“Evil and The Justice of God”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 14, 2016
Isaiah 55:6-13 & John 16:1-4, 16-33
For my sermon today I have taken the title and topic, Evil and The Justice of God. This is the same title and topic of a book by English theologian and pastor, N.T. Wright. I first encountered Wright’s book, Evil and The Justice of God, while in seminary studying the problem of evil in the New Testament. It is a book I return to over and over, at least a few times a year, and not simply because it is a good book written by a great thinker. I return to it over and over, year after year, because its subject matter is of high importance and high complexity for anyone who calls on the name of Jesus. Evil is a reality of the world that people of faith—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus—have been wrestling with since the dawn of time. How God responds to evil, and how God’s response informs our own, is a pressing matter of faith. In fact, people who claim to have no faith also wrestle with the problem of evil and how to respond, albeit from a different perspective. Evil is something that effects all of us, whether we claim part in a faith tradition or not. We know that evil exists, that it has a terrible and lasting effect on human life and creation, and we know that it must be stopped; but beyond knowing these things, the sad result is that no human-made solution has ever been offered that rids the earth of evil for good, forever.
This is not a topic to be approached lightly, nor is it one that can be solved in the 15-17 minutes that I have your attention today. It is very possible that we humans will never find a solution to evil and its presence in the world. But this is no excuse to turn a blind eye, offer immature solutions and answers, or simply convince ourselves that evil isn't there. Wright points out that this is exactly how the human family operated towards evil throughout history until about the time of the First World War. The First World War, he says, was a reckoning for the world, a reckoning of conscience that evil has the capability of swallowing up the whole world in death if it goes unanswered. And these reckonings kept coming in the 20th century: World War II, the Holocaust, wars in Vietnam, Korea, the Middle East, 9/11, the tsunami in the Indian ocean in 2004, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Wright’s book was published in 2006 so he could easily add to this list of evils, moral and natural, the rise of Islamic extremism and the world’s extreme response. These events and more forced a change in our modern conscience that evil was no longer located in a foreign land, at a time a place distant from us, but right here and right now. Immature solutions and simple answers, turning a blind eye, or pretending it is not there: these lead to more war and more death, leaving time and space for evil to grow and strengthen. They offer none of the thing we all need most…hope. So what can we do?
Wright suggests that people of Christian faith must approach evil first foremost with the belief that God acts with justice against evil, in history and right here, right now. This is the source of our hope as followers of Jesus. And to do this—to understand evil and the justice of God—we must return to the Scriptures of our faith, to the stories of those who cried out as we often do, “How long, O Lord, will you abandon us?”. Then, by understanding what God has done about evil, we can look around and see what God is doing about evil, and live as people of hope in an often hopeless world.
We have to start at the beginning. There was a tree in a garden and the tree had good fruit, but God said it was off limits for the first man and first woman. There was a snake, a deceiver, who convinced the man and the woman that they could eat from the tree, that God was just making rules for the sake of making rules. So they ate from the tree. When God came looking for them in the garden one evening, the man and woman hid themselves because they were ashamed by the knowledge the fruit had given them. God was enraged and spoke a curse on all three. The snake was cursed to slither around in the dust as the perpetual enemy of the woman and her husband. The man was cursed to work the soil of the earth, only to find that his labor would be in vain. The woman is cursed with terrible pain in childbirth, suffering and agony at one of life’s most beautiful moments. All three are expelled from the garden to wallow in the new life they chose for themselves.
This story from the garden makes it clear that evil must be judged, and judged severely. God has made a beautiful world. Evil, in this story, as much as we can define it is a defacing of that world, a way of getting the world upside down and inside out. God judges Adam and Eve and the snake in order to stop evil in its tracks before it gets too far. Yet even in the midst of the curses, there are signs of blessing; Adam and Eve are fruitful and they multiply, and each new generation brings hope that things will get better.
