A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (21/02/21): God’s Hero in the Conflict between Good and Evil

 
God’s Hero in the Conflict between Good and Evil 
Mark 1:9-15 

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John  in the Jordan.
This is the beginning of the Gospel, the story that Mark has to tell. Up to this point what he has written has been prologue, introduction. The ministry of John the Baptist is scene setting.  Now we have come to the main event. The way in which Mark begins telling the story makes clear what kind of story it is that he is telling. The gospel story is a story of cosmic struggle. It is the most basic story of the all. It is a story of the struggle between good and evil. And the baptism of Jesus announces him as the hero of this story. He is the one chosen and sent by God to carry on this struggle. He is the one empowered with the Holy Spirit to engage in the conflict between good and  evil. 
As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
In a vision Jesus sees the boundary between the world of human affairs and the realm of God’s rule torn open. God in him is now engaged directly in that struggle. The coming of the Spirit upon him, in the same way as it hovered over the water at the  creation, gives him the means to conduct that struggle. Jesus now grasps the identity that has been his from his birth. He the hero in this story.  The very voice of God speaks from heaven and confirms that he is indeed the hero of this story:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 
Jesus sees the heavens opened. He feels the Spirit rest upon him. He hears the voice of his Father. He is now ready to begin.

The telling of stories is basic to human existence. Telling stories is one of the things that makes us who and what we are. Stories shape the way we see and respond to the world.  Stories help us to navigate through life. The stories we tell are key to our moral understanding.  And it is the stories of the conflict between good and evil that are are most fundamental.  There are many such stories. They crop up all over the place. And some are very influential indeed, though we might not necessarily recognise it. Hearing them we might be tempted to respond: “Oh  that’s just a story for children.” Or: “It’s only entertainment.” 
Both the Harry Potter series of books and films, and Dr. Who on television or the constant diet of crime stories in film and on television are good examples of story telling  cycles whose central them is that same conflict between good and evil. 
But not all of these stories are the same. We are encouraged to accept the stories where good wins out, often only in the very end  after a long struggle and many reversals. We are encouraged think that all stories where good wins in the end are positive. But that fails to recognise that how good wins in the end is of critical importance. Because that is the dimension of the story telling that shapes our outlook and our behaviour. Most good vs. evil stories that are told in our society/culture, including Harry Potter and  Dr. Who or any number of crime thrillers and lots more besides, are shaped around what has been called “the Myth of Redemptive Violence.” In the stories shaped by this myth, evil is destroyed by force. Evil is overcome by using essentially the same methods that evil itself uses. These are stories where the hero comes to resemble the evil that they defeat. This means that they are ambiguous, like Dr Who, and often tragic figures, which Harry Potter certainly is.  Or at the most extreme the can become outcast, like Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dirty Harry movies. They are stories of ends justifying the means.  Except that means have a habit of subverting ends. Or, when it comes to violence, it tends to become an end in itself. The myth of redemptive violence is an illusion.  It is false. There is no escape from the cycle of violence which such stories encourage. Each victory of good over evil is achieved only at the cost of creating a new evil. We only have to look away from fiction for a moment to where the Myth of Redemptive  Violence has been played out in the real world, in recent years in places Iraq or in Afghanistan and more widely in longer history, to recognise it is a fallacy. The Myth of Redemptive Violence and the stories that are built around it are corrupting and corrosive. Does that mean I think we shouldn’t read Harry Potter or watch Dr. Who. No, I don’t. But I do think we have to be aware and be careful how we read and watch. We have to become what has been called resistant readers and resistant viewers. We need to start seeing those  stories in a critical or even negative light. We need to Become resistant to those other stories and resistant to being shaped by them. We need to avoid being seduced by the offer of a swift and satisfying victory of the forces of good over the forces of evil by any means possible. Resisting and escaping from the grasp of the Myth of Redemptive Violence is in large measure of what being a disciple is about.
 
