+ This past week, in our confirmation class, we had a very in-depth discussion on several topics. We talked about death and I had the students plan their funerals, which was interesting. We talked about heaven, reincarnation and…we talked about hell. I said something regarding that kind of shocked our students.
I said, “I don’t know if I really believe in hell.”
Then I had to make myself clearer, because that is quite the statement after all.
I said, “I should say that I’m not saying there’s no hell. There could be. But my hope—my real, deep and abiding hope—is that is it exists, I hope it is empty and will remain so.”
This was not good enough of a statement for our confirmation students.
“What about terrible people?” they asked. “What about Hitler? What about people who do bad things?”
I then went into one of my sermonettes on examining the reasons why we do things. Do we do good because we fear hell and punishment, or do we do good things because doing good things is…good? It brings about good.
They really got that.
But then, I started thinking about it and realized I needed to revise what I said about hell. I do believe hell exists, actually. In fact, just this past week, we heard about hell.
On Tuesday, many people observed the seventieth anniversary of hell being liberated. On that day, January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated. Hell on earth was liberated. And, as we all know, there are hells right here on earth.
There are hells existing right here in our midst at any given moment. We, each of us, are often, at times, existing in our own personal hells.
And, as far as the question of bad things like Hitler that the confirmation students were asking about, I believe fully and completely that yes, evil no doubt does exists in this world. But that evil is not something that God cannot defeat. I’ll get into that a bit later.
We get evil today in our Gospel reading. But first, before the evil, we get a bit of glory. In the beginning of our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus in a place, at first, in which he is being marveled at. People are amazed by his teaching. It is certainly a high point for those early followers of Jesus. It is a moment in which the decision they made to follow him has been, in some very real way, validated. And then, in the midst of that adulation, in the midst of that wonderful, high moment, those followers find themselves confronting evil. There, in the middle of all that praise, comes a person possessed by an evil spirit. It was, no doubt, an unpleasant moment. Just when things seem to be going well, there’s a crazy, possessed person in their midst.
For us we have been confronted with things like this as well. Well, maybe not crazy, possessed people. Or maybe…crazy, possessed people.
But, let’s face it, we do know a few things about evil. For all the grand and glorious things we see on occasion as followers of Jesus, we are also reminded that there is still injustice and oppression and sexism and homophobia and racism and a multitude of other really horrible things going around us in the world and in our society. Some of us have even seen the effects of violence in our own personal lives.
We see evil. We know evil. We are confronted with evil on a regular basis, and especially in those moments in which we really don’t want to confront evil. But, what Jesus’ encounter with the evil spirit shows, however—and, again, as we all know here—is that evil is not quite what we thought it was.
Yes, evil has much power in this world. But it does not have ultimate power. Evil does not—nor does it ever—win in the end. History has shown this again and again.
Auschwitz, that seemingly impenetrable fortress of evil and death and horror, was liberated. It was ended. Nazism was destroyed. Hitler was defeated.
And, in following Jesus, when we confront evil and injustice and oppression and discrimination, we know full well that these things will all one day be cast out. They all will be quieted. And goodness will triumph ultimately in the end. We know this as followers of Jesus. We know this because we know that’s what it means to follow Jesus.
For us, when God’s blessings flow and we can feel that Presence of ultimate goodness at work in our lives, we like those people who witnesses Jesus casting out the evil spirit, are amazed. We wonder and we marvel at what is happening. And hopefully, like those first followers, we are motivated. We are motivated to continue following Jesus, wherever he leads us. We are motivated to continue to stand up and speak out against evil when we are confronted with it.
That is what we have always done here at St. Stephen’s and that is what we will continue to do here. We do this, because that is what followers of Jesus do.
But, being followers of Jesus also means facing evil full-on, knowing full-well that evil ultimately has no control over us. Evil—which may come to us in many forms—whether we confront it in the daily news in the form of ISIS or North Korea or stories of horrendous violence in our own communities—or whether we are dealing with various forms of evil in our own lives, with discrimination or abuse or even things like illness and death, which are their own types of evil, we know that ultimately evil and hell will be defeated. We know that, following Jesus, these things will not win out.
Yes, we know that in following Jesus, he isn’t always going to lead us through sun-lit fields full of easy pathways. He leads us again and again down paths in which we are forced to confront ugly things. We are led down path in which we must not only face, but confront evil. We are led down paths that we don’t want to go down, at times.
Certainly, as we journey through our Church year toward Lent, we know that following Jesus means following him on the Way of the Cross, a path that goes through a place of darkness and violence and evil. But if we keep following, we will realize, again and again, that none of those dark evil things triumph in the end. The path we follow Jesus upon leads us ultimately to sun-lit fields ahead somewhere. That path to the cross leads us also beyond the cross.
We know good always wins. That is what we are celebrating this morning and every Sunday morning. The fact that, yes, we have been through those dark moments. We have been through those lean years in our lives. We have been through moments when it seems as though Jesus was leading us through desert wastes and arid lands.
But this morning, in this moment, we know—we are reminded: he is leading through a verdant land. And as we follow, we will continue to see amazing things. And it is good.
So, let us rejoice and be thankful today and always, even when evil seems to triumph Let us be thankful for all that we have been given in this past year. And let us look with joy into a future of unlimited possibilities. God is at work in the midst of us this morning and always. And on this morning we can truly say that it is wonderful and glorious. What more can we do on this beautiful Sunday, but rejoice?