A sermon preached by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.”
A few months ago the Treasurer preached on the bad press that serpents get, and towards the beginning of his sermon (it’s still on the website and it’s the sermon for the second Sunday of Advent: do go home and read it again) he pointed out that to be honest it’s bad from the beginning for snakes in the Bible. The snakes we encounter through Scripture are not the easy-going, trainer-dwelling type like “hissy” the Chancellor’s snake, but rather they are the representatives, by and large, of all things evil. And it begins at the beginning in Genesis.
On the first Sunday of Lent, this season where, as Bishop Michael Perham explained to us on Ash Wednesday, we make our annual journey through the challenges and snares of a world which is beset with sin and evil, trying to keep our hearts and minds joyful as we move closer and closer to Easter; on this first Sunday the snake appears. And the snake symbolises seduction.
Later on the church would come to associate this serpent with the devil. By the time that Saint John the Divine is writing his Revelation, probably five or six hundred years after Genesis was composed, the devil, the great symbol of evil is described as “that serpent”, and so it was natural that Christians would begin to look at this early story of the Garden of Eden as a story of an encounter between the first human beings and the devil. But there’s no mention of that in the story itself. The serpent is just a serpent. He seems to be a part of creation just like the other animals and indeed the humans. But we are told that the serpent is “crafty”. The King James version describes the serpent as “subtle”. Another Scripture translation uses the word “wily”. The point is that the serpent is out to deceive and to deceive in order to bring separation between human beings and God. And the method that is used is seduction. That is why the serpent has to be subtle, crafty or wily. “Did God really say…”? It is, quite literally, the oldest trick in the book. The serpent lays the seed of division between the man, the woman, and their creator, and indeed between the man and the woman themselves by introducing an easier and more attractive path. Did God really say…
You will perhaps recognise the voice of the serpent in your own life. That very often quiet, insistent and seductive voice, often depicted in cartoons and stories as the devil sitting on one shoulder and trying to outflank or outmanoeuvre the angel sitting on the other. Some of the temptation will be rather facile in nature, ‘have a cake even though you said you would give it up for Lent’. Some of the temptation will be more serious: ‘go on, drive home, you’ve only had two drinks; the police aren’t around today and I’m sure you won’t hurt anyone’.
The temptations are various, but the method is always the same. We are attracted to sin, to collude with and participate in the power and corruption of evil because it is seductive, because it is appealing. If evil looked awful and rotten and destructive most people wouldn’t want a piece of it. But evil appears as a serpent, evil appears as the whisperer, the planter of thoughts and plans in the hearts and minds of you and I, just nudging us towards reaching out our arm to that one piece of fruit that is not for us, that is bad for us, that will make us less than we were created to be. And that is why evil is so terribly effective.
And the existence of evil in the world and the effects and damage that it has upon creation is one of the huge challenges of Christianity. Because you know if we believe in one God, which we say we do, and if we believe that that God created everything, which we do, and if we believe he is all-powerful, which we do, and if finally we also believe that he is completely good and loving, how do you explain evil? How do we make sense of the pain and cruelty and decay and appalling suffering that we see all around us?
Because if God is completely good and he created everything why would he create evil? He must either be not completely good, or he must be cruel or either that or he is not the only God, and there is another evil God battling against him. Or perhaps he’s just too weak to stop evil things happening?
And so to try to explain the existence and the power of evil we have the story of the Garden of Eden and the taking of the forbidden fruit. It is a myth designed to make sense of the fact that there is disorder and suffering in the world. And the devil as a character in Christian mythology symbolises the existence of that evil. Now I’ve just come back to the cathedral after six weeks reading and writing about exactly this question of the existence and power of evil, and I could preach from now until Easter about how people much cleverer than me have tried to make sense of all of this.
What I think is more important, actually what I think is urgent, at the beginning of another Lent, is for us to recognise the reality and the potential and the seduction of evil. Because it is what corrodes community, it is what sets society against itself, it is what pitches nations and civilisations against each other, and it is also what burrows into our own hearts and minds and persuades us that the person next to us is less important than we are, less worthy of our care and concern, less valuable in God’s eyes than we are.
At baptism the Church of England traditionally asks the candidate to reject the devil and evil as well as sin. Some churches opt for a simpler set of questions, but I think that the traditional ones are important. I think they are important because they remind us that evil is more than simply the stuff that I personally do that is wrong. By having a focus in the person of the devil, we are reminded that evil has an external existence. Evil is a power, evil is an ethos, a tone, a driving principle which says ‘I can climb over you, I can abuse you, I can use you to get to where I am going’. Evil is a power which occasionally shouts but more often whispers “did God really say”? Because he didn’t mean it. There’s an easier way. There’s a more attractive way. There is a way of feeling happier quicker. There is a way of getting everything you want, and all you have to do is to take it from somebody else.
In our modern church services the line that didn’t quite make it into the baptism but almost did was this: “do you renounce the deceit and glamour of evil”? That’s very similar to what the Book of Common Prayer says when it asks ‘dost thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world?’
Glamour, pomp, glory. These are of course all attractive. And that is why evil works so well. Bread is more attractive than stones. Flying is more attractive than falling. Being in charge, looking impressive is more attractive than serving someone else. And those were the temptations that Jesus faced just as we do.
Friends, Lent is upon us. On Ash Wednesday evening we finished with a hymn that included the line “still let me ever watch and pray, and feel that I am frail, that if the tempter cross my way yet he may not prevail.” In a world which seems to believe that the path to victory is by putting on more armour, by building more muscle, by being stronger and more powerful than anyone else (there’s quite a lot of that sort of rhetoric in the politics of our age) Lent is the moment to call the devil’s bluff. To say, we will not be seduced by that. The key to triumphing over evil is to feel that we are frail. To see through the seduction of the devil not by our own strength but with the mind and the eyes of Christ. To retrain ourselves with those wonderful Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and works of charity. To rediscover the glorious freedom that comes from being children of God. To remember that as attractive, padded and bejewelled as the throne may look, it is not ours to sit upon.