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For Goodness' Sake

Sermon - 3/01/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 25:1-10

The text for this first Sunday of Lent comes from the Psalms, the 25th, verses one through ten:

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
2O my God, in you I trust;
   do not let me be put to shame;
   do not let my enemies exult over me.
3Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
   let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

4Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
   teach me your paths.
5Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
   for you are the God of my salvation;
   for you I wait all day long.

6Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
   for they have been from of old.
7Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
   according to your steadfast love remember me,
   for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

8Good and upright is the Lord;
   therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9He leads the humble in what is right,
   and teaches the humble his way.
10All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
   for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

 

The text for the first Sunday of Lent that typically we reflect on is that story we read earlier from the temptation of Jesus (Mark 1:9-15), the 40 days in the wilderness immediately following his baptism.  And of course, you may be familiar with the versions in Matthew and Luke where there are three very specific temptations presented to him by Satan.

And so the season of Lent has 40 days, excluding Sundays, leading up to Easter, as a way for us to connect in 'real-time' to the life of Jesus and the temptations that he faced and overcame on his way to the cross.

Now, there is a down-side to that story.  Apart from this whole fasting thing, and giving up something for Lent (one of those good spiritual disciplines that we're not too good at doing, you know, because we don't like to give up anything).  But the down-side is this:  the story of Jesus engaged in this 'duel' with Satan personifies -- and I would suggest therefore 'oversimplifies' -- evil in ways that are not only unhelpful, they often are counter to our spiritual growth and can have disastrous results.

Now, I've made my case previously for debunking the devil, as I say, last time I gave a sermon on this was in February 2005.  So I'm not going to go there, except to say simply, as I did then, that there's no devil in the Hebrew scriptures.  In the Old Testament there's reference to the 'sa-tan', but that's not a supernatural being apart, separate, or opposed to God.  But rather a being who was part of the heavenly court of God, who functions as sort of a prosecuting attorney for God.

For instance, in the first 2 chapters of Job, the Satan comes out of that heavenly court and is the one to test Job on behalf of God.  Not this 'devil' who is opposed to God.

So how this figured morphed into the devil, as portrayed in the New Testament, is a fascinating study in cross-cultural influences from other religious traditions and the historical circumstances which made the devil a popular character in Jewish folklore by the time of Jesus.

Whether Jesus accepted these stories at face value, and therefore understood the devil to be an actual spiritual being, or as a metaphor for how evil is manifest in our world, is hard for us to say.  It's perfectly legitimate for us to say 'Well, Jesus believed in the existence of the devil, therefore I do as well.  Good enough for Jesus, good enough for me, right?' 

But you can also say Jesus may have believed in the devil, but I believe the devil is the personification of evil and not an actual being.  My point being, Christian faith is predicated on faith in Jesus Christ, not faith in such demonic beings.  So, you can take the devil, or you can leave him, it's not going to make you more or less a Christian either way.

So, that being said, why keep him?  Is that really the only way we can offer to explain the reality of evil in our world? 

And here's my problem with the devil -- this is why I choose not to believe in the existence of such a being:  because belief in the devil objectifies evil.  It makes it something apart from us.  Something "out there", rather than something "in here" [pointing to his chest].  It's something, then, that we can isolate, imprison, even kill if we choose.  So we think in terms of Good vs Evil, God vs Satan, Us vs Them, and that's what leads to the disastrous consequences justifying all kinds of atrocities, be it the Inquisition, the Crusades of the Middle Ages, or the more recent war on terrorism.

Who does not want to be on the side of Good against Evil?  The great lie that we were sold was that there was this evil 'out there' that if we could find it, we could kill it.  And therefore be done with it once and for all.  And you see, that's simply not true.

And that's what happens when you objectify and personify evil.  It becomes that 'other' that we think we can capture and kill.  And that's something you can only do in cartoons and Hollywood movies, but not in real life.  Evil is never so simple.

I think the Apostle Paul says it well in Romans 7:

"So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members."

In other words 'in me', in us.  So the greatest danger, I would say, is that evil that lurks unrecognized within us.  Which therefore can become incarnate, can become flesh when we don't expect it, when we're not prepared for it.  Rather than that 'terrible someone' out there opposed to us.

