Naming the Problem: First in a Series

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-15

This morning I am introducing a new Series. I call it, “Naming the Problem.” That is the title I will put on the sign in front of the church. I have given the series a second title, that I will make available only to insiders. The second title is, “Facing Up to Evil.”

It was Carl Jung who said that people today are “hopelessly unconscious of evil.” This means that very few of us are aware of the forces at work in our lives to which we surrender so many of our choices. When Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine said, “The devil made me do it!” she was closer to the truth than many citizens of the 21st Century are willing to allow. Of course, the idea that “the Devil made me do it, whatever it is, or that the devil made you do it, whatever it is, or that the devil made Geraldine do it, whatever it is, does not exonerate us from the responsibility of having done what we have done. If we remain hopelessly unconscious of evil, evil will continue hurt us, and the people we love.

The story of the fiery serpents from Numbers 21:4-9 is a prime example of Facing Up to Evil. When the people of Israel sinned against the LORD by murmuring against the LORD, and against Moses, the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and the serpents bit the people, and many of those who were bitten died. And when the people tired of dodging the serpents, the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” And Moses made a serpent of bronze, and set it on a pole; and if a real serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Two things jump out from this text. First, the people asked Moses to ask God to take away the serpents. God did not. Perhaps it takes a world with trouble in it to make us into the kind of people God would have us to be. Perhaps God did not want to lull the people into a false sense security. Serpents are not the only danger in the wilderness. Second, it is interesting that the LORD told Moses to make the bronze serpent, even though the LORD had forbidden the people from making any graven image in the 2nd of Ten Commandments. All the idols of all the peoples who surrounded Israel were graven images. As Paul says in Romans 1:23 “(they) exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” The fiery serpent was not an idol to be worshiped. The people did not pray to it, they looked upon it, and they lived. They lived because they obeyed God and looked upon the fiery serpent of bronze that Moses set upon a pole, and they remembered the fiery serpents that had come upon them, and bitten them, and they remembered the evil they had done which had brought on the plague of the fiery serpents, and when they had faced the evil, they lived. So, the people of Israel were not worshiping the fiery serpent as their neighbors worshiped their idols—the people of Israel were facing the evil.

The story of the bronze serpent does not end with the story of the Exodus. In John 3:14-15, Jesus recalls this story for Nicodemus who came to him by night saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In John’s Gospel, the phrase “lifted-up” is a reference to Jesus being lifted-up on the cross. Thus Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and all who read this text, that we must look to him, but he is saying more than that. He is telling us that to achieve eternal life, which is a quality of life, as much as a unlimited quantity of life, we must look to him and his cross. And when we look upon Jesus and his cross, we must remember the evil that put Jesus upon the cross in the first place, and see how much the evil cost him, and remember our part in it, so that as we turn to Jesus we also turn away from the evil.

In the Bible evil takes a variety of forms.

The most basic form of evil is human sin. We sin when we transgress the LAW of God. God gave the LAW to protect us from one another, and from ourselves. Sin is anything we do, or fail to do, by which we hurt ourselves or another. Sin is also “missing the Mark,” for God wants the best for us, and if we do not achieve that best, we “miss the mark.”

In the Old Testament evil often takes the form of Idolatry. Moses laid down Ten Commandments for the People of Israel. The first two commandments both serve to prohibit idolatry.

1. Thou shalt have no other God’s before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.

The prophet Isaiah tells us how foolish it is to worship Idols. In chapter 44 of the book that bears his name, he says that a man watches over a tree as it grows, then when it is mature, he cuts it down, and takes it back to his home. He uses half of it to warm himself, and bake his bread, and roast his meat, and the other half he shapes into an idol, and he bows down to it, and worships it, and prays to it. How ridiculous is that?

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that idol worship is wrong for two reasons. In chapter 2 of the book that bears his name he says that when people turn away from God and look to idols, people not only forsake the fountain of living water that is God, they turn to broken cisterns, which they have made for themselves, which contain no water at all. Here water stands for life and blessing. It calls to mind the covenant that God made with Israel. God said, “Listen, people, the Promised Land which I am giving to you is not like the Land of Egypt which is watered and irrigated by the Nile River, it is a land that is dependent upon the rain. And if you keep my covenant, and remember my Words to do them, then I will make it rain on your land and bless you; but if you forget my covenant, and fail to remember my commandments, then I am going to withhold the rain from your land, and with it, my blessing.” In chapter 10 of the book that bears his name, Jeremiah says that idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field. They cannot talk. They have to be carried everywhere, because they cannot walk. In and of themselves, they are just a hunk of stuff. And as a hunk of stuff—whether wood or brass or gold, they can do us no harm, and they can certainly do us no good. It disturbs people, that, in the Old Testament God frequently commands Israel to go to war with the nations that surround her. In every instance, this is to keep Israel safe from the idols of the nations. God is a jealous God. God does not want his people to forget him, and just as importantly, God is a loving God, he loves Israel as a man loves his son, and he does not want his son to waste time seeking the help of Idols, for Idols are powerless to save.

There is yet another form of evil in the Old Testament. The book of Job introduces an enemy of the people, called Satan. In Job, and again in the 3rd chapter of Zechariah the prophet, Satan is revealed as the adversary, or the accuser. In the book of Job it is Satan who tells God that Job loves God only because God has been so good to him. Satan tells God that if God will only strike Job’s wealth, and Job’s family, and Job’s health, then Job will certainly turn away from God, and love God no better than anybody else.

