Harrowing Of Hell
December 7, 2014

Cosmic Evil and John the Baptist

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

I was coming over here yesterday to practice my sermon. A neighbor was out, and he asked how I was doing. I hesitated. “OK, I guess. I’m having a hard time birthing this sermon.” “What’s it on?” he asked. “Cosmic evil,” I said. “Oh… Why?” he asked. “I guess because I believe in it, and Jesus put an end to it, and the text lends itself to the topic.” “Well,” he replied, “Good luck with that.”

Now evil is a pretty big topic and it provokes a lot of questions, at least for me, like:

  • Where does it come from?
  • Is evil personal?
  • Is it named Satan?
  • Why is a masculine pronoun always linked to evil?
  • And, the big one: If God made all things and God is loving, then why does evil exist?

Some wonder if evil is even a thing at all. Maybe it is only bad human behavior due to the poor allocation of resources, bad parenting, bad preaching, and unlucky gene distribution. If any of those are your questions or sentiments about evil, then you’re at the right place.

In truth, today we will probably leave here with more questions than answers, and if that is the case, that is OK, because this is a conversation that continues for a lifetime. Here we deal with the “whys”, not the “hows” like in school. This is why we graduate from school, but never from church.

There is a lot to talk about around evil, but today I want to touch on Jesus’s victory over it, and then the impact residual evil has on polluting the kingdom of God. Christianity maintains, and I believe, that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, overcame a cosmic, malevolent force. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, calls this force “the Ruler of the Power of the Air.” He says that Christ came in love to save us from this, and raise us to a more perfect kingdom (Eph 2:1-10 para). Now I’m not going to unpack all of that right now, but I will say the Gospel of Mark defends this line of reasoning through the narrative of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. Yet evil, though vanquished, still has residual effect, sort of like the background noise from the Big Bang is still reverberating. It is still here, yet the event is over.

So we begin with John standing in the River Jordan. Thousands of people line the shores. They have flocked from Jerusalem to be dunked in the dirty water by this crazy-eyed, wild haired guy. There is a revival going on. It is sort of the spiritual equivalent to a political revolution. The religious institutions have let the people down. Evil has perverted them. Rules meant to keep people in right relationship with each other, became clubs to reinforce power structures. Worship that was meant to lift hearts to God became rituals of imposed sacrifice. Charity that was meant to give hope became tools to inspire shame and guilt. Souls were being sucked dry, so a revival started with John the Baptist at the center.

That is the context for the Gospel of Mark. Thousands flocked to the River Jordan, to be dunked by the Baptist and come up refreshed and renewed, with the expectation that things would be different. And they were for a while, until they weren’t. Until evil popped back up, until the rhythm of bad behavior reappeared, until frustration or addiction or self-pity or pride climbed back onto their face, and they wondered, “How did that happen again?”

There was no permanence in the revival of John, and he knew it, which is why he said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” So let’s now consider these words, because they set up the solution to the problem of cosmic evil.

The sandal reference was a confession by John that he was not the solution. Even though he was the greatest of all men born to woman, according to Jesus himself, John was not the answer. He did not have the capability to rid the world of cosmic evil. John was just there to clear the landscape, to knock down the hills, and make the crooked path straight. His message was to get people’s attention. Turn around. Repent. Forgive. And get ready. “There is one more powerful than I coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”

The people at the River Jordan heard these words, and in them echo’s from Deuteronomy and the Book of Ruth. In Deuteronomy it said if a man refused to remarry his deceased brothers’ wife, in accordance with the Law, the woman was to remove his sandals and spit in his face, because he was not man enough to perform his duties. We see the same thing in the Book of Ruth. Boaz (the great grandfather of King David) was man enough to remove the sandals of the man who refused to marry Ruth when her husband died. And in this way Boaz assumed the responsibility of caring for Ruth as his wife.

So you might ask, “what does this have to do with John the Baptist and cosmic evil?” Here is the symbolism. As excellent as John was, there was no human possibility or power or capacity to defeat the Ruler of the Air. John was not man enough, by his own admission, saying, “I am not worthy to untie his sandals.” In other words, “I could never take on this task. It is too big.” “So if not you, who,” the people ask. To which John replies, “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit; Jesus!”

