Friday, October 13, 2017

Overcoming Evil (Matt. 8:28-9:1; Rom: 8:31-39) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On Sunday October 1, in Las Vegas, Nevada, beginning at 10:05 p.m. our nation witnessed a massacre.  A lone gunman on the 32nd floor of a hotel and casino opened fired on some 22,000 people at a country music festival.  It is called the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

I preach this message within a context, that is, remembering that there is also blessing, joy, wonder, love, and goodness in the life we live.  But that fact doesn’t diminish the horror of last Sunday.  As a Christian, as a pastor, as a student of the Bible, I call it an act of evil.   Others many disagree.  This is how I see it.

Within seconds it was sheer pandemonium.   People at first thought the sound was fireworks.  They assumed it was a part of the show.  But then people started falling around them from being hit.  And at that moment terror, panic, confusion and shock began to race through the crowd, as people starting ducking for cover, running in all directions, trying to get away from the rifle fire.  The shooting lasted 10 minutes which must have felt like an eternity.  And in that span of time, some 500 people were injured and wounded and 58 concertgoers died, murdered by one man.  Many people are in hospitals in critical condition.  There has been widespread speculation about the shooter’s motive, but that still remains unknown.  Memorial services are currently being held.

I can’t imagine the fear people felt, having never experienced anything like it myself.  Have you?  First responders, police, firefighters, EMT’s, paramedics were quick to rush to the scene.  They ran toward the gunfire.  We have also heard of many stories of heroism.  Strangers helping strangers, friends helping friends, people shielding others who themselves were killed.  A man saved 30 people before he was shot in the neck.  A husband died protecting his wife.  A couple trained in first aid, turned to the wounded administering CPR, making tourniquets, and saving lives.  A marine commandeered a truck and drove dozens of people to the hospital.  A wounded man put his body over 2 strangers to shield them as bullets rained down.  Many people in the midst of chaos acted with amazing courage to help their fellow concertgoers.  Our prayers go out to the victims, to their families, to the wounded, to the first responders, to the people of Las Vegas.

Amidst the swirl of emotions we feel at hearing of such carnage, such a horrific act immediately raises questions.  Not only questions like who was this shooter, what drove him to a heinous act, but philosophical questions like - why do people commit such evil acts, why does evil exist, what is evil, what is the origin of evil, can evil be defeated.  For believers, in addition, it raises theological questions, like why does God allow evil, what does God do about evil, is God more powerful than evil or is evil more powerful than God?  Is the Bible or our Christian faith silent in the face of evil?  How would you answer these questions?

The first thing to say is this, if there is no God, then theoretically there is no problem.  If one is an unbeliever, an atheist, if one does not believe in a good God who created and who rules the world then logically there is no intellectual problem.

If we live in a chaotic, purposeless and meaningless universe, with no intelligent designer or sovereign God, we have no right to expect that decency, and morality and justice should prevail in this world.  Wickedness should never be a surprise.  We are on our own.  We are alone in this vast universe.  Logically, evil is not a problem for unbelievers.

Evil is a problem for believers, for Christians.   And the deeper your faith, the closer you are in your walk with God, the more firmly you trust in a good, loving and powerful God, the more vexing is the problem of evil.   If God exists and if God is loving and merciful, why is evil so pervasive?

Ideas about evil and suffering have been discussed down through the centuries.  For example, some have explained that all suffering and evil comes from God; God uses it like a hammer to punish sin and immorality.  Some evangelists like Rev. Pat Robertson have stated that hurricanes like Katrina and earthquakes are God’s punishment on sinful and disobedient cities and nations.    It’s possible, but I don’t believe it.

Others have said evil is necessary for the good of the whole, like leaven is to dough.  Others have theorized that evil is only an illusion, and everything will come out good in the end.  Still others have said evil is a mystery, there are no answers.  Some have asserted that human beings are the cause of evil in the world and at least partly responsible for natural disasters because we have polluted the environment.   Human beings with our free will are without question guilty in terms of moral evil, such as this shooting.

Jewish and Christian thinkers have basically made the following three theological arguments.  First, God is all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing and all-present.  This is the central biblical claim about God the creator of the world, the one who formed Israel and the church, and the ruler of the universe.  Other thinkers have said God is all-loving, but not all-powerful, and that explains why evil exists.  God is too weak to do anything about evil.    Still other thinkers have asserted that God is all-powerful, but not all loving and that explains why evil exists.  God just doesn’t care that evil exists.  What do you think?  I believe in the traditional Judeo/Christian view of God, based upon scripture, that God is all powerful, all loving, all knowing and all present.   But yes, that position leaves many questions.