And you see that is what the temptation, I would suggest, of Jesus is all about.  It's not really a conflict between Jesus and Satan, it's a conflict within himself as he has to face those very real temptations that would lead him off the path of God if he were to follow them.  And therefore before he embarks on the journey to Jerusalem, on his mission, he has to struggle with those temptations, to overcome them so that he can face them in the real world.

Now, if you say to me "But Jesus is the Son of God, he's divine, he didn't have those kinds of temptations that we have", I would say to you that that particular view that denies the full humanity of Jesus (as well as the full divinity of Jesus) was declared a heresy by the church about 1,800 years ago.

So the temptation story is not just about the 40 days spent in the wilderness, it's about the temptations and struggles we face as we confront the very real evils of our world. 

So how do then overcome this evil?  Or, if personify it you must, how do we make the devil powerless in our lives?

This is where I find the Psalm for this morning most helpful.  Sometimes we hear how the God of the Old Testament is full of wrath and anger, right?  But that's not what this story says.  If you read the text you get a different view.  This God is a God of mercy and steadfast love.  'Good and upright is the Lord', says the Psalmist.  'Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.  According to your steadfast love, remember me.'  Why should God do that?  'For your goodness' sake' says the Psalmist.

The overriding character of God portrayed here is that of goodness.

Now, remember the creation story.  And how at each step along the way we are told that "it is good".  First there was the light, and the story says "and God saw that it was good".  Then the land and the sea, and it says "And God saw that it was good".  And then God creates vegetation of all kinds, and it says "And God saw that it was good".  And then God creates the Sun, Moon, and stars (which I think is kind of interesting coming after the vegetation, might cause a problem for those that read the text literally, but be that as it may) it says "God saw that it was good".  And then God creates the living creatures of the sea and of the sky and it says "And God saw that it was good".  And then God creates the creatures of the land, and it says "God saw that it was good".  And then finally the first human beings, and at the end of the 6th day it says "God saw everything that He made and indeed it was very good".  

Now what do you suppose the point of this story is?  That our world is an evil place?  No, it's about the goodness of creation.  It's what Matthew Fox calls the 'original blessing'.  Before there was any evil in the world, there was only good.  And we, as human beings, like the rest of creation, were not conceived in sin but were created fundamentally good.  The world is good because God made it so, created it out of God's own goodness for God's goodness' sake.

Now, of course we all know who spoiled it.  Who gave into her temptations J.  True story:  we all know how spouses can sometimes be overly suspicious of their partners (present company excluded of course).  Well, Adam stayed out late one night, a couple of nights, hanging around with the chimpanzees.  I'm sure you'll find this story in Genesis if you read carefully J.  And Eve was rather upset.  "You're running around with other women!", Eve accused him.  Adam said "Don't be ridiculous, you're the only woman in the world!".  Sulking, Eve went out, went to bed, and Adam went back out with the chimpanzees, having another round of coconut juice.  Once again, came home late, crawled into bed with Eve, only to be awakened in the middle of the night with Eve poking him in the side.  Adam woke up and said "What are you doing?!".  "Shhhh", said Eve, "I'm counting your ribs" J. . . . . . think about it, it'll come to you J.

So we can't go back to Eden, we can't put the genie back in the bottle or the apple back on the tree.  It is part of our world.  Evil is part of the reality that we have to struggle with.  So how do we fight evil?  With the goodness of God.  As the text says in verses 8 and 9:

8Good and upright is the Lord;
   therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9He leads the humble in what is right,
   and teaches the humble his way.

Recall how the first Christians were called followers of "the way".

10All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
   for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

The way to fight evil is to follow that path, to not be led off of it, to stay on God's path of good.

The NAACP invited me to give the invocation at their Freedom Dinner last Friday night, I joined the NAACP a few years ago when they started renting an office from us.  I figured I might as well become part of the organization.  But I hadn't participated in that particular event (done some of the marches with them), so I say "sure", sounded like fun, would be glad to do that.  Great evening, several of our members were there.  And congressman Peter DeFazio was the keynote speaker.  This is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP, and so they were making a big deal out of that.

