“The Negation of Evil: How Mankind Counters the Devil”
In the name of the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
I have favorite television shows, we all do, but still one of my favorites is the Twilight Zone.
There is an episode from season two in 1960 entitled “The Howling Man” which is one of the best. It concerns a man named Mr. Ellington who some thirty years prior was lost on a walking holiday in Central Europe in a terrible storm.
He seeks refuge at a monastery called the Hermitage where misfit brothers lead a solitary life. He is given shelter from the storm there for the night. Next he is shown wandering through the ancient, decrepit, and leaky-roofed monastery. He hears a blood curdling howl. It is low at first and then rises to a unnerving height.
He comes upon a cell with a window with bars, a single occupant, a nameless man therein. He is being jailed there against his will. After this discovery and speaking to the man, Ellington makes up his mind to confront the abbot, Brother Jerome, about what he has discovered there locked up at the Hermitage. Ellington threatens to call the police. After all, the imprisoned man had told Ellington that all the brothers were “raving mad”. In a scene only the Twilight Zone could achieve the staid and serious faced Brother Jerome declares, “that was no man you were speaking with Ellington, that is the Devil himself”
Unconvinced, Ellington retires to bed and then sneaks away from his room to let the man out later that night. When he arrives he now for the first time notices that all that is barring the door to the cell is a roughly-hewn shepherd’s staff. Confused, Ellington asks the imprisoned man, “Is this all that holds you? Why haven’t you lifted it off yourself?”
Next we see Ellington lift the staff from the door and all at once he realizes what he has let out of the cell, it was the devil. Who before our eyes is transformed into the pricked ears and horned headed figure of lore and vanishes.
Fallen on the floor and in shock Ellington looks up to the brothers who are now gathered around him and he declares, “I didn’t believe, I saw him and I didn’t recognize him”. I saw him and I didn’t recognize him.
We have just entered into the season of Lent, where we are invited to look and to recognize the things we want to throw off of ourselves as we walk together towards the resurrection, towards Easter. In Lent we are called to self-examination and repentance, to amend, and to make right. In this season of turning, and of introspection, we can fail to recognize the evil that is far outside of us.
How often it is we fail to recognize devils in our midst, whatever these devils may be, in all it’s forms. It is true too that we are at times unaware of the evil that is near and around us. We are wholly unaware of the delight that evil takes when we fail to recognize it, when we fail to grasp even partly, the power it can sometimes work in our lives. If only we could lock the devil up. If only evil could be walled up with only straw to walk on and only four small damp walls to look upon.
As more and more days continue with news reports of the evils humans do whether to others or to themselves, we are brought to consider why it is we do what we do. Why it is Satan seems to be gaining. It is easy to fall into an apoplectic mind and feel angry at what seems to be a lack of power to stop what is being worked in the world.
While it is easy to feel disillusioned and to feel outdone and even overtaken by the ills of this world, we as Christians know better. We as Christians are equipped with a knowledge, a knowledge that our Father in heaven has worked Love before all things.
There are times when mankind runs directly into the arms of the devil. There are times when mankind lets the devil lose on others. There are times when we have not even the beginning of an idea we are doing it.
Whether we understand it or not we know what we are doing, we as Christians know, even if just an ounce more, just a bit more, of the weight of dealing with the devil, of being tempted, of what evil entrapment looks and feels like. We know it because we first know of all that is good.
We can sense the fleeting lies because we know the eternal truth.Our Gospel reading from this morning deals with outward temptations and evil, set against the profound goodness and grace of God. And in the middle is Mark’s depiction of Jesus there between water and the desert wilderness.
The parallel here in Mark’s text is striking. All at once Jesus was confronted with the tearing of the heavens and the image of a dove bearing down upon him, and not just that, but the very confirmation that came from God, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” We are told that when Jesus, “…came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove”.
In that moment of standing there in the warmth of the sun, in the waters of the Jordan river, a deep peace and inward realization striking at him altogether, all at once, suddenly. The moment is almost indescribable.
And yet, immediately he is led away from it, to turn from it, and to be alone with his thoughts driven away from the richness and fertility of the waters to the emptiness and barrenness of the desert.
The Greek word meaning immediately, or suddenly, or all at once, occurs some fifty-one times in the New Testament, and it occurs forty-one times in Mark’s Gospel alone. The writer of Mark must have favored it, and used it to draw the attention of his hearers.
Immediately, The Spirit Immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.
Immediately was he sent, he was not sent into yet another grace filled moment like baptism, nor was he sent into quiet meditation and contemplation, no, instead he was sent out into the wilderness into the very clutches of the devil. There where it is thought in ancient texts that the old serpent, dwells, lying in wait.
Readying himself always to clutch at someone.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into this, into being tempted by Satan. Suddenly he found himself mired by doubts, and fears which pressed deeply on his heart and his mind, that scene is indescribable.
How often we are sent, or driven, or even forced out into a sort of wilderness.
Immediately at times, sometimes it is slow, and it is in those times, in those slow and unassuming times which we are hard pressed to understand the evils which can lie in wait for us.
While the immediacy of Jesus’ turn from the waters to the desert is shocking, and altogether wrenching, at least he was able to discern what was graceless in the wilderness for he was first enveloped by grace. He was able to know what evil was because he knew what goodness was. He was able to know allurement, temptation, because he first knew God’s Love, as of a father’s love, a love given which takes nothing.
A love which seeks not to distract, not to trap, no, it is a love which freely courses. It does not dry up, and it is not a lie. We know this too. We know that our wastelands we walk through in this life, in those deserts we encounter, in those moments and days, and even years of temptation and doubt, and of those sensations that evil will always be out there, unavoidable and always grasping, trying to tighten its hold. There is one thing to remember, just one. We can always turn back. We can always get out of there. We can always set our gaze on the truth and not on the lies, on the good and not on the evils that can undo us. It may not seem like much, no, but it is.
We do not have to stay in the desert. Jesus did not. But he did go through it. He did see for himself what lurked therein. He saw what was there fully, he understood it completely because he first knew, because he first knew what its opposite was, what it’s inverse was and is, what conflicts with evil. What will some day negate evil.
The devil is not locked up in a cell. We know this. We also know of that indescribable love that descends upon us, on the world, from God.
We can see that and that we can recognize.