I bring four answers or responses which come out of our orthodox and traditional Judeo/Christian understanding of God.

First, God is involved in the world and in evil with us!  That sounds strange I know. It is saying that God is not beyond evil, above evil, basking in the splendors of heaven.    God entered this world in the person of Jesus Christ to save sinners, to bring salvation to the world.  Jesus is fully God and fully human.  God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth to accomplish His will in the world both then and today.  Jesus was subjected to the worst evils that humans can devise.  Jesus experienced rejection, persecution, humiliation, beatings and was crucified upon a cross.  God chose to personally become one of us, one with us and one among us and subject himself to evil in order to atone for our sins, to forgive us, to make our relationship right with God, to bring us back into fellowship with our creator.  God understands, God knows, God is empathetic to the pain humans must at times go through because Jesus himself was subjected to it.  We pray to a God who understands our pain. The letter of Hebrews in speaking about Jesus says:  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness.”

Second, God battles against and conquers evil today.   There is a strange story in the Gospel of Matthew.  It takes place in the town of Gadarene, on the eastern side of Sea of Galilee, in the northern region of Israel.  We read that two demon possessed men came out of the tombs to confront Jesus.  They were extremely strong and violent and no one dared go near them.   They shout, “What do you want with us, Son of God?”  “Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?”  “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”

Jesus doesn’t hesitate, he says “Go!” Jesus casts out the demons from the men and sends them into this herd of pigs.  The entire herd of pigs rush down a steep bank and drown in the sea of Galilee.  The swineherds, like shepherds, only for pigs, race to town to report what has occurred to the two men and to the pigs.  The whole town goes out to meet Jesus and pleads with him to leave their region.

Like any story in the Bible it must be interpreted.  How would you interpret it?   Here are some possible interpretations.  The message of the story is that Jesus hated pigs?  He despised pigs that went around snorting and wallowing in the mud.  The message of the story is that in Judaism pigs are unclean, they are not Kosher, and should never be eaten. Jews hold that view today.   The message of the story is that Jesus should not meddle in the local economy, in this instance, the pig industry, because it always got him into trouble.   Any of those interpretations are possible.  I believe the story is saying something else, that Jesus, the Son of God, has power over evil, personified here as demons, and conquered evil in his day and continues to do battle against and conquer evil today.  I offer that interpretation for your thinking.

The third response is God cares, God loves the world and God loves us.  The Holy Spirit instills courage and comfort in our faith today in the midst of tragedy and crises.  God gives us the strength and power to endure and overcome evil.   God assures us of his presence with us in all times.  God promises that nothing can separate us from his love.  God gives us the power to endure and overcome evil ourselves through faith.

In Romans 8 we read these inspiring words:  “If God is for us, who can be against us?  God sent his own Son to be with us, among us and for us.  Who will separate us from God’s love.  Hardship, distress, persecution, famine nakedness or peril or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height or depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In II Corinthians we read:  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble, with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

Finally, we hold onto the promise that God will ultimately conquer all evil and establish a new earth and heaven.  This is the glorious message of Easter and the resurrection.  God raised Jesus from death on Easter, the message of Easter is that in Jesus’ resurrection, God has ultimately conquered sin, death and evil.   Further, as believers we have the promise and assurance of the second coming of Christ, when evil will be vanquished forever and God’s kingdom, God’s reign, will become visible to all.

Rev. 21:  “I saw the holy city, coming own out of heaven from God, and I heard a loud voice from the throne: Saying See the home of God is among mortals, God will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, God himself will be with them, God will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, grieving and crying and pain will be no more.

Author Dinesh Dsouza wrote: “Evil and suffering poses an intellectual, spiritual and moral challenge for Christians.  But it also poses a formidable challenge for atheists and unbelievers.  Because suffering is not merely an intellectual and moral problem, it is also an emotional problem.  Suffering wrecks hearts.  Atheism may have a better explanation for evil and suffering, but it provides no consolation for the people.  Theism, faith, which doesn’t have a good explanation, nevertheless, offers a better way for people to cope with the emotional consequences of evil and suffering.

We place our trust and our hope in Jesus.  The good news, of our faith, the light in the midst of darkness, is that in Jesus Christ God has overcome, is overcoming and will finally overcome evil.  Amen!

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