Three chapters later in the book of Genesis, the saddest line in the whole of the Bible can be found: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This grief, this depression over how wicked and sinful the beautiful world and its creatures had become, led God to torrentially blot out the land, the animals, and the people with a flood. Only one man was found to be worthy, and he his family were saved. When the waters had drowned the wickedness, God placed a rainbow in the sky as promise that it would never happen again, and a dove flew to Noah with an olive branch.
The flood was like the judgment in the garden, showing that God hates evil and what it does to creation. The flood also indicates what God was willing to do to his beloved creation in order to stop evil in its tracks. It seems as though God is an angry god, vengeful and spiteful. But precisely because God is the Sovereign Creator, God finds a way of working through and out the other side to fulfill the purpose which he has for creation. The rainbow in the sky and the olive branch carried by the dove are a sign, just like the offspring of Adam and Eve, that there is grace and judgement in God. Better things to come, and in fact they do, as Noah and his family rebuild the human race.
A few more chapters on in Genesis and we come to the incident of the Towel of Babel. In many ways, the Tower of Babel is a repeat of Eden and the world before the flood. Human arrogance, the desire to be God, reaches a height, literally, when the people build a tower to reach the heavens in order to declare themselves God. The result is that God comes down to look at the puny little tower and confuses human languages so that the human race won’t can’t plot together to finish their plan of reaching heaven.
Again God is stopping evil in its tracks. And again, like the children of Adam and Eve, and Noah and the rainbow and the dove, God is also doing something new. Even though the human family has been broken apart by language barriers and scattered across the land, it is from this fallen humanity that God choses another man another woman to become agents of blessing for all people. Abraham and Sarah may have been part of the fallen humanity, but God lifted them up to carry a new blessing and a new covenant throughout the world.
And this cycle continues throughout the pages of the Old Testament, and that is no exaggeration. Abraham and Sarah were some of the good ones, but even they fell from time to time—their children certainly did. Jacob tricked his dying father into giving him his brother’s inheritance; Joseph’s brother’s sold him into slavery. Moses killed someone, and the Israelites, imagining that they were working with God’s blessing, exterminated the Caaninite people. The Judges over Israel were bad and corrupt, David stole someone’s wife, and the prophets complained more than they proclaimed. God’s program for evil was always the same: evil rears its ugly head, consumes the human heart, defaces God’s good creation, so God judges it, swiftly, by doing what it takes to stop it where it stands. Then grace swoops in to renew the everlasting covenant of God’s sure and certain love for all people and all things. That is the scope of evil and the justice of God in the Old Testament.
As for the New Testament, there are not three or ten or twenty events of God’s judgement and grace in the face of evil; there is but one…the crucifixion of resurrection of Jesus.
Consider everything, and everyone, that took Jesus to the cross. A crowd that hailed him as King and Messiah on Sunday, only to shout, “Crucify him!,” on Friday because he wasn’t who they wanted him to be. A council of religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat to their monopoly on faith, who saw him as a necessary sacrifice in order to keep the peace. A Roman governor, the Roman government, also threatened because Jesus could inspire, lead, and attract crowds, crowds of disenfranchised people, when Roman policy was dependent on class structure and fear. A group of followers, people whom he called friends, who turned tail and ran when the going got tough and their friend needed them the most. A society fascinated with capitol punishment and death, who would rather see something shocking and entertaining instead something just and peaceful. This is what took Jesus to the cross; it looks and smells and tastes just like Eden, just like the world before the flood, just like the Tower of Babel. This is what took Jesus to the cross, and this is what took away his life.
Their sins are ours, and all the systems and structures that crucified Jesus are ours, too; evil has no concept of time or place. God’s judgment on our evil and the evil of the world was the cross and his only son’s death on it. But there, in the grip of death, something cosmic was taking place, God was doing something new. In his death on the cross, Jesus suffered the full consequences of evil: evil from the political, social, cultural, personal, moral, and religious and spiritual all at once. And in taking them all on himself, in this clash between the Son of God and the greatest forces of darkness in the world, Jesus took evil on a downward spiral, hurtling towards the pit of destruction and despair. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ life all detail his crucifixion, yet none are interested in a philosophical explanation of evil; all point to the reality that Jesus died as an act of redemption, played evil on its own grounds and on its own terms, took it on a downward fall, and exhausted its power over us and the whole world. On the cross, God passed judgment on evil in a very final way so that there may be new creation, new covenant, forgiveness, freedom, and hope today and forever.
