Light and Darkness, Good and Evil

Categories: Sermons

SDC11994Light and Darkness, Good and Evil

January 3, 2016

Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Darkness and then light. The darkness transformed by the light ever burning. Burning amidst the

darkness. Burning away the darkness.

This week begins a new series of sermons. I will be talking about things that we do not talk about.

Things that are important, at least in my opinion, but things that often get left out of day-to-day

discussion. Why? Because they are troublesome topics, touchy subjects perhaps. They are too

big, too hard, too difficult to grapple with in any one conversation. Some subjects are polarizing,

placing those conversing immediately at odds.

And so there are tender areas of life that are left alone, not to be poked or prodded. Not because

those subjects do not matter, mind you, but often because they matter so much. I wrote about all

this in my bulletin article this month, but I would once again ask your indulgence as I work

through a difficult list of ideas. I struggled with the list and I will struggle with the concepts. I do

not do so to change anyone’s mind, to bring them over to my way of thinking. That could

happen, I suppose, but that is by no means my goal. My goal is to give myself a chance to do this,

to explore territories unexplored or not explored in this manner. It will at least be therapeutic for

me.

Take today’s topic for example: evil. Good and evil, actually, a pair of qualities rather familiar to

Sunday morning. Church is often about good and evil. Do this, not that. Good and evil as

behavior, good and evil as recipes for life. The endpoints on a moralistic spectrum. I must confess

that I could be described as a moralist, not meaning a person who lives a moral life – that might

be occasionally true on a good day. No, a moralist who is concerned with the morals of others.

The preachy, goody-goody sort of fellow that Jesus warned about in the Bible as often being too

full of himself – that might be occasionally true on a not so good day. My hope is not just to go

back over the usual terrain of evil but to examine what evil means, what does it imply for us in

our lives.

The word evil appears in the Bible a lot. No surprise there. All the way back in the Book of

Genesis, we hear about the Tree of Knowledge. Knowledge of What? Knowledge of Good and

Evil. The ability to distinguish good from evil was the reason Adam and Eve were cast out from

the Garden of Eden. That may seem unfair, that something so seemingly basic as an

understanding of what is good and what is evil would be the reason for being thrown out of

paradise.

But in another way, it makes perfect sense. Knowing the difference between good and evil in

paradise is the one certain way of destroying paradise. Why? Because knowing the difference

between good and evil allows for someone to choose between good and evil. Paradise by

definition only contains what is good. That means that evil could never exist because it would be

impossible to choose anything but the good. Impossible to do or to be, to say or to feel, anything

but good. Evil came into the world not only as the first sin. Evil came into the world as the first

moment of choice. Adam and Eve may in hindsight have chosen badly but that is because choice

was suddenly a possibility. Choice was and is the gateway of evil.

That may seem rather dramatic, but what is evil? Evil is choosing. Choosing what is wrong over

what is right, choosing what is profane over what is sacred, choosing what is base over what is

pure. Evil has no meaning without choice and therefore knowledge of good and evil requires

choice.

In one sense, the description of good and evil in the Book of Genesis contradicts the description

set forth in the Gospel of John. John describes the darkness into which light was born, darkness

that could not overcome the light.  Compare that to the light of paradise, light that gave way to

the darkness of knowledge, the dark knowledge of choice. Darkness then light, light and then

darkness. In Genesis, God creates light and considers it to be good, but before that moment there

was no light by definition. So prior to that moment there was only darkness – does that mean

that goodness was also created in that moment?

But darkness is often used as a substitute for evil. Darkness then light meaning evil then

goodness? That would make no sense. What existed before creation, beyond creation? God and

the Word according to John.

One of the difficulties with this imagery of darkness and light standing in for evil and goodness is

that darkness is not the same as evil and light is not the same as goodness. Try standing out all

day under the sun in the Mojave Desert and ponder the situational qualities of light and

darkness. The darkness that preceded creation is better thought of as nothingness, or at least “no-

thing-ness” meaning no-thing that we could understand. For any of you leery of the historical

accuracy of the Adam and Eve story, the basic creation story in the Book of Genesis overall does

not present too much difficulty from a scientific point of view. Darkness then light, nothingness

and then something-ness. Non-being and then being. That aspect of Genesis is Big Bang

consistent.

