MAR 6, 2016, FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

THE RESPONSE OF JESUS TO EVIL IN THE WORLD

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

Lections:  Josh 5:9-12; Ps 32; 2 Cor 5:16-21; Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32.

 

The many parts of the Bible were composed over a period of at least 1,500 years, and their surpassing unity is a testimony to their divine authorship.  Today’s four lections are illustrative of this unity and their author’s abiding concern for lost humanity.

Josh 5:9-12 is a brief account of ritual preparation for Israel’s entrance into Canaan, near the city of Jericho; prior to taking possession of the land, which had been granted to Israel in the Abrahamic covenant, the “reproach of Egypt” is “rolled away”: first, by Joshua’s circumcision of males born during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness;  second, by a  Passover celebration, reminding the nation of its redemption out of slavery; and third, by eating unleavened cakes and parched grain from the produce of the land. The manna that God had been feeding the Israelites stopped on the following day, signifying the end of Israel’s journey and the fulfillment of God’s promise. Joshua serves to remind us that 1) the rites of circumcision and Passover are types for the baptism and communion sacraments of the New Covenant church, and 2) the miracle of the manna is analogous to the miracles Jesus performed when feeding the crowds with loaves and fish.  

Paul quotes from Psalm 32 in Romans 4, in the context of his contrast of the Law, signified by circumcision, with Abrahm’s faith, “which he had while uncircumcised.”  The blessings of righteousness are credited all who trust in the Lord and who confess their sins, for God will forgive and deliver them, even as he delivered out of Egypt the Israelites, who are Abraham’s heirs. The themes of this penitential psalm are three:  imputation (1-2), forgiveness (5), and faith (10).

The passage from 2 Cor 5:16-21 continues Paul’s exploration of the contrast between the New Covenant and Abrahamic covenant.  The New Covenant does not require cutting of the flesh because it is a new way of life, “according to the Spirit.”  We are reconciled to God through Christ, not as a nation, but as new creatures. We are entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ, “who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf,” not that we might rest in the assurance of salvation, but for handing on, in ministry. We are called to be ambassadors for Christ, “as though God were making an appeal through us.”

Last Sunday we talked about handing on the Apostle’s Creed; today I will comment on the Lord’s Prayer.  When we say “Give us this day our daily bread,” we remember three things:  first, the manna God fed the Israelites with in the wilderness; second, the few loaves Jesus miraculously multiplied to feed the thousands; and third, the bread of communion, which is the body of Christ, broken for us.  Then, when we petition God to forgive us, as we forgive others, we can remember how he forgave the Israelites on the border of Canaan, for their deliverance is a type for ours. Also, we remember the Great Commandment, so that we do not hold back our forgiveness of others.  And finally, we can remember that sin which is not repented is the root of evil. We pray to be “delivered from evil,” because in and of ourselves we are helpless; only by virtue of God’s compassion are we turned away from evil, made whole and “acceptable” in God’s sight.

In everyday usage evil is said to characterize both “nations” and “individuals.”  For instance, Boko Haram, ISIS, and North Korea are called evil, as are Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, and Bashar al-Assad.  Sometimes the two categories overlap, as is true of North Korea and Kim Jong-un; more often they do not.  In every instance, however, evil is ascribed to denote the extreme absence of good, that is, “righteousness.”  We may conclude on this basis that nations and individuals are evil when there is no righteousness to be found in them.

An objection is raised by arguing that good and evil are relative terms, set off by a capacity for empathy: evil is inversely proportional to empathy.  To this I would respond that lack of empathy is a pathology caused by disease. Sometimes difficulties arise distinguishing between evil and pathology, for instance, in the case of a mass shooting where the shooter has received mental health treatment.  Motivation raises other difficulties.  Nevertheless, scripture teaches us that evil is recognizable, because evil entails a deliberate and thorough-going rejection of righteousness. Child and spousal abuse; sex, slave, and weapons trafficking; criminal enterprises involving extortion, murder, and rape: all are evil.

Power structures can also be evil.  This is the case when an institution is characterized by offices that require office holders to act with a disregard for righteousness.  A plethora of corporate, military, and government institutions satisfy this definition. In the instance of evil power structures, the roles and responsibilities of their offices incapacitate the office holders’ ability to make free-will decisions.  For instance, ethnic cleansing is evil. Participants in its mass killings, however, usually are not; studies show that most participants in systematic ethnic cleansing, when the state policy ends, will never again kill or behave violently.

Mention should be made of contemporary images of evil: sadism, victimization of women, video taped beheadings, children burning in villages set afire, the mass graves of genocide. As wisdom rejoices in the joy and gladness of righteousness, evil delights in its deliberate rejection of righteousness. The violence of evil is always associated with pain, suffering, and destruction, and its violence is directed toward many kinds of targets. Corporate structures that knowingly contribute to the destruction of the environment and the health of the planet are evil.

I would offer one word of caution to these observations.  There is always a danger of demonizing the unfamiliar for its strangeness by labeling it as evil.  How, for instance, can we call the nation of North Korea evil, while sparing the nation of Syria from this same designation?  Here, I would say, the coordination of intent guides perception:  the face of the nation of North Korea appears more resolute in its violent determination than does the face of Syria.

Getting back to the Lord’s Prayer, let us consider our responsibility, individually and as a church, to hand on the teachings of Jesus, which are the antidote to evil.  We learn these teachings from the Lord’s Prayer, as also from Apostles Creed, the sacraments, and most importantly, the Canon of Scriptures that are the Word of God. Truly, everything else is beside the point, which is why we pray, “Thy will be done.”  Our will is not God’s will, unless it conforms with God’s teachings.  Jesus teaches that the Divine Will is to bring in the Kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven.”  God’s kingdom is established in heaven and will be established on earth.

We represent the kingdom in several ways: by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, the widowed, and the prisoner, helping each other with practical concerns, such as finding employment, being merciful to everyone we encounter, exercising self-denial and frugality in spending on ourselves, so that we will have more to give to others, and being ready to receive in return all sorts of ridicule and persecution. These practices of discipleship are sanctioned by Scripture, and John Wesley identified them in his General Rules for United Societies as essential to Methodist membership.[i] We are to hold each other accountable, as a church, for working out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Today’s gospel reading, the familiar parable of the Prodigal son (in Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), is the story of a father, the repentance of his profligate son, and of resentment spawned by mercy.  It is the story of God’s relationship with Israel, and it is our story, the story of each of us as we are added to the body of Christ and become through adoption heirs of his eternal kingdom.  Note the moving prayer we find in vs 18-19, repeated again in vs 21: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” God responds to this prayer with joy over repentance, and his mercy triumphs over justice.

Let us conclude these reflections with a quote from Jeffrey Burton Russell, from his book The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History: “Evil is not effectively resisted with hatred and with guns. The only response to evil that has ever worked is the response of Jesus … and that is to lead a life of love. That means what it has always meant: visiting the sick, giving to the poor, helping those who need help.” We may add that in the society of our church it means also to renounce all desires for power and authority over our brothers and sisters, as we work out our salvation united in prayer, in response to the word of God preached, “and watch over one another in love” on the way to becoming ambassadors of Christ.  Amen.

[i] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/general-rules-of-the-methodist-church

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