For Good or Evil
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
January 28, 2018
What comes to your mind when I say the word Devil?
A mythical creature dressed in red with horns and hooves and holding a pitchfork?
A fallen angel--banished from heaven--whose demons roam the earth to stir up no good
A bad angel sitting on your shoulder opposite the good angel tempting you to sin, so when you mess up, you can say, “The devil made me do it.”
A force of evil that you cannot see, but know its destructive work
Whether or not you have an image of the devil, we know that it is the opposite of good. Another word for devil is Satan, which means adversary, one who obstructs the good or opposes God.
Since the beginning of time, there has been a conflict between the power of evil associated with Satan and the power of good associated with God. We see this conflict played out in the Bible:
Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent to disobey God; they do and are banished.
Satan tempts Job to curse God for all of his sufferings; but Job stays true to God.
In the New Testament, the word devil appears over 30 times.
In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus says that those who follow Jesus and his ways will be received into the kingdom of heaven. But those who follow Satan and his evil ways will be punished on judgment day--banished to the eternal fires of hell.
Now I must admit that I don’t talk much about Satan and the Devil. My family did not talk about it; the church I was raised in did not talk about it; when they did it was scary. So honestly, I have avoided preaching about it. But, from the Bible we see that the devil is real and it is evil...and not something that will go away if we ignore it. Instead, if we do, there is an eternal price to pay. Lately, I have realized that if we don’t have a concept of the devil or evil, then we tend to give God all of the credit for good things in the world and all the blame for the bad things in the world. And I don’t think that is right, nor is it helpful. So, let’s together take a closer look at the devil…
Jesus encounters the devil in the first chapter of the gospel of Mark. As soon as he is baptized and reminded that God loves him, he is driven into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil. He resists the temptation and twarts the devil; but the devil does not die.
In our reading for today, Jesus encounters the devil, the evil one, but in a different form--it is in the body of a man. A man with an unclean spirit, the text says. The Greek word is akath’artos, meaning impure, morally corrupt, possessed by demons. This illustrates the reality of evil--it gives it a shape and a sound. The devil can possess a person, live in him, tempt him to do that which he knows is wrong, change him, slowly, into someone who is capable of evil, so that he can still recognize that which is good, but just cannot seem to do it. That’s the man Jesus finds in the synagogue. He is possessed by demons, and yet he can still recognize the good. In fact, he is the one who calls out to Jesus: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God. Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus says, “Come out of him.” And the unclean spirit came out of him.
I recognize that talk of evil and demons and unclean spirits might be biblical, but it is not spoken of much in our world today. In fact, I admit, it sounds a little nutty. However, reading the daily news renders it difficult to deny that darkness and evil are pervasive and requires nothing less than God's intervention to bring light and goodness.
Consider the news headlines from this past week:
The Lupins kept their 13 children chained to their beds, for years depriving them of food and education, and living.
Dr. Larry Nassar subjected hundreds of young girl gymnasts to sexual abuse
ISIS orchestrated a suicide bomb attack on a cultural center in Afghanistan’s capital, that left 41 people dead and 84 people injured.
This month, we have been discussing the movie The Shack in Bible study. It is about a man whose young daughter was abducted and killed by a man. The father is distraught and angry at God. He blames God for not protecting his daughter. In the movie, wisdom is personified as a woman who says to him: “This is not God’s doing. It is the work of evil. As long as there is free will, evil can find its way in.”
The conflict between good and evil is played out in books and movies which portray the devil as a monster to be destroyed by the good guys. Whether it is the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz or The Russians in Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October or Darth Vader in Star Wars or Voldemort in Harry Potter, the evil one is destroyed by the good guys once and for all. Or is it? In Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, Harry’s inner dialogue recognizes the truth:
“It was important to fight, and to fight again, and to keep fighting, to keep evil at bay, though never quite eradicated.”
Evil is not a dragon to be slayed; it is much more insidious.
Pope Francis went so far as to say: “The devil is intelligent, knows more theology than all theologians put together.” What did he mean? The devil is smart. He knows that if he can get inside people and live in them, and possess them, then he can make them, even good people, do things that might seem unthinkable. The devil likes to hide in ordinary people.
In fact, the devil hides in all of us. Within each of us, we have the power to do good or evil. It is a struggle. It is a battle. There are small battles: you struggle to just say how you feel and hurt your neighbor or to count to 10 and breathe and say it better. And there are large battles: you struggle between hatred and forgiveness for the man who took away your innocence, your childhood, your trust, your marriage, or your child.
"We've all got both light and dark inside us, “ says Harry's godfather, Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “What matters is the part we choose to act on."
Good and evil battle it out in our hearts every day. Watching or reading fantasy stories where these forces have names and faces inspires us to go back home and finish our own battle.
The good news from the Gospel story is this: We do not battle alone. When the man with the unclean spirit asks, "Have you come to destroy us?" the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" Jesus has come to destroy evil, and save the ones and the world possessed by it.
Jesus has the power to destroy the forces of evil and set people free to be who God created them to be.
By the power of Jesus, people like you and me have been set free from demons for good:
By the power of Jesus, beloved children of God racked with addiction are now sober and reaching out to others trying to get clean.
By the power of Jesus, families sleeping in their cars are now living in homes of their own through their hard work and with the help of those willing to walk alongside them.
By the power of Jesus, couples estranged and bitter are now re-connected, forgiving and forgiven, more committed to one another than ever before.
By the power of Jesus, some who have exploited and cheated those over whom they had power are now repentant and working to make amends.
By the power of Jesus, demons have been destroyed and people who were lost have found a new life. (Jill Duffield, Presbyterian Outlook)
So, what are we to say about the Devil?
The bad news is: the devil is real. It is alive and active in the world bent on evil and destruction. And there is a battle between good and evil going on inside of us.
The good news is: God is also at work in the world and in us, trying to bring good out of evil, healing out of brokenness. Jesus has power over the evil that threatens to us.
By the power of Jesus, we can keep fighting the battle between good and evil
By the power of Jesus, we can choose to act on the part of us that leads to the light.
By the power of Jesus, our prayer can be answered: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen!