Cold Evil

Sunday 17th February 2013
Year C, The First Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Luke 4:1-13

I sometimes say, only half-jokingly, that the devil lives behind the Pringles stack in Sainsbury's, only half joking because although I know perfectly well that there isn't room behind there for a creature with horns and a tail, there is, as they say, no smoke without fire and the Pringle stack holds its very own, low level of fascination. It might be truer, however to say, that if the devil lives anywhere, he lives in my beautifully cool wine cellar where there is no hint of fire nor smoke.

It's often said that hell was one of the major conceptual casualties of the 20th Century and, of course, with it went the devil. The negative brake on doing the wrong thing or failing to do the right thing was taken away; fear was no longer the motive for behaving well; and I believe that that is a good thing.

But the temptation to make choices that we know are wrong has not gone away; we are no more immune than Jesus was. The temptations to which he was asked to succumb were: turning stones to bread, or showing off; earthly power, not least the power over others; and, thirdly, putting God to the test. Now setting aside that neither we nor Jesus could place any trust in what the tempter promised, it is interesting that his approach is not very different from that of the serpent in the mythical Garden of Eden who said that, in respect of the eating of the apple, God did not mean what he said and, anyway, the prize far outweighed the risk. Indeed, it might be somewhat unorthodox to say that I believe that what the serpent is supposed to have said was true; the prize of attaining a knowledge of good and evil and migrating from a naive, utopian state, was the ultimate prize. What that story tells us is how we came to be creatures of choice, not least in the matter of choosing to love or not to love god, the ultimate use of the ultimate prize; for what is the love worth of those who cannot choose?

And so the story of the Garden of Eden explains how we came to choose and how we often made wrong choices. And the tempter in the wilderness was not trying to persuade Jesus to commit the usual kinds of sins that are most often associated with the Devil's fiery furnace such as murder, theft, adultery and jealousy, his approach is more subtle, it invites Jesus and us to deny that all we are is of God and invites us to think, rather, that our good is of ourselves, that our destiny is in our own hands.

Now those who are still following will have noted a serious paradox: we are free to choose, I say, but our fate is not in our own hands; what kind of paradox is that? Well, the answer is that paradoxes are not the same as contradictions, they are puzzles that hold two ideas in mutual tension, behaving like magnets when you put two like poles end-to-end with each other which causes them to move apart while still in a relationship. First, we are made by God to choose; Secondly, we may choose the wrong thing by not loving God; but, thirdly, how that will affect our relationship, if at all, only God knows. One of our greatest religious errors is to forget the proper relationship between the second and third propositions by repeatedly thinking that our good behaviour will merit eternal life and that our bad behaviour will  merit, well, something, but since the end of hell and the devil it's a bit difficult to say.

Having cleared some ground let us take a look at ourselves. We might quite properly think that as individuals and as a group in this room we are not a bad lot at all; in fact we are rather a good lot, on the whole, in a world where all kinds of wickedness abounds. We support the Church and we have given a handy amount of cash for its re-development; we have responded to the appeal to bring food for the food bank; we are involved in all manner of good works for our family, community and the wider world. So what could possibly be going wrong?

The answer is that most of us have made a decision for modest attainment and modest comfort. As Lent begins we might persuade ourselves that something which is physically therapeutic, such as giving up chocolate or alcohol, is actually virtuous but if, at the end of the period, we can say that the weight loss has given us more pleasure than the chocolate and alcohol would have done, where's the sacrifice in that? We will all give generously to our twinned school in Sierra Leone and of course it will notice its gain much more acutely than we will notice our loss? So where's the sacrifice in that? And, overall, we might pray just a little more often and intensely and attend church services a little more regularly and thoughtfully but, again, if this gives us a warm feeling resulting from virtuous behaviour, where's the sacrifice in that?

You might quite reasonably say at this point: "Look, we are doing our best, so why is he going on about sacrifice?" The answer is, of course, the other half of the equation with which I started: our goodness, for what it's worth, doesn't seem to be having a great deal of impact on all that badness out there. I suppose the most interesting issue in recent years in this regard is the environment; we simply cannot see the connection between our ethical behaviour and a favourable outcome; we have a slightly lesser problem with providing funds for poorer countries where we can always argue that corruption blunts our efforts; but the central proposition which underlies all of this, related to our tendency to think that our behaviour will affect the way God sees us, is contractual. We will invest this if the outcome is that; we are being contractual in the way that the tempter wanted Jesus to be contractual; if this, then that. The Medieval iconographers were wrong: evil is not hot, it is cold.

We know in our hearts that creation was not contractual because its essence is that we are free to choose; we know that, in spite of some grotesque theology of the Cross, that the death of Jesus was not contractual; and we know that God's presence with us in the Holy Spirit is not contractual. God's love in creation, salvation and sanctification, in the economy of the Holy Trinity, is unconditional.

Naturally, our response to that is to say that it is difficult for all kinds of good reasons for us to behave unconditionally; but the greatest obstacle to recognising our limitations, to attaining true humility, is our own sense of our own  worth and holiness.