receives after his dramatic victory over the Baals on Mt. Carmel. He starts feeling sorry for himself and is not a little egocentric in his complaint, lamenting that if he is killed, there will be no one left who is loyal to God, another curious complaint given God’s spectacular demonstration on Mt. Carmel of his ability to deliver what God needs to prevail. In fact, Elijah could have very well made our psalm lessons with their cry for God’s help, mercy, and justice his very own! And earlier Elijah prays to God to take his life because Elijah is no better than his ancestors in his ability to advocate for God. All this is uncomfortably familiar to us because we do exactly the same thing when we are confronted by evil, failure, and disappointments. Like Elijah, we tend to get depressed and start to feel sorry for ourselves as we whine about our bad situation or rotten luck. We mope around and act like either God doesn’t exist or he is powerless to intervene on our behalf—or worse yet, that God doesn’t care that we are in a precarious situation.

Turning to our gospel lesson, we see a different kind of evil on display, the evil of demonic activity and power. This very topic makes us immediately uncomfortable because as 21st century people, we want to see ourselves as too sophisticated and enlightened to believe in things like the dark powers and principalities. However, Jesus, God incarnate, had no such reservations about the existence of demonic power and its attendant evil, and we had better pay attention to this fact. Luke assumes its presence in his story as evidenced by the fact that he does not try to build a case for its existence, he simply reports it as fact. Moreover, in telling us that the man was possessed by multiple demons, Luke surely wants us to see that in this story we are given a glimpse of the greater war that is going on in the cosmos between God and the forces of evil. As Paul would remind the Ephesians, we do not wage war against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities who are stronger than us but who are still under the sovereign rule of God. That is why we must put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6.11-13).

Whatever we think about the dark powers and principalities, we surely understand the awful effects of madness and it makes us extremely uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with it, and so like the demoniac in today’s story, we want to isolate those who suffer from it, whatever its root cause, and keep them as far away from us as possible. We notice the other kinds of effects this particular type of evil has on us. We see how the demoniac has repeatedly broken his chains. This makes us wonder if evil has the same effect on us, promising us freedom from our own chains but actually enslaving us further. We see the man’s alienation from his people which leads to his social isolation. We see his unwillingness to submit to any lawful authority and awful chaos that results. And of course, we see the fear that evil causes and we understand that as well. Nothing makes us more afraid than when human behavior becomes terribly unpredictable as in the case of this poor possessed man.

What our two lessons therefore point to is this. When we are confronted by evil in whatever form it takes, from the spectacular to the more subtle, if we try to deal with it on our own terms we are sure to be defeated because evil and the powers behind it are stronger than we are. Elijah tried to run away from the evil that confronted him and found himself exhausted, discouraged, and depressed. He was on the verge of losing his very identity as God’s prophet. And the folks who tried to deal with the demoniac were certainly powerless to control him so that they eventually cast him out from among their midst, consigning him to deal with his own problems.

But it is to the glory and grace of God that we do not have to deal with evil and its effects on our own and we also see this clearly illustrated in all our lessons this morning. In Elijah’s case we see God graciously dealing with his discouraged prophet by providing him food and drink for his journey to Horeb, the very place where God appeared to Moses in a great theophany. We are not told why Elijah wanted to go to Horeb, but it certainly wasn’t at God’s behest. Was he expecting another theophany in the manner of Moses? Was he hoping God would offer to make a new covenant centered around Elijah the way God had offered to make a new covenant around Moses? Whatever the reason, all Elijah got from God was a demand to stand before God and answer a question repeated twice to him. What are you doing here Elijah? In other words, why aren’t you back doing the job I called you to do, to be my mouthpiece?