Getting beyond the metaphors, evil has been a frequent subject of concern, Biblically,

theologically, and philosophically. The word evil appears hundreds of times in the Bible, but its

meaning varies from place to place. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil compares two

Hebrew ideas: tove for that which is good, pleasant, or agreeable. And then rah, meaning evil,

bad or disagreeable. There are many shades of meaning about the concept of evil. Thomas

Aquinas described evil as a privation of the good, or something lacking goodness, like darkness

minus even a glimmer of light. Another way of describing evil is a state of unjustified reality, that

which literally speaking is not straight with God, that which ought not to be but somehow is.

The idea of evil is common in the Bible but it seems to change over the course of the book. At

first, evil is a matter of choice, of making decisions that place a person further and further away

from God. Think back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden who suggested to Eve that the fruit

of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would be good to eat – underline “good.” So that

relative and momentary good gave way to a longer term consequence, an evil one.

The serpent is often considered the devil in this story, but the shape of that idea, that of the devil,

also changes. Think of the Book of Job. There the Adversary meets with God to discuss the fate

of Job. God sees Job as a righteous man, but the Adversary suggests that Job would be like

anyone else if he were to be tested. The Adversary seems to be part of the plan, an employee of

God tasked with tasking the people of the world. In some translations, the word “Adversary” is

left untranslated. In Hebrew it is sah-tan, which is read in English as “Satan.” The Adversary,

meaning that which is adverse or opposed to God, was somehow meant to be there.

Why build that into the system? In a system in which there is choice, any choice at all, then there

has to be things from which to choose. One will be different from another. Without left there is

no right, without up there is no down, and without evil there is no good. If there is to be a choice,

there may in fact be a wrong choice.

Eventually the idea of evil becomes personified in the figure of Satan. All that which is adverse to

God becomes represented in this one being. That shorthand representation created a simple

duality like good and evil, darkness and light, now represented in the form of God and Satan.

Take for example the scriptural account of the temptation of Jesus by Satan, out in the desert for

40 days and 40 nights. I have always found the idea of tempting Jesus Christ to be a bit weird.

Satan tested Jesus in various ways, asking the Son of God to do parlor tricks like throwing himself

off the top of the temple or offering Jesus the throne of the world if only he might bow down

before Satan. Why would Jesus choose to become less that he was, a follower of Satan, a king yes

but far less than someone of God, the very Word of God? Why would Jesus even briefly consider

these mediocre bargains, these paltry temptations? He would not, and he did not, as we know

from the scriptures.

But there was another moment. Another moment later on in the life of Jesus as his ministry in the

world came to a close. Do any of you remember that one? In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said,

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” The

cup, meaning the cup filled with suffering that awaited Jesus upon the cross. Remove this cup

from me,  Yet, not my will but your be done. The entirety of Christianity turns on that sentence.

For was that not the greatest moment of temptation of all? Not to be a king on earth. Not to

make bread from stones. Not to fly from the pinnacle of the temple, safely to land like a bird. No,

the greatest moment of temptation for Jesus as represented in the Gospels was the fleeting hope

that he did not need to die. That the suffering that he knew was coming could be avoided. Placed

aside like a cup.

There is even a sentence thought to have been added by some later author, meaning someone

who decided to add to the Gospel of Luke from which this account comes. The additional text

reads, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he

prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the

ground.” This sentence was not found in the oldest manuscripts – what would it have meant if

Jesus needed this sort of help?

Suffering is for some the definition of evil. The terrible things that happen to us are a form of evil

inflicted upon the world, or upon each of us, for whatever reasons. Random or planned, divinely

planned or diabolically guided. And yet, in the story of Jesus, it is not suffering is that is presented

as evil. Not evil in and of itself. Recall that evil begins with a choice. The choice to avoid

suffering in this case was the temptation, the evil. The choice to avoid that which was necessary.