The problem is cosmic evil. The solution is Jesus. This is Good News. And yet, even though cosmic evil has been vanquished by Christ, it still reverberates in the world, like the sound of the Big Bang long after it is over. The evidence is found in the state of affairs of the world today, both on a macro and a micro level.

I can testify to this from my own life. Let me give you an example.

On Wednesday I found in my box a fundraising brochure from another church. Someone put it there just to show me what other churches are doing. I’m interested in that kind of stuff. I knew about this particular campaign. I had spoken to the priest about it, and shared what we had done at Epiphany. He was politely attentive, but clearly had a different plan. When I saw the brochure, it was a bit of a mess, and this gave me a certain amount of pleasure, as an “I told you so” flared in my heart, followed quickly by competitive contempt. I showed the brochure to Anna White, who headed up our Capital Campaign under the “guise” of market interested. She sensed my glee at their folly and she said, “Pride goeth before the fall” (Prov 16:18). I hate it when parishioners quote the Bible. In truth the fall had already happened in the echo chamber of my heart.

Now I think I know what some of you are thinking. So don’t judge me. Don’t judge my sin. I can imagine some of you are thinking, “Come on, Preach, that is not a big deal.” “That is not a cosmic sin.” “That is more like a cosmic yawn, as in I’m yawning right now as you’re telling me about your boring sin.” “Nobody cares.” That is probably true. Yet here is where we can get confused about sin. The temptation is to set a hierarchy of sin: “This is a little sin, and that is a big sin.” But in the kingdom of God there is only one type of sin: that which separates us from God.

CS Lewis writes about it this way in The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, the devil, says to his apprentice Wormwood: “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick,” (Letter 5). He continues in Letter 12, “Indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one.” Residual evil is more about the thousand little things, rather than one big event. When the gale hits we know to batten down the hatches, and ride out the storm. But it is the little persistent breeze that blows us off course. It is the current under us that move us when we are not paying attention. It is the 1000 little lashes from the tongue that cause our souls to become anemic, atrophy and dry up.

The sin I participated in last Wednesday wouldn’t be a big deal if it was a one-off event. But it wasn’t. It was one more lash in a thousand lashes given, whether behind closed doors, or behind backs, or in my mind, or in public that cut leadership in the broader church. It withers my soul and it withers theirs souls as the reverberation of evil finds another echo chamber in an empty heart.

I have tried to change. I have trained, I have acted, I have sought, and in the end the only solution I have found effective is to give up and surrender. For it is in the weakness and vulnerability of surrender that the walls of our heart cracks and the grace floods in. That is the Good News Jesus brought, that is the victory of Jesus over cosmic evil. Vulnerability and surrender crack the echo chamber that holds residual evil, and makes space for grace. When the walls crack, the ancient echo no longer has a place to reverberate vanquished evil.

There are three things that help me access this vulnerability:

  1. Self-reflection
  2. Friends
  3. A call from the wilderness

Self-reflection is the work of identifying the things we do that produce the 1000 lashes upon our neighbor, spouse, family, colleagues, employees, or even friends. It is competition or lust or pride or arrogance or greed. It is envy or jealousy or addiction or vanity. What are the 1000 little things that expose your heart to the reverberations of evil? Articulate them and surrender to them.

Then consider telling a friend. Consider being vulnerable about weakness and asking for account. Be open to feedback, and their expectations be upon your life. Friends can expose the gift of grace to fill that empty space so sins came be drowned out by the victory of Christ.

And finally, make note of things that calls you out of your own echo chamber. That was what John the Baptist was doing in the desert, calling people to be open to God. For me this time of year I hear this call in the music of Handel’s Messiah. It calls me out of my smallness of my being into the reality of what Jesus has done for me. Pay attention to what is calling you and follow it.

Cosmic evil is a big topic, and we’ve only just touched upon it today. But the Good News is we don’t need good luck in dealing with it. It has been defeated. Our response is simply to let the echoes of its legacy fade by surrendering, and being open and vulnerable to the grace of Jesus Christ.