This sermon was inspired by a dialogue entitled “A very reasonable man”, found in “Stages on the Way” (pp.29-32, Wild Goose Worship Group). It puts forward the idea that devil was compassionate in wanting Jesus to eat, knowledgeable in the scripture, and reasonable in wanting Jesus to connect to communities using his networks.
“The devil went elsewhere to walk the earth as a very compassionate, knowledgeable and reasonable man.”
Putting aside for the moment whether you personally believe that the devil is a real entity or not, or whether he symbolically represents evil, I would like to spend some time considering the viewpoint offered by the end of the dialogue – the devil is a very compassionate, knowledgeable and reasonable man, off to walk the earth and interact with us.
What do we define as evil in our world? What sort of lures and deceptions and pitfalls exist for the unwary person to fall into? Is temptation always bad and will lead us into evil? Who should we trust? Do we live in a world like Plato describes through his character Phaedrus:
“Things aren’t always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.”
If even the devil can be seen as a very compassionate, knowledgeable and reasonable man, what hope have we distinguishing the truth?
Jesus finds himself hurled forcefully into the wilderness by a powerful spirit where presumably everything is stripped away except his faith. In the Hebrew scriptures, the wilderness has always been the place where the veneer and confusion of civilisation is absent and God is revealed, along with the true self of the character.
In Lents past, we have talked about symbolically entering the wilderness during Lent to discover ourselves and to strip away things that impede personal and spiritual growth and our faith development.
I guess for me the question that I have to ask is how good is the church actually at such a discipline? Do we take the time to discern and pray, fast and self-reflect, read our scripture and wrestle with our demons? Or are we so impeded by the clutter we carry, both material and emotional and spiritual, that we find instead in the desert not our failings and fears to confront but a very compassionate, knowledgeable and reasonable man to soothe our souls and offer solace?
One of the obstacles we face as a modern society is confirmation bias, a phenomenon that causes us to mix mostly with people and read media sources that support our world view, including our religious, political and ethical beliefs. Known as ‘echo chambers’, these symbolic spaces amplify what we think and make us more impervious to different viewpoints. We are reassured by compassionate and seemingly knowledgeable people that we are right, everyone else is wrong and that different information is fake news or maybe just ill-informed people.
We find at the moment that half the voting population of the United States of America is apparently up to their necks in conspiracy theories, where claims about a billionaire developing a virus and a vaccine with a tiny, tiny chip in it to track your everyday movements appears more logical than a viral mutation between species resulting in a highly contagious disease that affects humans–despite this latter option being a well-documented phenomena over many centuries.
We are convinced by ads and photographs that we can be better, look younger, smell better or be a better person if we buy a product that goes on our face or skin or we drink a probiotic.
We can be encouraged to demonise entire races and religions because governments raise our anxiety and fear about terrorism and the intent of those we do not personally know or understand.
We are happy through our inaction on climate change to sell our grandchildren’s future because we fear inconvenience and losing the benefits that come with a well-off western society. We tolerate governments that continue to support the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels when most of the world is moving to cleaner energy. We really believe that when we throw something away, it vanishes rather than accumulating in landfill and affecting our environment.
We expect people who do terrible things to look like monsters, but Jesus warned about wolves who look like sheep. The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse has shown sexual abusers are often people who appear good, talented and compassionate, so that they are allowed to bend or push the safety rules we have put in place because we trust them.
This brings me back to the end of our dialogue again.
The devil went elsewhere to walk the earth as a very compassionate, knowledgeable and reasonable man. And still, the prince of hell and master of disguises appears, incognito, as an angel of light.
How do we distinguish truth from fiction? Grooming from compassion and friendship? Manipulation from honest information sharing? Fact from fiction and science from fallacy? Reporting from propaganda? Who is the real angel of light?
Our once visible wilderness has become shrouded in fog over the last year. Billions of droplets clinging together, covering the landscape. Claiming their truths. Clouding our judgment. Causing confusion. Some droplets are fighting about lockdowns and wearing masks, others are focused on the economy. Some droplets say black lives matter, women matter or all lives matter.
So here we are, surrounded by fog. Should we continue to take things as we see them? Will we fall into the trap of operating at face value—simply because it is easy and suits us to do so? How will we ask the questions that are needed, to pierce through the fog and see the realities hidden by its camouflage?
This Lent, as we journey through our metaphorical wildernesses, perhaps we need to don fog lights that can penetrate illusion and work at learning to see clearly through the distorting properties of fog. We should be prepared to question ourselves and remember that not all compassionate, knowledgeable, reasonable and seemingly truthful people we meet will be angels of light.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine