Sermon preached on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity (27 July 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity (27 July 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison asks 'what do you think about the devil?'

Romans 8. 26-39; Matthew 13. 31-33, 44-52

What do you think about the devil? 

According to some news media, the Church of England now doesn't take him seriously, because reference to the devil at the Christian service of baptism has been made optional. People have to say they turn away from evil instead. One of the reasons given for doing this is that the devil has become for many a figure of fun, a trivial representation of evil, even a misunderstood character. 

I do think there are spiritually evil beings. I think their power is limited, and that they are much less than personal. But we do tend to personalise evil in the figure of the devil because it gives us a way of externalising evil, putting it outside ourselves. The devil made me do it, people might say. 

I had a couple (not married) come to me when I was a parish priest to say they were oppressed by a spirit of sexual misconduct, and they wanted to be delivered – so it wasn't their fault; and they didn't want to really look at why they were feeling what they did, and do the hard work of repentance and change. For much more powerful and present and difficult to deal with than the devil is the universal presence of evil.

There’s been a lot of evil in the news over the last few weeks. What do you do with it? How do we cope with it, how do we make sense of it? Or do we look away…. when a father in Gaza is picking up the remains of his 2 year old child and putting them in a carrier bag; when Israelis are waiting in fear for rockets to fall; when hundreds are killed in fighting in Syria, while the world is looking elsewhere; when the bodies and the personal lives of tourists are strewn in pieces around fields in eastern Europe because of a conflict of which they knew nothing; when young girls are kidnapped, enslaved, raped, sold because they dared to be educated or hope for a better life; when the hopes of the Arab spring turn to the ashes of bitter conflict.. and much much more.

And that’s only the evil that we see at work corrupting the lives of others. One of the things about being human is that evil isn't only out there – it’s here, in us. The urge to rage and violence, to be self-centred, remains, even when we've trained ourselves to be nice and caring and to think of ourselves as actually quite good people.

At some point our niceness gives out and we snap at others, we hurt those we love with a thoughtless word or a considered betrayal of trust, we find ourselves being greedy or selfish, or failing to live up to even our own ideals, let alone anyone else’s.

How much easier it is to blame the devil, or other people, the Americans or the Islamists or the Israelis, or God, for the evil and unfairness of the world. Why do bad things happen to good people, indeed? And how do we respond?
Very few people are wholly evil – and those who are don’t make a big impact on the world, because they’re too dis-integrated and self-absorbed to make relationships with others.

Real evil is done by ordinary and even good people. Look at the news: in Gaza a hospital or school is shelled, and sick and injured patients die. Why does Hamas fire rockets and put the lives of the people it’s supposed to be governing and caring for in jeopardy, and destroy the lives of others? Why do the Israeli forces find themselves excusing targeting a hospital and killing innocent people? Why did someone shoot down a civilian airliner, and excuse it or hide the truth?

Individually these are ordinary people just like you and I: collectively they – and we – do things which are evil and have evil consequences for others. And it’s usually for a coherent reason: the road to hell is paved with good intentions, though not with genuine love for others…

A sermon just about evil is only half a sermon. The point of talking about evil is that it’s there, and we have to face it. We can’t turn away and pretend that we and the world are all right really; nor should we give up, overwhelmed by the horrors of the world, without hope of justice and change; nor should we think that blaming God or the devil or human beings is actually facing up to evil.

When we see or hear or experience evil in others or ourselves, God asks us to fight against it – as God does. The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus in our Gospel reading, is like a teaspoon of yeast in a great lump of dough, apparently overwhelmed by what’s around it, yet able to transform it – and so are we in this life, here to join God in the work of confronting evil and changing the world.

In the passage read this morning from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, who knew a thing or two about evil, Paul tells us how the world and ourselves groan under the weight of evil and suffering, and how we meet God there.

For God feels more deeply than words can express about the evils of the world, God groans along with us, and God takes the initiative by coming into the world in Jesus Christ to be joined with the world’s suffering and transform it.
God doesn’t turn away from evil or despair: God doesn’t take refuge in condemnation, or tell us we need to be better: he comes alongside to transform us by love.

You don’t become a Christian by doing good things; you become a Christian by accepting that God loves you even when you do what’s evil, that there’s nothing you can do to stop God loving you, and that you can turn away from evil and be embraced by God and have your life transformed by love: a love which then we share with others as we pursue the power of love in the world to overcome the endless appetite of humanity for doing the wrong thing.
When you know someone loves you, it can change your life: when you know God loves you, it can change not only your life, but your death, and indeed the world.

On the west front of Westminster Abbey are ten statues of 20th century martyrs, famous people like Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But one of them is a 16 year old South African girl called Manche Masemola, uneducated and illiterate, who wanted to follow Jesus Christ and went to baptism classes. This was against the wishes of her parents, who feared that she wouldn’t submit to an arranged marriage which would make them wealthier. So they beat her, said she was possessed by a devil, and killed her before she was baptised. Her grave is a site of pilgrimage and an inspiration for many. She was murdered in 1928, and 40 years later her mother who had helped to kill her was baptised as a Christian; Manche Masemola herself had said, ‘I shall be baptized with my own blood.’

When you know God loves you, it can change not only your life, but your death, and indeed the world.
When we read or hear about evil in the world, or experience evil at work in our own life, let’s turn our anguish into prayer and action: and never turn away from the love of God for us in Jesus Christ – a love which faces up to evil, and shines light through our darkness, a love which says that evil will never have the final word.