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July 10, 2016, 1:01 PM

The Problem of Evil


Romans 8:35-38, CEB
35 Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
We are being put to death all day long for your sake.
    We are treated like sheep for slaughter.
37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.
 
Matthew 6:7-13, RSV
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask. Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
    On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread;
12 And forgive us our debts,
    As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    But deliver us from evil.                         
 
The Problem of Evil
 
I confess. I really enjoy a good horror movie once in a while—a good one, not just a slasher flick—one with good figments of evil rising up and scaring the pants off of everyone. I confess. I often get sucked in by a good apocalyptic story—one where a great evil plague sweeps across the world—like Stephen King’s The Stand. I confess. I love science fiction. I am a huge Star Wars fan—“May the force be with you!” (and also with you). I have read The Lord of the Rings over 20 times, and that doesn’t include how many times I’ve watched the trilogy—extended versions. I am not alone. Hollywood has made some serious money off of depictions of evil, serious money. Whether it is Freddy Kruegger, Darth Vader, Michael from Halloween, or Sauron down in Mordor, people pay to see it. We humans are fascinated by the dark, and what might be lurking within it. We flock to movies where evil is personified, wreaks havoc, and then is defeated heroically with great special effects. All of this media attention—movies, television series, novels, etc.—has significantly colored our understanding of evil when it comes to our faith. So, what is evil?
 
As we seek to explore this question today, I just want to take a second to point out that next Sunday we will be addressing the topic of suffering, which sometimes is caused by evil. The following Sunday we will be exploring the topic of sin, which sometimes contributes to evil. So these three Sundays we will see some overlapping between the problem of evil, the questions of suffering, and the exploration of the meaning of the term sin.
 
So, what is evil, according to scripture? Do we believe in evil as a force unto itself? Do we have to believe in the devil? In demons? What does the Bible have to say about evil? Let’s begin by what evil is not, according to scripture. Evil is not ‘the dark side of the force.’ Sorry fellow Star Wars fans. Evil is not balanced with good. It does not have equal power or equal status with good. God is good. There is no force in heaven or earth that is on equal footing with God. Nothing is even close.  Scripture is clear, from Genesis to Revelation, nothing compares with our God. Nothing. This whole idea of a balance between good and evil, between forces of dark and light, comes from Asian philosophies…and from Star Wars. Scripture proclaims that God is the ultimate power in the universe and God’s goodness wins out always, even when things seem dark and without hope. God’s love always overcomes evil. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1).”
 
Evil is not something separate from humanity. I am not seeking to get into a debate about Satan or the Devil, but throughout scripture evil is intimately tied to humanity, and human behaviors and responses in the world. We cannot take all the evil in the world and throw it on Satan and declare, “the Devil made me do it!” Throughout scripture, evil goes hand-in-hand with human activity. It is a corruption of our purpose, made in God’s holy image. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11, Jesus calls us evil—“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God, who is good, give to you?” In some fashion, evil is tied to human activity, even when the Tempter is involved.
 
Evil is not God’s will. A first response to that statement may be, “well, obviously!” But how many times have we heard people say, “It is all part of God’s plan.” or “God must have had a reason.” God desires goodness for God’s people. God weeps when evil creates great harm and pain. God does not plan for evil to sweep through and devastate a community, or a family, or an individual. As we explore the question of suffering next week, we will talk more about free will and God’s will, about providence and liberty. Suffice it to say, God didn’t want bombs in Baghdad to kill almost 200 people. God didn’t plan for Omar Mateen to massacre 49 people in a club in Orlando. Evil is not God’s will. Jesus, God made flesh, embodied this for us throughout his life, ministry, death and resurrection.
 
Finally, in our “what evil is not” list, I’m going to push a more controversial statement. You are welcome to come Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm to the Embury Room to argue with me about it in our sermon discussion group. Evil is not simply a flaw in human character. One school of thought, when wrestling with the problem of evil, is to basically say that all evil is caused by human behavior, and therefore evil itself doesn’t really exist. It is a flaw in the human condition—original sin, human fallibility, however you want to phrase it.  This belief may be partly a reaction to images of Satan and demon possession. However, scripture speaks repeatedly of evil as a force—tied in with human activity as I said a moment ago—but in some way a force beyond just human behavior.  Both Psalm 23 that we heard as our call to worship and the gift of the Lord’s Prayer in our reading from Matthew, speak of deliverance from evil, not from human brokenness or human fallibility. We pray, either in the psalm or the Lord’s Prayer, for deliverance from forces of evil.
 