It is curious that Elijah did not obey God’s command to stand before him until he heard a still, small voice (what the NRSV translates as sheer silence). Whatever it was that made Elijah respond to the quietness of God instead of spectacular displays of power, the story tips us off to two things that can help us deal with evil when we are afflicted by it. First, we are to wait for God to guide us and show us the right path to take rather than trying to forge our own path the way Elijah did. Second, and related to the first point, one way God reminds us of his faithfulness in the midst of evil is to call us to get to the work (or back to the work) God calls us to do. We do not have complete freedom in choosing how we feel about things. We do have complete freedom in choosing how we do or don’t respond to God, and here we see God calling his prophet to get back to work so that God can demonstrate he is still in charge of his world despite the fact that he mysteriously allows evil to operate in it, albeit in a constrained way. It is as if God is saying to Elijah, “I know you are feeling depressed and defeated. But don’t listen to those feelings because they are based on the false assumption that I have either abandoned you are am not really in charge of things. So get back to your work of being a prophet and you’ll see that I’m still your go-to guy.” When you are faced with failures and disappointments, do you ask for God to show you the way and wait for him to respond? And in the interim, are you at work doing the things God calls you to do as a Christian so that you might see God’s power at work?

And of course we see God’s sovereign power over the forces of evil on display in our gospel lesson. Despite the fact that the odds are 6000-1 (the number of men in a Roman legion), the fight is over before it starts and we notice some interesting things in Jesus’ confrontation with the legion of demons. First, they ironically know who he is and never question his sovereignty over them. They do not and cannot worship Jesus, but they acknowledge who he is, even before Jesus’ own followers do. Do you have a problem in acknowledging who Jesus is? I don’t ask this facetiously. I ask it with great urgency because we are once again confronted with the same question we have been confronted with the last three weeks. Do we believe this story actually happened and that Jesus is sovereign over even the forces of evil?

Second, we notice that once Jesus acts, he restores order from chaos. The demons have been consigned to the watery abyss. The man is clothed and in his right mind. He is sitting at Jesus’ feet, a position that indicates he now wants to learn from Jesus and be his disciple. If you have ever wondered what utter and thorough healing looks like when one encounters Jesus, look no further than this story. Again, Luke uses the word sozo for this, which can mean healing or salvation. But salvation comes at a cost. A herd of pigs is lost and this creates fear among the man’s fellow citizens. This reminds us of an even more costly act that Jesus would endure for us on the cross. Defeating evil is a terribly costly matter for God and often for us.

Third, both stories remind us of God’s sovereignty. In addition to exorcising the demons, both stories show us in their  own way that God’s power is often at work on a level we cannot readily see. In Elijah’s case, God reminds his prophet that he has reserved 7000 in Israel whose knees haven’t bowed to Baal, a fact previously unknown to Elijah. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells the healed demoniac to stay at home and tell his people, a Gentile people, what God has done for him. Despite the fear that caused the people to demand Jesus leave them, God has planted a seed. A voice for Jesus will remain and testify. These examples suggest to us that even when things look hopeless, they never are because God is sovereign, not evil or evildoers, and we simply do not have God’s knowledge or perspective to see his world the way God sees it.

This brings us back to the lesson we learned from Elijah’s encounter with God. God typically chooses to work through his people to help bring about his kingdom and that means we have work to do on behalf of God’s kingdom in the power of the Spirit, the kingdom built on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Make no mistake, sometimes the work gets hard and sometimes we are confronted with what seems like insurmountable odds. But we are called to build, not complete, and as our lessons remind us, we are to look to Jesus for power and strength to do the work he calls us to do, trusting that God will ultimately use our work for his good purposes.

All this requires faith on our part to be sure. As we have seen, each of us must decide if we really do worship the God who heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons, and has defeated the powers and principalities on the cross of Jesus Christ. If we believe this, we must also believe that same power is available to us today to help us deal with evil when it confronts us (and at the very least, each of us will be confronted with the ultimate evil of death so this is more than a theoretical or rhetorical exercise). What our lessons remind us to do is this. When we are confronted by evil, sometimes we must wait and listen for God’s guidance, but always with the faith and knowledge that God is sovereign and God always acts in our best interest, even when we cannot see that clearly. Once we get our marching orders, we are then called to get to work on Jesus’ behalf so that we can see his power at work in his world and take hope. So what is confronting you right now? As you struggle with whatever it is, this week ponder the lessons we’ve learned this morning so that you will learn by God’s grace that Jesus is Lord, even in the midst of the evil that exists in this world, and that by the power of Jesus name, you are even now being equipped to overcome it. As you learn this truth, you will surely know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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