Based on Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
If I asked you to define the word “evil” what would you say? Truth be told, “evil” like “sin” tend to fall into the category of “we know it when we see it” – in other words, we recognize both evil and sin when they smack us in the face. However, most people are hard pressed to be able to come up with a definition that is not just that evil is the opposite of good. Even the vaunted Merriam-Webster Dictionary struggles to define evil as: “morally reprehensible (see wicked); arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct; causing harm; something that brings sorrow, distress, calamity, suffering or misfortune from wrongdoing.” Fair enough…but we are going to be spending time considering evil today and how it is that our loving God sees it.
Our scriptures today have a lot to say to us about how it is that our God, whose given name (according to God) is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, has a plan to counteract the evil of the enslavement of the Israelites. In Jesus we have a Savior who promises to repay “everyone for what has been done” while He has been away. Finally, the Apostle Paul is writing that our call as Christians is to bless those who persecute us, give food and drink to our enemies, and live our lives so that we overcome evil with our good works. None of this will we be able to accomplish without the help of our ever-present God – therefore, let us turn to God now in prayer…
Moses was minding the flocks of his father-in-law when he had an encounter with God on Mount Horeb. God tells Moses that God had indeed heard the cry of God’s people in Egypt and God knows their pain. Thus, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is prepared to rescue the people and bring them to a land “flowing with milk and honey”. God will rescue the people from this evil affliction by sending Moses to Pharaoh. Moses tries to get out of it by asking questions of God; one of which is what is God’s name? God replies that God is called, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh which can be translated many ways as “I Am That I Am” or “I Will Be Who (or What) I Will Be”. God tells Moses to tell God’s people that the great “I Am” has come to deliver them through Moses.
Mere moments after Peter’s revelation about Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Peter gets rebuked by Jesus for thinking like a human. Jesus has begun to tell the Disciples that the worldly evil in the Temple leadership will lead to His suffering and death. Peter, not wanting to hear this about his friend and teacher, reacts emotionally and protectively. Jesus tells them all that in order to truly follow Jesus’ teachings, they must deny their worldly selves and carry their own crosses which the evil of the world will put upon them – even though they lose their worldly lives.
Paul picks up this line of teaching in our reading from the Book of Romans today. Paul is reinforcing the teaching of Jesus that what marks the “true Christian” is “loving one another with mutual affection” and not repaying “evil for evil”. In fact, the true follower of Jesus allows for God to be fully God and trusts that ultimately God will deal with evil once and for all. Thus, Paul can teach that the true Christian should feed and water both friends and especially enemies and thus “overcome evil with good”.
Those of you who are of an age will remember the Russian writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn who was sentenced to hard labor in 1945 for sedition and disrespectful comments about Josef Stalin the leader of Soviet Russia. Solzhenitsyn spent a total of eight years in work camps, known as gulags, and then was exiled for life to what is now southern Kazakhstan. Considered “rehabilitated” in 1956 he moved to central Russia and continued to write. He was first published in the 1960’s and more or less censored by the Soviet government from that point on. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 and his seminal work “The Gulag Archipelago” was published in the late 1970’s which detailed the evil of systematic repression via forced labor of political dissidents from 1917 through Stalin’s death in the 1950’s. Solzhenitsyn had a lot of experience with the evil of his imposed incarceration and it will serve us well to consider what he had to say about the problem of evil and overcoming it with good.
He was touring Russia in 1989, soon after the Iron Curtain fell. He visited with people who had at one time informed on him and others and who maintained the police state within the Soviet Union. When asked why he was consorting with these vile people instead of shunning them he said, “’…the line between good and evil is never simply between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The line between good and evil runs through each one of us. There is such a thing as wickedness, and we must distinguish between small and low-grade versions of it and large and terrible versions of it. We must not make the trivial mistake of supposing that a one-off petty thief and a Hitler are exactly alike, that the same level of evil is attained by someone who cheats in an exam and by a Bin Laden. But nor must we suppose that the problem of evil can be either addressed or solved if we trivialize it in the other way, of labeling some people ‘good’ and other people ‘bad….’” (from N. T. Wright. Evil and the Justice of God. InterVarsity Press)
Did you catch that? Within all of us lies both the potential to perform acts which are good and acts which are evil. Simply labeling something either “good” or “evil” is far too simplistic, however, and thus not helpful. In this complex situation, the true Christian can never settle comfortably for either the extreme post-Enlightenment right-wing solution (strong authorities ruling over subservient peoples) or extreme left-wing solution (where revolution, and ultimately, some kind of anarchy are believed ideal). The true Christian is thus obliged to honor the ruling authority, whatever it may be (see the teachings of Jesus and Paul), and to work constantly to remind that authority of its God-given task. That God-directed task is to do justice and love mercy, to ensure that those who are marginalized and vulnerable are properly cared for and not forgotten by the unfettered economic machine.
One of the great early Christian innovations was taking care of the sick, including those who were themselves neither Christians nor family. Medical care, education, work on behalf of the poor – all these are signs that Jesus is Lord and that the powers of the world are in service to God’s will. These initiatives challenge the vested interests that at the moment rule the world and speak grandly of “good” and “evil” while having their decision making firmly set “not on divine things but on human things” to quote Jesus. Human thinking like financial systems which keep whole countries in slavery due to unpayable national debt and arbitrary systems of marginalization which keep tens of millions of people in squalor and abject poverty.
N.T. Wright, in his book “Evil and the Justice of God”, writes the following, “…It needs to be noted here that the early Christians, like their Jewish cousins, were not particularly worried about the means by which rulers and authorities came to power. They were far more concerned about what they did once they had obtained power. The idea that once some kind of election has been held the government that results has carte blanche legitimacy to do whatever it wants for the next few years is a travesty of the freedom and wisdom which the biblical writers seek and urge….” A travesty of the freedom and wisdom of THE God who is working all the time to overcome the evil of the world by sending and accompanying people who focus their minds on divine things rather than on human things.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, for too long in the United States (and the majority of the Western World) the decision makers have been allowed by the faithful to seek their fortunes rather than the common good. The rich and powerful have thus become richer and more powerful, while the impoverished and marginalized have grown ever larger and now more desperate and violent. God hears their cry and knows their pain, a cry not from Egypt this time, but from the American Empire. If we are paying attention, with our minds firmly set on divine things, we should be fearful that the wrath of God should fall on us as it did on ancient Egypt. There is still time to keep this from happening, but we must overcome the evil of our world by identifying what is evil in ourselves and in God’s sight. Only then can we set about overcoming evil through what John Wesley taught us, “to do all the good we can, by all the means we can, to all the people we can, for as long as ever we can”. Amen and amen!