Sunday, February 14, 2016

Navigating Good and Evil - Where does evil come from?

Sunday morning's reflections for the first Sunday in Lent - related to the Bible readings in IBRA's Fresh from the Word for 2016

When Moses led the people to freedom and the promised land and shared those Ten Commandments the people had to cope with 40 years of wandering through the wilderness.  It was a time of hardship, a time of difficulty, and a time of all sorts of things going wrong, and all sorts of temptation.  It took quite some navigating to get through the wilderness wandering.

When Jesus came up out of the Jordan in the strength of the Holy Spirit he went into the wilderness for 40 days.  It too was a tough time, a time of hardship, and for him a time of very real temptation.  It took quite some navigating to get through the time of temptation.

We stand at the beginning of Lent.  40 days of journeying towards Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter.  And Our Bible readings through Lent invite us to go on a journey that takes quite a bit of navigating.  It’s a journey that involves Navigating good and evil.  It’s quite some journey.  And if the first week of readings are anything to go by quite tough at times.

More than one person has said to me, I’m not sure what he’s on about!  And I have to confess I’ve wondered too!

When it comes to navigating we live in a Sat Nav age.  You key in the destination and you follow precise instructions.  Go wrong and the instructions will get you back on the right track.  And it’s all there for you on a plate.

Even if you use what one of the youngsters of one of the Scout leaders in a priceless comment described as ‘a paper sat nav’ – an atlas, the map books we use are accurate and precise so long as we follow them exactly.

I have a feeling people think of the Bible as a Sat Nav – key in the destination and it will get you there as you sit back and follow the instructions.  Go wrong and it will set you right again.

I don’t think the Bible is like that.

It’s not too like to pick up on our course at Explore – though I hope this Tuesday and next you join Michelle at Explore to explore the treasures of our faith in all sorts of creative ways that can then feed into the Christian Arts Festival in April.

Our course on the Bible is called Making Good Sense of the Bible Together.   It’s been great working on the course with Faith Taylor.  Last Tuesday some really fascinating insights about the way the bible works as poetry touching on the mysteries of life emerged through the discussion.  But those insights were not spelled out in the booklet that accompanies the course.  Someone was frustrated that the booklet had directed us to some very difficult verses of the Bible and not given the answer we had arrived at.

Faith’s response was superb – with some feeling and enthusiasm she said, ‘that’s the whole point’.  We’ve arrived at that understanding because we have had the conversation and shared together.  That’s the whole point of the course, she said, very perceptively, We make Good Sense of the Bible together.

It’s good to have a conversation about difficult passages in the Bible.  Not so that someone can tell us what the right answer is, but because in the conversation something emerges that touches the mystery in the words of the Bible.

One of the things that I think is a bit different about the IBRA bible study notes is that they come from a mixture of different people with different experiences of faith, different ways of reading the Bible and you won’t get just one clear definitive point of view.

Think of yourself as entering into a conversation as we share in navigating good and evil, specially in these first readings with Julian Bond as we asked where does evil come from and what is evil like today.

Instead of taking us through one book of the Bible, we jump around different texts.  Some find that disconcerting – and actually I like getting to grips with a whole book at a time.  But I think it goes to something very interesting about the Bible.

The Bible is a collection of 66 books written by probably a lot more than 66 people.  Many of the books have been re-worked by other people, ordered and arranged and then put together into what we see as the Bible.  These are all people of faith who have been touched by God as they have lived in the real world and grappled with the very issues we grapple with today.

One way to read the Bible is to look out for the way there’s almost a conversation going on between different people in the Bible.   Reading the Bible, looking at different passages from different writers at different times is a bit like entering into the conversation.  The great thing about that is that they have all journeyed this way before and they have all had to Navigate Good and Evil.

Actually, come to think of it: that’s another way of navigating today.  Find someone who’s been there before and follow their directions or let them show you the way.  We are going to have a day of prayer thinking of the churches of our area in our SW Midlands Area of the Federation down at our Stapleton Road church in Bristol – it’s in a fascinating area of Bristol and the church is really very much in the heart of inner city work.  When, I think it was Shirley and Dee, were going there they wanted help to get there – I gave them directions.  But it took some finding!   Find someone who’s been there before!

One thing I noticed in Julian Barnes notes is that he says, almost each day, In my opinion.  This is what I think.  At first that riled me. And then I thought that’s interesting.  He’s inviting us into the conversation.

So, now’s a moment to enter into the conversation.  What do you make of this question Julian Barnes has been asking: Where does evil come from?  Navigating good and evil is quite some challenge.  What do you make of evil?  How do you begin to answer that question or maybe how do you begin to grapple with that question?

Sharing ideas

Let me enter into the conversation and share my thoughts.

One of the things that came out of our Explore evening last week was the thought that so much of the Bible is in poetry and deals with things that are beyond our understanding by using picture language, metaphor and the like. The Bible uses different ways of thinking about evil – different people at different times have different insights.  I think it’s helpful not to elevate one to be the defintivie account of evil but to hold them together as different ways of thinking of something that is unthinkable.

I look around at the world and it can be wonderful – the news this week that a prediction made by Einstein a hundred years ago has actually been seen is remarkable!  But I also look around at the world with its conflict, its poverty and it’s pretty grim.  What do you make of it?

I think I do find it helpful just to think of evil.  There are things that are pretty horrible, beyond words – they happen out there in the world at large, sometimes they come closer to home.  And it can leave you thinking life is ****.  The word I have heard more than once this week rhymes with Kit and for emphasis with Kite.  However you explain it, it’s a reality – and I for one find it helpful in the Lord’s prayer to pray, ‘deliver us from evil’.

