A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday of Lent by Canon Simon Butler
I ended my sermon on Ash Wednesday with a poem and I’m going to begin my sermon today with part of another. This time it is Milton and Paradise Lost.
First, Satan to Eve;
Queen of this universe, do not believe
Those rigid threats of death; ye shall not die:
How should ye? by the fruit? it gives you life
To knowledge. By the Threat’ner? look on me,
Me who have touched and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfect have attained than Fate
Meant me, by vent’ring higher than my lot.
Shall that be shut to man, which to the beast
Is open? or will God incense his ire
For such a petty trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing death be…
And, Eve, to herself:
What fear I then, rather what know to fear
Under this ignorance of good and evil,
Of God or death, of law or penalty?
Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: what hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
The mystery of good and evil is our theme today and, along with the mystery of life and death we pondered on Wednesday, it is perhaps the greatest mystery of human living. Whatever its origins in the ancient mythology of the story of Genesis, that we have this developed moral sense is both our blessing and our curse. We know the heights of goodness and, because we know them, we know the reality of the presence of goodness’s opposite. We could debate, with passion and ideally a large glass of wine or two, the philosophical questions good and evil generate: is evil simply absence of goodness? Or is it an equal and opposite power to good? Is there such a being as The Devil who, as in Milton, gets all the best lines and as a result attracts us to choose the path that Eve took and, who in the temptation stories of the Gospels, seems to know his Bible as well as the most rigorous fundamentalist (a warning there surely)? Or is evil the banal thing that the philosopher Hannah Arendt saw in the petty bureaucratic world-view of Eichmann in Jerusalem? From the Book of Genesis (or possibly the earlier Job onwards), this is the mystery of good and evil.
In fact, good and evil only become a mystery when one acknowledges God. For an atheist, good and evil are simply ways of speaking about pleasant and unpleasant things. It’s when we believe in mystery in its biblical meaning of revelation, that we have to face the tension between divine goodness and evil’s persistence.
This is clearly a huge subject to cover in a ten-minute sermon, but the focus of these Lent sermons is to explore how Christian theology explores the mystery of good and evil.
I don’t know about you, but the older I get the more I am at ease with not knowing the answers to the mysteries of life. The knowledge of good and evil may be the blessing and curse of being human, but the desire to square off the question with neat answers seems to me always to diminish the nature of the thing we face. This is what the philosophers want to do, and it’s what Job’s comforters want to do, especially with things that we experience of evil. But the reality of suffering and evil is that they don’t need researching and they don’t need to be universalised into some insufficient answer. If we are honest with ourselves and what we see around us, we know that good and evil are part of our own experience, because they are part of us.
So when I think of the knowledge of good and evil, I think Scripture and human experience combine here to invite us to resist the temptation to point to so-called ‘timeless truths’. Good and evil are always specific, concrete realities, expressed in things we do, things we avoid or fail to do, or the way in which human societies magnify those good things or those bad things about human beings into systems and structures of justice or injustice, war or peace. What matters is not the philosophical problem but how we act in the face of these realities.
It may seem strange for a Christian minister to be encouraging you not to think of our faith as one of ‘timeless truths’ of good and evil, but in fact, the Gospel of Jesus Christ sets us in that direction, because at its heart is a story about some very specific events which happened at a particular time in a particular place. Archbishop Rowan Williams writes about this when he says, “it becomes increasingly difficult in the Christian world to see the ultimately important human experience as an escape into the transcendent, a flight out of history and the flesh. There is a demand for the affirmation of history, and thus of human change and growth, as significant. If the heart of ‘meaning’ is a human story, a story of growth, conflict and death, every human story with all its oddity and ambivalence becomes open to interpretation in terms of God’s redemptive work. In other words he’s saying that the question of how to live with the knowledge of good and evil is in fact a question for you and me to answer nowhere else but in the specifics of our lives in the here and now. God enters this reality in Jesus and in the specifics of 1st Century Palestine and, in living as he did. Francis Spufford puts it more pithily, comparing in his own way philosophy with revelation. He says, “We don’t say that God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world; not deep down. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us.”
The little vignette in Mark’s Gospel about the temptation of Jesus – far, far briefer than the temptation stories in Matthew and Luke – focuses that specific moment very, very tightly. Jesus is “immediately driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted”. There’s no hanging around in Mark – out he goes and we are left to ponder what that might be about. But what Mark does in his Gospel is to squeeze everything into a very tight focus, which serves to remind us that Jesus goes out into the world armed with his knowledge of being beloved of God. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. What Jesus has, and through him what we have, is the knowledge of being loved. It is love which is the decisive thing. Ironically in Milton and in the other Gospels it is this one thing that the Devil lacks. He may know Scripture, but if he has not love, well we know what St Paul said about clashing cymbals and resounding gongs. He may have all the great questions that appeal to Adam and Eve and perhaps to the philosophers (religious or secular), but make no difference to Jesus, whose answers come because they are filled with love. And, as often the critics note, he may have all the best lines in Milton, but because his world view is cut off from love, he cannot, ever, win the day.
But, before you run off today filled with warm fuzzies about love, please remember two things. First, that love – like good and evil – is never, ever in Christian theology in the abstract. I say this to couples at weddings often. Love is not an emotion: it is an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbours, he is not telling us to love them with a warm emotional feeling. he is telling us to love our neighbours in the sense of being willing to work for their good even if it means sacrificing our own good to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Love is always love-in-action, in the specifics of life just as it was for Jesus in 1st Century Palestine.
And second, that love always leads us towards the mess and darkness of life and not away from it. Whether it’s the mess we make ourselves and the darkness within, or whether it’s the mess of life we see around us in corporate greed, domestic abuse, the climate crisis, the direction of Christian love is towards the mystery of good and evil. Just being there and trying your best to do the right thing is sometimes all we can expect of ourselves, whether that’s holding the hand of another in the midst of their struggle, campaigning for the right thing to be done where justice is denied, or whether it’s facing up to the endless screw ups you and I make every single day, love – and specifically the love of God in Jesus Christ – invites us to these places. If, as Martin Luther King famously said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, then the force that bends it in that direction is love.
 Paradise Lost IX, 684
 Ibid, 773
 Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge
 Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, p. 107
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