 

Congressman DeFazio told this incredibly story about his friend congressman John Lewis, who is the representative of the 5th District of Georgia, which includes the city of Atlanta.  A very important seat in Congress, I believe that was the seat occupied by Andrew Young.  And Lewis was the founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that worked closely with Dr. King and the Southern Leadership Conference during the civil rights era.  And in that capacity, Lewis was arrested some 40 times.  Beaten on many of those occasions, working for the cause of civil rights. 

 

And one of those occasions was the march to Selma from Montgomery, a 50-mile march:

 

When they got to that bridge crossing over into Selma, many of you will recall what happened on March 7th, 1965.  It is known as "Bloody Sunday" because of the State Troopers who were unleashed and beat the protesters to try and put an end to these protests.  And you see John Lewis on the right, on the ground being beaten by one of those State Troopers:

 

Now of course the wisdom of Dr. King, inspired by his understanding of the gospel, is that of non-violence.  And so they were trained not to fight back, not to strike out against those people who were hitting them.  And John Lewis was one of those who was so trained.

Last year, Congressman DeFazio joined his friend John Lewis in walking across that same bridge in an anniversary of that event.  And Congressman Lewis, noting all the State Troopers all along the way of the march, said to Congressman DeFazio:  "Look, this time they're here to protect us".

A couple of weeks ago, as Congressman DeFazio was preparing for the celebration Friday night, he called on his friend and was checking some portions of that story.  Congressman Lewis told him this rather remarkable story, a post-script to it which just happened a couple weeks ago.  An older white gentleman walked into his office, asked to speak to the Congressman, the Congressman came out and he said he wanted to apologize to him.  "For what", said Congressman Lewis.  He said "I was a State Trooper in 1965, March 7th, and I was the one who beat you".  And seeing the inauguration of President Obama, he said, made him realize how wrong he was.  And so he came to apologize.

I took 44 years.  Goodness can sometimes be very slow.  But will prevail.

When you see that picture, and you see him beating John Lewis, I want you to see the power of God that is at work, the power of goodness, even there.  Sure that Trooper was caught up in the evil of that day and the racism.  But he was not the evil. 

By not personifying the evil, we leave room for the goodness of God to work in that other person.  And because John Lewis did not fight back, in the end, love changed his enemy into a friend.

There's one other post-script to this story.  When President Johnson called in the Federal troops to protect the marchers three weeks later on March 21st, they marched peacefully into Selma:

 

Leading the march, John Lewis, on the far left.  Not sure who the next couple of people are, Martin Luther King of course in the middle, next to him Ambassador to the United Nations Ralph Bunch, next to him, the great Jewish theologian and Biblical scholar Abraham Heschel leading that march.

Evil, you see, I would say is not that other supernatural being that is fighting God.  Or even that other person who would harm us.  Evil is taking a different path, that path away from God.  The path that is counter to God.  But there is always the possibility to return to that path, even when sometimes it's a very hard path to take -- to cross that bridge into the promised land.  But that is the path of goodness.

And Lent is about getting us back on that path, or keeping us on it.  And to do that, we dwell not on the evil that would take us away from it, not on sin and guilt, but on the goodness of God.

Of course, that's easier said than done.  It's often easier to focus on the negative than it is on the good. 

It's easier to spot the speck in someone else's eye than to remove the log in our own eye, as Jesus said.

It's easier to seek revenge than it is forgiveness.

It's easier to hate your enemies than it is to love them.

It's easier to blame someone else than to work for a solution yourself.

It's easier to point a finger than it is to lend a hand.

It's easier, and were it not for the goodness of God, that would be the path we would take. 

But for the goodness of God, we must face our temptations and overcome them before they overcome us.

For the goodness of God, we do not strike back in anger and adopt the way of violence.

For the goodness of God, we take the way of non-violence and peace that is the way of Jesus and therefore it is our way too.

For the goodness of God, we choose to believe that there is good in every human being.

For the goodness of God, we believe that the power of forgiveness is greater than the power of sin.  The power of love is greater than the power hate.

For the goodness of God, we know that the power of the cross is the power of Easter.  The power not to take life, but the power to give it.

And so as followers of Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the confrontation with the powers of this world, we say 'yes' to life and to hope and to love and to goodness.  And we say 'no' to hate and to violence, to despair and to evil and all the temptations that might lead us away from that path.

Why?  Why?  For the goodness of God.

 


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