We tell the Gospel story as the decisive alternative to those other stories. Jesus is the hero of the gospel. But he is a different kind of hero. He is not the kind of hero who is reshaped by the evil  that he is fighting against. And this is the decisive difference between the gospel and the Myth of Redemptive Violence. 
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism and is straight away driven, hurled (the word is the same as the one used to describe the casting out of spirits), he is driven by the  Holy Spirit into the wilderness. Mark’s account of the temptation is very brief, but it sets the tone of the rest of the story, it establishes the kind of hero that Jesus is going to be.  In a way this scene tells us what the gospel is about and how Jesus is going to go about bring the story to its conclusion. Jesus is pushed out into the place where the confrontation between good and evil is most raw. The wilderness is the place where this conflict is at its most elemental. For us, in our everyday lives, the struggle between good and evil is wrapped in ambiguities. Our choices are almost never clear cut, if they exist at all. Everything is blurred by our other commitments, loyalties and affections. Out there under the unrelenting glare of the sun Jesus confronts the forces of chaos in their purest most undiluted form. Jesus confronts the threats to human existence as Satan and the wild beasts. And Jesus wins. He wins where in a sense where an earlier hero, Adam had lost. The new human hero Jesus succeeds, where the previous representative of our race had failed.  But his victory is not of the kind that the Myth of Redemptive Violence wants to suggest is  possible. Jesus doesn’t destroy evil, because he could not do so without becoming like evil himself. His victory is of a different sort. At this point we do recognise that evil remains. It continues throughout the rest of the Gospel. And that conflict between good and evil is still our present reality. That said, however, even at the beginning of the Gospel has Jesus has already won a decisive victory over evil.  His victory is not that he destroys evil, but that he does not give in to it.  The other Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, spell out the individual temptations greater detail and at greater length. Mark, almost by omission, establishes that Jesus has not been deflected or subverted from his purpose by his encounter with the reality of evil. Jesus’ victory is that he remains unchanged, uncorrupted by the evil he is struggling  against. This is the fundamental contrast with the myth of redemptive violence Christ’s victory is real. It leads us somewhere. It shows us that there is an alternative to the corruption and despair that is the consequence of the cycles of violence and evil that we so often have to live with. Jesus’ victory is faith, patience and endurance in the face of evil. Faith is his continued trust in the providence of God. He has that unshakeable belief, confidence, that God only works good for those who trust him. Jesus’ faith is that he continues to believe and act upon what was revealed to him in his  baptism. He continues to trust in the goodness of God’s will, in spite of the fact that it takes him to a place  of difficult confrontation, the wilderness, and indeed in the end it will take him to worse, the cross. 
It is that faith, that trust in the providence of God which enables him to be patient and to endure. Jesus is patient. He has all the power in the universe at his disposal. He is the hero of this story. He is the chosen one of God, empowered by the Spirit, but he doesn’t attempt to shortcut God’s will. He is patient. He doesn’t attempt to throw down evil there and then. His power, when it is used, will instead be directed only towards doing good, healing those who are sick and setting the oppressed free. He doesn’t attempt to win his victory by any other way than by trusting God. Instead he is patient and he endures Jesus endures the symbolic 40 days in the wilderness. He simply outlasts evil’s assault against him. We read this story especially at the beginning of Lent because in it Jesus demonstrates  the qualities which Lent commends to us. 

After his time in the wilderness Jesus returns to the world of the everyday to carry on the  struggle in a different way: 
Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is  fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” 
He emerges from the wilderness with his mission, which continues to this present moment. By his call to repentance he calls us let go of and reject the other stories we might tell to or for or about ourselves. The call to repentance is the call to take God’s side and to use only methods in the conflict  between good and evil. It is the call resist the temptation to think that ends justify the means. It is the call trust instead the victory Jesus has won and the promise which Jesus makes. 
Jesus announces that God’s rule is at hand. Evil will vanish at the end, and there will only be good. That is the hope which will sustain us against evil and help us to resist other tellings of the  story of the conflict between good and evil. It is a hope that sustains the patience and endurance in us which will enable us to overcome evil without coming to resemble evil ourselves. 
Amen. 

God’s Hero in the Conflict between Good and Evil by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

3 thoughts on “A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (21/02/21): God’s Hero in the Conflict between Good and Evil”

  1. Thank you Christopher, I really needed this sermon, it is so tempting to consider repaying evil with evil methods instead of trusting in God and using his strength to outlast the evil we come against. I read it in addition to listening to it this morning and I think I have found an important typo in the last sentence. Should it be "enable us to overcome evil withOUT coming to resemble evil ourselves"? Thank you for all you do in this time Kate

  2. Thank you Judith. I read Lord of the Rings as a teenager and I have read it again since. As a piece of literature I think it is magnificent. As far as the myth of redemptive violence is concerned I do think it sends a somewhat mixed message. There is a war being waged, and it is certainly framed as a war between good and evil. There is an interesting contrast made in the book between Saruman and Gandalf. Saruman thinks he can manage the power of evil to his own ends but in the end is consumed by it. Whereas Gandalf is fully aware that controlling evil's power is impossible, which is why he will not touch the Ring, and why he argues for its destruction. The war which is waged through the book in the ends is not what redeems. It is the willingness of Frodo and Sam to risk themselves and suffer in order that the ring is destroyed. Gollum dies because he can't let go of the ring and falls into the Crack of Doom with it. I think it is worth paying attention to the difference between Gollum's death and that of Christ to begin to see the differences between the Lord of the Rings and the Gospel.

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