Just like all of God’s judgements, the story does not end with death or with judgement. The story of Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins and evil of the world ends with resurrection. This is where it is clearly seen that evil has lost its power. Death is evil’s most potent weapon, and it could not stand against the son of God. Jesus did not rise from the dead as some parlor trick; Jesus rose from the dead by the power of God to powerfully and finally proclaim that evil will never have the final word on God’s people. Jesus rose from the grave to prove just how interested God is in us and the world we inhabit, in the pain we suffer, in the joy we experience, in the moments of grace and the moments of pain. Jesus rose from the grave because God will not simply stand by when the people of his creation are bowed beneath the strong hand of evil, wondering if God even exists. Jesus rose from the grave to stand supreme over all things, especially evil, showing to us that he has indeed conquered the world and everything that stands in opposition to God’s good and beautiful creation.
We think and feel at times as if this is simply a good story, one handed down through the ages because it has a good plot. From Adam and Eve to Jesus, it is an empowering and impressive story of God acting against evil. But when the waters are rising, the walls are falling in, the body begins to shut down, and there are enemies all around, it is easy to lose hope and dismiss this story as just a good story. But, my friends, it is simply not so. The justice of God continues to roll down on creation like a mighty river, like an ever-flowing stream, and it takes on many forms. It is conquering evil when victims and offenders sit at a table together and talk about what was taken and what was lost, offering forgiveness to one another as God forgives them. God’s justice is conquering evil when communities come together to take stock of programs that are needed, resources that must be offered, ingrained prejudices that must be erased, where words lead to concrete actions. God’s justice is conquering evil as we deal with the painful reality that freedom is not enjoyed by all in this land, either because of skin color, financial position, political affiliation, or practice of love. God’s justice is conquering evil each time someone backs away from the trap of partisanship, name-calling, lie-telling, or outright hatred. God’s justice is conquering evil each time we gather in this place and worship God, not our bank accounts, not our politics, not our successes, and certainly not our privileges. God’s justice, which at times is hard to see and recognize, is triumphing over evil and just as he did with his first twelve disciples, Jesus is inviting us to take part in evil’s demise. The suffering right now is intense, the labor pains are great, but in time something new will be born and we will have joy.
Peace. Forgiveness. Mercy. Compassion. Confession. Repentance. These are the ways we take part in God’s ultimate triumph over evil; this is how we stand with God in the face of evil and declare that it will go no further. Do not get bogged down in trying to define it, but be courageous in working with God to defeat it. Live peacefully, as far as you are able, with yourself and with others. Forgive, not because you are weak, but because you are strong enough to recognize that forgiveness releases you from evil. Have mercy on those who have been trampled by the pulsing rhythm of life. Be compassionate, eat with sinners and outcasts as Jesus did, engage in conversation with your rivals even when you disagree or are offended. Confess the ways you have sinned against God and your neighbor, because confession is not an instrument of guilt, but one of freedom. And repent. Repent of the ways you have taken part in and contributed to the evil in this world. It was Alexander Solzhenitsyn who once said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” To work with God on the demise of evil in the world, we must first begin with ourselves.
Remember, though evil is a four letter word we often shy away from as it wrecks havoc on the world, so too is love. May God’s love, for you and for me and for all of creation, guide and strengthen us this day as we work against evil in the world. One day, in God’s good plan, the mountains and the hills shall break forth in song, the cypress will bloom instead of the thorns, the myrtle instead of the thistle. Until then, have hope, and live in peace. Amen.