Just ‘evil’  Sometimes the Bible speaks of ‘the evil one’ – that’s how some translators translate that line in the Lord’s Prayer.  In Matthew and Luke it is the devil who tempts Jesus in the wilderness and in Mark it is Satan.   You can have a field day exploring the way those words are used and not use in the Bible.  It’s not the only way of thinking of evil.  But I for one find it helpful as one way.  Evil can come in the most personal of ways.  You know exactly what you should do, but something gets at you, niggles away – it is very personal.  That’s the devil at work.  The Lord’s prayer says it all – lead us not into temptation.

There’s a lot of imagery of monsters – in the depths, the chaos of the sea, the lion that’s prowling around to devour.  All imagery that captures the awfulness of evil around – not least the destructiveness of those bent on terror aimed at Christians and also aimed at other Muslims too in the Middle East at the moment.

Those last few words of Romans 8 speak of heights and depths that you think separate us from God – that language of soaring into the heights or plumbing the depths captures something of the awfulness of what can happen to us.  Mass of imagery around like that.

And then it speaks of principalities and powers, cosmic powers.  That’s an image I find really helpful in understanding the way horrible bad stuff gets a hold of institutions and the very fabric of society and the way things work. Individually we don’t want to feed climate change and destroy the wordl.  But we are part of a system that is devouring the earth’s resources and it’s hard to extricate ourselves.  There’s a web.

Julian Bond introduces us to one more thought.  A difficult thought.  An intriguing thought.  Evil happens in the world that is the world of God’s creation.  Maybe we shouldn’t think of that bad and all that goes wrong as a force equal and opposite to God, are a tiny bit less than God but pretty awesome.  Maybe things we sometimes categorise as evil are simploy part of the way God’s world works.

Those gravitational waves came from the collision of two black holes so many billion years ago.  A cataclysmic event.  It is out of cataclysmic events that new stars are born.  IT is the nature of the woirld that cataclysmic things happen.  There’s that kind of insigt in Isasiah 45:5-7

I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
   I make weal and create woe;
   I the Lord do all these things.

How do you begin to get your mind round that?  It was a way of thinking common in the time leading up to the exile and through the exile.  You see it in Jeremiah.  When the prophets use the language of judgment think in today’s terms of ‘consequence’.  Jeremiah saw the devastation of a generation that had to live through the most awful destruction as God’s judgment working out.  See it as consequence – and some of Jeremiah’s insights may have something to say to today.  The consequence of the wars we waged in Iraq and Afghanistan and more recently Libya is being worked out at the moment and it may last a generation and more.

My mind is beginning to spin.  There comes a point when that picture by Munch says it all – The Scream.  I just want to go ‘aasrgh’.  I can’t cope with all this.

That’s the point when you need to turn to God in prayer.

Our journeying navigating good and evil is going somewhere.  It’s leading us towards Holy Week, the Passion of Christ and Easter.  The readings this week take us to Jesus.

What makes Holy Week, the Passion and Easter so important to me is that at the heart of our Christian faith is the convication that God does not leave us on our own.  God comes alongside us and in Jesus shares in the awfulness of the world in the inhumanity of humanity at its worst.

The God I believe in is the God who in Jesus has been there before.  More than that the risen Christ promises us something for the journey we have to take.

Don’t think of the Bible as a Sat nav that simply will tell you how to get through life in instructions that simply have to be followed.

Think of it as a conversation – listen to people who have travelled this way before, grappled with these problems and come up with a way through them, a way of navigating good and evil.

But there’s one more way of thinking of this journey the Bible opens up for us.  The best way of navigating is when someone says, I’ve travelled that way before, I’ll take you.  And they accompany you on the journey.

That’s the promise Jesus makes – at that last supper on the eve of his crucifixion.

‘I will not leave you orphaned;
I am coming to you. 
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me;
because I live, you also will live. 

And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate, 
a Comforter, One who will be with you every step of the way

I will ask the Father
And he will give you anbother Comforter
to be with you for ever.
This is the Spirit of truth,

So overwhelmed by all this talk of evil – take heart, remember that promise of Jesus – I am with you always to the end of the age.

 As we draw to a close maybe Psalm 73 is one of those prayers from the Bible that can resonate for us.

It’s one of those psalms that exprsses the scream – the wretchedness we sometimes can feel … not least when we look at a world where evil seems to have the last word and win the day.

Truly God is good to the upright,
   to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
   my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant;
   I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 

The Psalm goes on to despair at the way evil has a hold.

Ultimately, the Psalmist senses that such evil does not have the last word.  The victory is God’s.  Navigating Good and evil through Lent our journey takes us through the cross to resurrection victory.

So these words can become our prayer …

Psalm 73:21-28

When my soul was embittered,
   when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
   I was like a brute beast towards you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
   you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterwards you will receive me with honour.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. 

Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
   you put an end to those who are false to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
   I have made the Lord God my refuge,
   to tell of all your works.

Navigating good and evil … one thing is sure, we are not on our own on the journey, it’s not just that others have walked this way before us, good though it is to enter into conversation with them.  God in Jesus Christ by the strengthening of the Spirit walks the journey with us.

I am continually with you;
   you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterwards you will receive me with honour.

For me in navigating good and evil

it is good to be near God;
   I have made the Lord God my refuge,
   to tell of all your works.

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