Jesus could have escaped capture. Jesus could have allowed Peter and the disciples to attack the

high priest’s men. Jesus could have renounced what he had said and taught. Jesus could have

taken up Pontius Pilate’s offer to go free just by placing aside everything that Jesus had tried to

convey to the world. The choice to avoid suffering is not always the good one.

When I decided to undertake a series of sermons about difficult subjects, I did so out of choice. I

could have done a different series, I realize. I actually posted on Facebook that I was going to be

preaching on Evil and Grief and Divorce and Failure. One of my colleagues joked, “Oh, fun

topics to brighten an otherwise cold and dreary January!”

They are not fun topics. They are not light or easy or comfortable topics depending on whether

you have ever had to go through grief or divorce or failure. The choice between good and evil is

not a choice between happy and sad. The choice between what ought to be done and what ought

not to be done is not a choice between easy and difficult. It is most frequently the reverse.

Why would that be the case? Because wouldn’t it be more fun to be a king than walking around

not knowing from where your next meal will come? Wouldn’t it be easier to choose to do

whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, rather than listen to what you are

supposed to do and when you are supposed to do it? Wouldn’t it be easier not to suffer, not to

struggle, not to press onward against adversity? It would be easier. God is rarely to be found in

the easy choice.

Think of some of the choices you have had to make. The call that you dreaded making. The

decision that you put off for a long time. The apology that has been long overdue. Even with

these steps not taken there is a risk, a risk that too much time has passed between mistake and

remedy, the sin and the efforts at repentance. I do not mean between God and each of us, by the

way. I believe in a forgiving God. I have less confidence in our readiness to forgive one another.

Evil is often portrayed as a disembodied force, a dark shadow that can arise from nowhere and

impose itself unavoidably. There are of course people who choose wrongly so frequently that they

seem to be imbued with evil. Who are so violent and selfish and uncaring that they seem to be

filled with the Devil itself. That is one way of looking at the world. Another way is to consider the

choices people make. To imagine each choice as a possibility, a new moment of choice and

therefore of potential change. I do not mean to suggest that we should be foolish in our decisions

about the world, but there is more than enough precedent in the Bible for doing just that sort of

foolish thing. Turning the other cheek. Forgive our brothers and sisters 70 times 7 times. That is

a lot of foolishness depending on your definition.

Again and again, the Bible makes these outlandish suggestions. But we are worldly folks, familiar

with the rough and tumble ways of life. Forgiveness is a sucker’s bet on the future, one by no

means supported by the past. That is all true. And that is also a choice. A choice between doing

what one ought to do and what one ought not to do. A choice made with knowledge of good and

evil. That is the world in which we find ourselves, a world of choices both good and bad.

It is the rare person who would say to him or herself, you know what? I will make the evil choice.

Who does that? And yet there is evil in the world. It may be easier to chalk that up to a guy with

horns and a tail “going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” That is

easier to accept than imagining that our acts and omissions might be bad, let alone evil. But the

convergence of our many choices make evil possible, as does our divergence from what we

should be doing. Our justifications for what we do and do not do open the door to many forms of

evil.

Aquinas wrote that evil is a privation of the good, meaning that a lack of goodness looks a lot like

evil. Not the horns and pointy tail sort of evil. The evil that allows hunger. The evil that leads to

war. The evil that justifies violence as necessary, cruelty as expedient, and the suffering of others

as the price to be paid for success. Evil is indeed the vacuum where goodness should be. Evil is

the darkness that has not been interrupted by the light. The darkness cannot overcome the light,

but the light needs to be there, somewhere to dispel the darkness. And the darkness is always

there, always there even if no one is talking about it.

In fact, the darkness only grows stronger when it is paired with silence.

And so this winter we will spend a few weekends together hopefully speaking of difficult things,

things we do not always talk about. Rest assured that in time the spring will come. In time the

flowers will bloom, the trees will again be green. And in time the new dawn will shine once again

upon an empty tomb.

All in good time.

Amen.

Author: Rev. Mark J.T. Caggiano

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