Certainly, human sin—human behavior—plays a strong role in the evil of the world. We can lift up many, many examples of humans perpetrating great evil—Hitler, ISIS, Omar Mateen. But it is important to acknowledge that acts of evil many times grow beyond the actions of a few humans. Evil, at times, is a force that seems to sweep through human communities, even nations, and pull people into evil activities that leave terrible devastation. The violence we have seen this week that has sparked more division along racial and police force lines is just such a force in the world. It is hard to walk into this violent, escalating situation and point to just a handful of individuals and proclaim, “Evil!” But there is a force working, in the system of racism, in the criminal justice system, in our media, that is dark, evil, and is causing great devastation and division. In our baptismal covenant, we are asked to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, for they are very real in our world.
 
So, what is evil? That is a much harder question. Perhaps we could define evil as that which corrupts the true purpose for which we were created; life in communion with God, with one another, and with all creation. But that isn’t quite right for other things get in the way at times, but aren’t necessarily evil—like being busy or overscheduling yourself or having a stomach bug. Perhaps we have to confess that evil is a bit beyond a solid definition or even our complete understanding. We know evil when we see it. But we cannot always know from whence it came. Hitler and the Holocaust were evil, but all of the factors that led to such an evil in the world are beyond our understanding.  The death of so many black men, the gunning down of police officers in Dallas is evil—but rooting out the force of darkness is complicated. But we can see it. The book of Job spends chapter after chapter sharing Job and Job’s friends’ arguments regarding the cause of Job’s suffering. In the conclusion of the book, Job rails against God for an accounting of all he has suffered. The response, Job is put in his place, finally realizing that he tried to understand something that was far beyond him. How could Job know the ways of God, the One who laid the foundations of creation itself?
 
So, if we can’t really define evil completely, and we can’t understand it fully, what do we do with evil? This should, for the church, be a no brainer. We name it and we stand up against it! We are the Church, the body of Christ at work in the world. The power to deliver us from evil is already in our midst, the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. Standing firm in this assurance, we work against the forces of wickedness in this world and share the good news of freedom and life abundant in Jesus. We live the assurance of Paul’s proclamation, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We pray the prayer Jesus gifted to us, knowing that we are delivered from evil. We trust in the signs of God’s presence among us, God’s rod and staff—symbols of the shepherd’s presence—provide comfort and we fear no evil.  Strengthened in this way, we work together to thwart evil—whether it is seen in the behaviors of an individual, a group, a system, or is some force at work for destruction. We are not silent! We are not passive! We are agents of change, agents who reveal God’s commonwealth breaking in among us!
 
Jesus promised Peter after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ—You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. We have been called, as descendants of Peter and the other apostles, to be that force in the world for good—for good will always triumph over evil. World headlines broadcast how vast the need is for the church to stand firm against those forces of evil. Those suffering at evil’s hands need us to name the evil persecuting them and to fight against its forces. We need to let go of our discomfort with language about Satan and demons, and get to work combating evil in whatever form it presents itself (more baptismal promises).  We have witnessed evil at work. We have witnessed good. We can make a different!
 
Where have you seen evil recently? (allow time for answers) How has it affected you? What might we do to combat it? What do we need to get started?
 
Hollywood has played with ‘evil’ for so long that when the word is used, images of devils and demons and monsters and such spring into our heads.  But evil is real, very real, painfully real, devastatingly real. We are the Church of Jesus Christ. The world needs us to name the evil as evil and seek to take it down! Amen.
 
Questions for Personal Reflection:
 
1. How do you define evil?
 
 
 
2. How do you differentiate between suffering and evil?
 
 
 
3. What explanations have you heard for the existence of evil in the world? How persuasive do you find them?
 
 
 
4. What is the most evil thing that has ever happened to you or to a loved one? Can you understand anything about why it happened? How did you fell about God in the midst of trouble? Do you feel the same way now?
 
 
 
5. How does God response to evil? How do you?

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