Satan is a major figure in the book of Job, but a minor figure in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, Satan appears by name is only three of the thirty-nine books, and by implication in a few others. By way of contrast, Satan, aka “the devil,” is a major figure in the New Testament, appearing in 18 of 27 books, and in all of the major New Testament authors. I think that Satan achieves increased prominence in the New Testament, because the nature of the warfare of the people of God is radically changed. Ancient Israel was opposed by the nations. It was Israel against everybody else. Israel had to fight the nations that opposed her to insure her survival. She hoped that the LORD of Hosts, the LORD of the Armies, was fighting with her, and for her. By contrast, the church of God, the body of Christ, is made up of the nations. The Good News about Jesus the Messiah is not just for Israel, but for all people and all nations. God so loved the world, that he gave his only son. God hates sin, but loves the sinner. Therefore the church’s warfare is not against flesh and blood but against evil in all its forms. As Americans we may be forced to go to war. Some wars must be fought. When we fight we seek to defeat our enemies, even if it means killing them. However, as Christians, we do not defeat our enemies by killing them, but by converting them. As Christians, our warfare is not against flesh and blood, it is against evil in every form, and Satan emerges as the number one representative of that evil.

The New Testament describes Satan in a variety of ways.

In the book of Revelation Satan is referred to as “that ancient serpent,” a clear reference to the story of Adam and Even in which it was a serpent who tempted the first pair to doubt that God had their best interest at heart. Do not take this description of Satan too literally. In the story of Adam and Eve, the serpent is condemned to crawl in the dust, and the New Testament does not depict Satan as to be so confined.

In 1st Peter 5:8 the apostle says that Satan, or the devil, prowls about like a raging lion, seeking whom he may devour. That is a fearsome description.

In 2nd Corinthians 11:14, St. Paul paints a still more horrible picture. He says that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Now we are getting closer to the mark. Most of the time temptation come to us not because we think that some forbidden fruit is unappealing and tasteless, but because we think it beautiful, and desirable beyond words and explanation.

In the gospels, Jesus gives the most horrible description of Satan that is possible. When Peter attempts to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Jesus rebukes him saying, “Get behind me Satan, because you are not on the side of God, but of men.” No wonder Jesus said that our enemies are often members of our own household. Anyone who prevents us from doing God’s will, acts as Satan to us. That means we act as Satan to one another. Ouch!

At this juncture, some people may say: “Well, Worth has flipped his wig!” Not so. C.S. Lewis says that to believe in the Devil is to believe that evil is greater than the sum total of its parts. I believe that. Likewise, Emil Brunner says that to believe in the Devil is to believe the Devil is to believe that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil. I believe that, too.

There is another form of evil that stands out clearly in the pages of the New Testament. In Ephesians 2, the apostle refers to Satan as“the prince of the powers of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience.” The devil is not the only power against which we do battle. In Ephesians 6 we read:

6:12 For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

In the New Testament the powers take two forms. Sometimes they are “the powers of the air.” Sometimes they are worldly powers such as Herod, or Pilate, or Caesar, or Rome. In this series, I am going to argue that the powers of the air are but the inner spirit of powers that are very much a part of this world. In his book, “An Ethic for Christians and Other Sojourners Living in a Strange Land, “ William Stringfellow describes these powers as:

All institutions all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols.

Thus ISIS is a power, but so is the Pentagon; and so is the Ford Motor Company, and GM and VW, and all other car companies, and all other companies; and Harvard University, or any other college or university; or the Moravian Church, or any other denomination or local church; and so is the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, or any other collective; and so is the family of my birth, and yours.

And you may object, saying, “But some of the power you named are good.” Yes, that is true. According to the book of Colossians, the powers, or at least their archetypes, were created in Christ, and thus good; but the powers exist in a fallen world, a world dominated by sin and selfishness, and we name them, and unmask them, and confront them, we find them controlling our lives and robing us of the freedom that God gave to us. Thus God created families to sustain and nurture us, but some families do anything but. They are corrupt and corrupting.

Remember, Jesus said that, sometimes, even a good power, like our families and the people we love, hamper us, and prevent us from living out God’s will.

There is a final form of evil in the Bible I wish to mention. I refer, of course, to the demonic. Some of you will remember a movie released in the 1970’s entitled, “The Exorcists.” It was about a little girl possessed by a daemon. Billy Graham said the read the book, but did not want to watch the movie. The movie was rated “R” for graphic violence. Just a few years ago I watched about half of it on DVD; I did not want to finish it. The demonic is scary! However, if I read the New Testament aright the demonic is the least fearful of all the evil powers, because the demonic often works in isolation, in a single human life, and apart from a host, the demonic has little power. That, I think, is why the demon which identified itself as Legion, asked Jesus to allow “it” to leave the man who was dwelling naked among the tombs, and go into the heard of swine. Of course, today, one person possessed by an evil power, such as ISIS, and armed with a semi-automatic rifle with a high capacity magazine can kill 49 people and wound more than 50 others in a matter of minutes. And one person possessed with an evil power, and armed with a dirty bomb could, possibly, destroy a city.

So, that is the outline of our course, as we “Face Up to Evil.” But some will ask, “Why? Why would spend so much time looking at the evil, and making us look at the evil?” For the same reason that God caused Moses to set up a bronze serpent upon a pole, and for the same reason that God caused Jesus to be lifted up on the cross, so that we can face the evil, and in facing the evil, see our part in it, and overcome it. We must face the powers, name the powers, unmask the powers, and confront the powers. Given the world that we live in today, I do not think that we can ever again allow ourselves to be so hopelessly so ignorant of evil, as we have been in the past. I hope you will stay with me during this series. It is of the utmost importance.

Finis

About the author:

. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.